TITLE: Executive Vice President of Science Programs
FUNDING AREAS: Neuroscience research
CONTACT: Visit PeopleFinder for email and phone number (paid subscribers only)
IP TAKE: Chun is a molecular biologist by training who, in part thanks to President Obama, has taken on a highly visible role as a mover and shaker in neuroscience research.
PROFILE: When President Obama announced his support for a new project, Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) the name of one person immediately came to the minds of scientists around the country: Miyoung Chun.
The president's announcement put the spotlight on an initiative that had been spearheaded in recent years by Chun, vice president of science programs at The Kavli Foundation. Neuroscience research is one of the foundation's priorities. So after a 2011 meeting with a group of top scientists and several other science-oriented private foundations, Chun took the lead in the painstaking process of organizing and fostering communication among the community of scientists who might be interested in mapping the human brain.
Now that the president is calling for $100 billion to support the project, Chun is excited about the possibilities for real scientific advances. "BRAIN will generate revolutionary new tools to measure the brain activities in thousands to millions of neurons in order to produce a general theory of the brain," she said. "We want to understand how we reason, how we memorize, how we learn, how we move, how our emotions work. These abilities define us. And yet we hardly understand any of it."
Chun has earned the respect of the Obama Administration and the neuroscience community for good reason. After growing up in impoverished South Korea in the 1960s, she migrated to the United States and built a classic success story for herself. As a student of molecular genetics at Ohio State University, she earned her PhD through the study of muscle assembly. Then as a postdoctoral fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she worked with the eminent biologist Harvey F. Lodish to investigate the molecules in a cell that receive messages from the outside world. She later joined the faculty at the Whitaker Cardiovascular Institute at the Boston University School of Medicine, where she continued conducting research while teaching cell biology and molecular medicine.
In 1999 Chun joined Millennium Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge-based company that develops drugs to combat cancer, inflammation, and other maladies. Her work focusing on genetic links to these diseases earned her more than 30 patents.
Chun's transformation from a dweller of laboratories to builder of relationships began when she switched coasts and career focus by accepting a position as the assistant dean of science and engineering at the University of California Santa Barbara. As it happens, the university is located in the home base of Fred Kavli, the wealthy businessman and scientist behind The Kavli Foundation.
Now that she's at that foundation, Chun will help determine how to distribute the $4 million that Kavli will contribute to the brain-mapping initiative in each of the next 10 years. The foundation's approach is unique in that grants aren't usually given one at a time to individual research projects. Rather, the organization prefers to establish professorships and research institutes that will be independent from the pressures of grantseeking. These institutes receive an endowment with no restrictions, so they are free to pursue research that might be risky or might take many years to yield results.
And while Kavli is also interested in astrophysics and theoretical physics, the brain initiative will ensure that much of its activity in the years to come will be in neuroscience research. Some of the annual $4 million will go to existing Kavli-funded centers, but Chun will also be on the lookout for institutions and researchers that would make good partners in the brain-mapping project. For those interested in the inner workings of the brain, the project will offer a golden opportunity to attract a Kavli program that will provide world-class opportunities for groundbreaking research.