Danbee Kim, PhD

she/her/they/them

Where you can find them:

  • Twitter: @taunbot
  • Github: taunsquared
  • Discord: taunsquared#8339
  • YouTube: savvydk
  • Soundcloud: taunsquared
  • Personal website: www.danbeekim.org
  • Discord server: Sci-Femmes, which focuses on centering the needs of women and minorities interested in a career in science research, communication, and education. Male advocates are also welcome, as long as they make meaningful contributions and respect community members at all times.

Education:

  • Undergrad: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, class of 2009
    • I majored in Brain and Cognitive Sciences (“course 9” in MIT lingo), and I always joke that my “unofficial” major was Musical Theater because I spent more time working with the MIT Musical Theater Guild (MTG) than I ever did on classes. MTG was an entirely student-run theater troupe that put on 4 full-length productions each year, and through this group I learned so much – how to dance, sing, act, direct, teach, choreograph, design and sew costumes, use power tools, work as part of a huge team, run a sound and light board, play music in a pit orchestra, be part of a backstage crew, source and be responsible for prop guns…the list goes on and on. I’m also finding that the storytelling, non-verbal communication, script analysis, and social skills I practiced while doing theater have had an incredible influence on my thinking and practice as a neuroscientist, and I’ll be forever grateful to the people I met and experiences I had while being part of this insanely creative and ambitious community theater.
  • Graduate School: I just defended (on 17 December 2020) my PhD in the International Neuroscience Doctoral Programme based at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisboa Portugal. My thesis is titled “On the Aims and Methods of Field Neuroscience: non-invasive techniques for studying nervous systems in natural settings” 

Current job title: VIRS, or Vigilante Intergalactic Roustabout Scholar. It’s a term I invented because I didn’t feel like any existing job titles fit what I’m doing with my life post-graduation, which is a mix of Field Neuroscience research, scientific public outreach and community engagement, and creative learning curriculum development, writing, and teaching. I’ve written about my definition of the term VIRS on my blog

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue? 

I have a book that I made in elementary school, probably when I was 8 or 9 years old, and in it I say that when I grow up I want to be a ballerina, or the president of the US (POTUS), or both. I remember being told that doing both would be really difficult and unlikely, so I was determined to do it just to prove everyone wrong. I was asked to leave ballet class for being too rambunctious and got hooked on martial arts instead; I’ve been president or officer of numerous clubs and community organizations, but now I’d rather leave government politics to folks like AOC. But I think what made me say I want to be a ballerina and the POTUS was a love of dextrous, skillful movement, and a fascination with untangling the rules underlying complex systems. I’m also really lucky to have parents who encouraged my stubborn curiosity for literally everything. 

So I was always interested in science in a way, but I wanted to study movement, complex interactions, and the exquisite beauty of the universe through art. As a first-generation immigrant from East Asia, however, choosing art as a career was strongly discouraged, so I hatched a plan to only apply to the most selective universities, no back-up schools, and when I was inevitably rejected from all of them (or not given enough scholarship money), I would then *have* to go to art school. MIT ruined my plans by accepting me, giving me an incredibly generous scholarship, and completely winning me over with its underground alternative art scene when I visited for Campus Preview Weekend. I thought, fine, there seems to be enough art here for me to tolerate the fact that I’m attending a respectable technical institute that won’t humiliate my parents in front of the extended family back in Korea. 

I was genuinely lost when it came to picking my major until I walked into the first Intro to Neuroscience lecture, a course I picked somewhat at random, and saw a radiantly grinning Asian man dressed in a fabulously purple sequined three piece suit at the front of the class. This was how I met Professor Sebastian Seung, and it was my first time interacting with a scientist who loudly embraced wild creativity and rigorous fun along with insanely ambitious science.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it? 

My undergraduate course in Neuroscience has amazing laboratory practical courses that offer students hands-on experience with every typical neuroscience research technique or tool, in addition to many untypical methods. I was very satisfied by the hands-on learning but very unsatisfied with the insistence that empathy for one’s research subjects is “inappropriate” and “unscientific”. After my undergraduate degree I was seriously burned out, both physically and emotionally, by academia and research, and very much doubting whether I wanted to become a scientist. 

To recover, I threw myself into collaborative creative projects like theater, a jazz-funk jam band, capoeira, and canyoning. I flexed muscles and mindspaces that I had had to keep on the backburner throughout uni, and practically wallowed in creative expression. After simmering like this for almost another 4 years, I realised that all of my creative projects had at their heart two questions that kept the desire to be a scientist alive: how do you study the thing that lets you study anything and everything? And, how do I train brains, mine and others’, to face the unknown? 

I was also at this time working as a science and technology presenter at the Museum of Science in Boston, which is where I learned about cephalopods and their incredibly expressive active camouflage, or the ability to change their appearance through the direct control of their central nervous systems. My subsequent fascination with cephalopods and their nervous systems led me to decide that I needed to go back to grad school, but I would be doing it solidly on my own terms: no invasive research. I knew that that was what had killed my love for science before, and cephalopods offered me an opportunity to study both single-unit activity and whole organism behaviour, simultaneously and in an intact animal. Knowing myself well enough to set my boundaries and to make sure I knew what I couldn’t compromise was one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned so far. 

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path? 

My first thesis project was a neuroethological study of cuttlefish body patterns during prey capture, which collected video recordings of freely behaving intact cuttlefish as our primary dataset. Processing and analysing this dataset was so labor-intensive and incompatible with automation that I ended up taking the rest of my PhD to publish this experiment. Four years after data collection, I was losing hope of ever analysing the videos in a way that was publishable and wondering if this project was worth all of this effort, when Gilles Laurent accepted an invitation to speak at a student symposium called “Cross Species Conversations”, where the theme was comparative neuroscience research across different species. Prof Laurent shared his work with cuttlefish, and afterwards all of the others students badgered me to talk to him about my cuttlefish study. I finally worked up the nerve to approach him during lunch, and his initial polite attention turned into genuine interest that had us frantically chatting while walking to the next event in the symposium, at which point Prof Laurent mentioned how nice it might be if I were to come visit his lab and teach this behavioural method to his group. 

One of my thesis committee advisors was also an invited speaker at this symposium, and when I told her about Prof Laurent’s eager enthusiasm for my project, she urged me to accept his invitation, which I had been too surprised to follow-up on earlier. “You’ve got a beer in your hand,” she urged, “so there’s no better time to be bold!” I’m so glad she pushed me, because it was an incredibly positive experience to visit Prof Laurent’s lab and meet another group of people who are fascinated by cuttlefish, incredibly smart and thoughtful scientists, and on top of it all, they CARED about my project and were thrilled to learn the methodology. It was a huge validation of all of the time I had spent on trying to digest and understand the behavior, and it gave me back my motivation to publish the project and include it in my thesis. 

I had also been threatening my advisor for some time with the idea of writing my thesis as a graphic novel. He finally called my bluff and offered to fund the graphic novel with his research funds if I put together a budget and managed a collaboration with artists in order to make it a high-quality graphic novel that could be pointed to as an exercise in accessible, creative science communication. Utterly thrilled, I organized a collaboration with 17 artists and set to work. But when it came time to pay our artist collaborators, our research institute suddenly decided that my advisor’s decision to allocate lab money to this project needed to be scrutinized. To be clear, the budget for this full-length, 7-chapter, color-illustrated graphic novel was about the same as publishing a single paper in Nature with 2 color figures. In the end, the research institute refused to pay our artists, and so my advisor and I decided to go directly to the people and fund the graphic novel through Kickstarter. The response from the greater scientific and science-curious community was overwhelmingly positive, and we were able to raise enough money through crowdfunding to exceed my original budget. 

If anyone is interested in buying a print copy of my graphic novel thesis, titled The First VIRS, please fill out this form to help me decide when it would be cost effective to make a second print run!

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path? 

The most important thing is to find an advisor that cares about you and believes in you, who takes mentoring seriously and is willing to see you as a whole person with emotions and mental health needs, not just a source of scientific labor. Getting a PhD right now is often by default a miserable process, and unfortunately, it is absolutely crucial to have an advocate and a strong emotional support network. With a good advisor and healthy lab group environment, good science and good learning is always possible; without them, scientific research at any level is at best a miserable experience to get through and never come back to again, and at worst a trauma that can turn someone off of science for the rest of their lives. 

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