NIAMS Scientists – Diverse Backgrounds, Shared Goals

May 12, 2016

A Conversation with NIAMS Scientist Dr. Hanna Kim

Photo of Dr. Hanna Kim.
Hanna Kim, M.D., M.S.

May Is National Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage Month. To celebrate Asian Americans’ contributions to science, the NIAMS is highlighting the accomplishments of Hanna Kim, M.D., M.S., a pediatric rheumatologist. Dr. Kim is receiving advanced training as part of the Lawrence Shulman Scholars Program in Translational Research at the NIAMS. She grew up in Southern California and earned her medical degree from the University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on understanding juvenile dermatomyositis (JDM), a complex autoimmune disease. In this interview, Dr. Kim talks about the factors that influenced her to become a researcher, offers candid advice for aspiring scientists, and describes the most rewarding and challenging facets of her career thus far.

What or who influenced you to pursue a career in science and research?

My father is a physicist and encouraged me to be curious about how the world works and to ask questions to try to figure things out. My mother is a nurse, and she emphasized the importance of helping others. This combination helped me to decide to become a physician. During my medical training, I became fascinated with the big role that immunology plays in disease development. As a physician, I have seen firsthand many diseases where the cause is unknown. Even though treatments like corticosteroids are available, they have significant side effects. I feel that it is important and exciting to determine how a disease develops and identify new biomarkers, new treatment targets, and ultimately, develop more effective therapies with limited side effects.

What motivated you to come to the NIAMS?

The NIAMS fellowship offers an incredible opportunity for research and training with outstanding clinicians, physician scientists, and basic scientists who are performing cutting-edge work. They are collaborative and committed to training the next generation of expert researchers. During my fellowship, I had the opportunity to learn about clinical research as a physician, and as a key member of the clinical research team headed by Dr. Raphaela Goldbach-Mansky. With this skilled and collaborative group, I got hands-on experience right away and learned about all aspects of natural history studies and treatment protocols, including how to help run a compassionate use treatment protocol involving a medication never before studied in a pediatric population. Additionally, I had my own translational research project in which I learned how to perform new laboratory bench techniques, and I collaborated with scientists and bioinformatics experts to develop a novel gene expression biomarker from research samples collected as part of the same protocol.

After finishing fellowship training, I wanted an opportunity that provided structured mentoring and advanced training as a new clinical pediatric rheumatologist. The NIAMS Scholars Program gave me that. It offered a path to independently-funded positions with advanced training not only in rheumatology, but also in genetics, immunology, and inflammation biology, with access to extensive core facilities at the NIH.

What is the focus of your research? What is your area of expertise?

During my fellowship, I worked on rare diseases caused by genetic mutations that are autoinflammatory, or characterized by dysregulation in the innate immune system, leading to fever and systemic inflammation without any infection. Though many autoinflammatory diseases or periodic fever syndromes are driven by a high level of a specific cell-signaling molecule called interleukin-1 (IL-1), the two diseases that I studied are uniquely driven by high levels of interferon.

My current focus is identifying novel biomarkers in JDM, a systemic autoimmune disease that causes prominent weakness, muscle inflammation, skin rash, and vascular changes or vasculopathy. JDM has been shown to have high interferon expression, but the exact cause of JDM remains unclear, and it is not caused by any specific genetic mutations. In collaboration with NIAMS researchers, I will be performing special analyses to identify novel biomarkers associated with disease activity and better understand how JDM develops. I will compare JDM gene and protein expression to other genetic autoinflammatory diseases that have some overlapping features with JDM like skin rash, myositis, and vasculopathy.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

In research, I am excited to be able to help not only one patient at a time, but also make progress in the field as a whole. I enjoy the opportunity in translational research to apply my clinical knowledge and skills, combined with basic immunology, genetics, and biology, to explore innovative solutions to critical questions in human disease. I am privileged to work with leaders in the field and to incorporate research techniques with my primarily clinical background. Hopefully, we will make significant progress in what is known and what can be done to offer better therapies to our patients.

What have been the most challenging aspects of your career thus far?

Basic and translational research does not come naturally to all physicians. Physicians go through long and rigorous training to provide the best possible care to patients. However, like many physicians, I am not satisfied with the current status of how much is known about pediatric rheumatic diseases, and much still needs to be figured out so that we can improve care for our patients. Physicians have a unique perspective and knowledge of gaps or patient care needs. Finding answers to those gaps or questions through research requires a completely different set of skills. However, I think physician scientists, even without formal training in research, bring important and invaluable input to research. Besides leading clinical trials, physicians are able to think about disease from the human perspective. Also, particularly through the NIAMS Scholars Program, physicians can learn many basic and translational techniques, as well as bioinformatics strategies, with formal mentorship and opportunities for other training and collaboration. Physician scientists are critically important to making progress in understanding human disease, and I am excited to take on this challenge.

What activities do you enjoy outside of work?

I enjoy hiking, going to the zoo, watching movies, and spending time with friends and family. I also like traveling to national parks and traveling internationally to see different cultures, beautiful landscapes and unique architecture.

Can you offer any advice for people who wish to pursue a career in science?

Science is a very exciting and interesting field. It gives you flexibility and encourages creativity in problem solving. Try to think of an area of science or medicine you are passionate about, and then what types of questions or projects interest you. Find others who are early in their career or a few years ahead of you in training, in order to get a perspective of what the training and day-to-day life are like, and to get a better idea of what to expect and how to succeed.

Why is it important for women and for people from diverse backgrounds to participate in research, both as investigators and as patients?

In order to improve healthcare, we need research and data that represent all aspects of diversity in human disease. Investigators bring their own perspective, which has undoubtedly been shaped by their upbringing and background. Diverse investigators bring different approaches and ideas, which are important for innovation and scientific progress. Moreover, participation by diverse populations in research provides the data to better represent disease variations and treatment responses. This allows us to identify subgroups within disease areas, and furthers our understanding of the differences, with the shared goal of better treatment for all diseases.