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Profile of Hoon-Ki Sung

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Dr. Hoon-Ki Sung

By: Brianna Bendici

Dr. Hoon-Ki Sung, MD, PhD

  • Scientist, Translational Medicine
  • Assistant Professor, Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I am from South Korea and I received my MD from South Korea and my PhD in the Department of Clinical Oriented Anatomy and Functional Histology from the University of Yeungnam, also in South Korea. After this, I did my postdoctoral research at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. In 2006 I moved to Toronto - my first time living in a different country – and I began my postdoctoral fellowship at Mount Sinai Hospital.

2. What are you researching right now?
I am currently researching adipose tissue, which we know as fat, and obesity. White and brown fats are two major mammalian fat tissues and they have evolved to adjust to various environmental challenges by developing special functions. White fat stores excess energy or releases lipid to compensate nutritional deficit. Brown fat can generate heat by using energy to cope with a cold environment. 

To explore more about these fat tissues and their physiology, I established three research aims. First, we’re studying the function of our fat tissue. It is common to think that it is a bad thing to have too much fat, however it is sometimes a good thing as fat tissue creates essential proteins. Secondly, we’re learning about the environmental factors that can promote the growth of the stem cells into white or brown fat tissues. Third, we’re researching how to turn white fat tissue into brown fat tissue. It is common for babies to have a lot of brown fat tissue, but adults have very little. Brown fat is essential for heat generation and it helps us consume energy, instead of just storing it, which is what white fat does. Therefore, it is good to have more brown fat in order to have a desirable body weight and improved metabolic health.  

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
When I was a child my favorite scientist was Thomas Edison. I always asked my mother and brother questions about how things were created and after reading his books, I was interested in developing new and cool inventions myself. I also really like Jean-Henri Fabre who was a French scientist who studied insects. When I was a child, and still today I was interested in I animal scientists who study nature because my fundamental long-term research goal is to learn about how we adapt to our environment. Within our environment we are exposed to cold temperatures during the winter and hot temperatures during the summer and our bodies are able to adapt to these conditions. There are so many critical factors that we have learned from scientists who study animals and their adaptation and hibernation patterns.

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
In my opinion, the most important scientific breakthrough in my field is understanding that fat tissue has important functions. Another important breakthrough was the discovery of leptin. Leptin is a protein that is produced by fat tissue and circulates and stimulates brain signals. It can stop the signals to the brain to give you that ‘full’ feeling which tells your brain to stop eating. This discovery means that if you eat too much the fat tissue will increase and it will produce more leptin to tell your brain to stop eating.

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
I have four kids: two sets of twins! My oldest twins are 16, a girl and a boy, and my youngest twins are both boys and they are six. I spend a lot of time with them and my wife whenever I am not working. My little guys are addicted to Star Wars right now so there are a lot of light saber fights at my house and the two in grade 11 are also quite busy these days!

6. Why science?
In my first year of medical school I had a professor who taught his course from a scientific perspective instead of a medical perspective. He shared stories about research and science instead of stories about patients and an emergency department. This was very different compared to how we were taught by our other medical school professors. His career was very inspiring to me and got me really excited about the prospect of having a scientific career. I think that is the very first moment I considered science. I put it aside for the next three years of medical school but I thought back to that professor and that class when I graduated. Once I graduated, I realized that I wanted to do something different so I decided that instead of going to work in a hospital I would go to a university to begin my scientific research.

7. Why SickKids?
SickKids is one of the best research institutes in Canada. In addition, I love kids and I have always done my best to try and help children all around the world. For the past 10 years, I have always donated a very small monthly amount to children in developing countries and have also donated to SickKids ever since I moved to Toronto. When I moved here in 2006, I began my post-doctoral fellowship at Mount Sinai Hospital which is just across the street from SickKids. Even coming into the Hospital’s atrium for meetings and conferences, I would always see patients and their families walking the halls and it really made me think about what I could do to contribute to their lives. I joined SickKids in September 2014 and have dedicated my research to helping these children.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
The most controversial question right now is the idea that fat tissue is a positive thing. Previously, everyone thought that too much fat was always a bad thing but it has recently been discovered that survival rates among cancer and critical surgery patients who have more fat tissue is higher than in lean patients. Having fat is almost like a buffer system in our bodies especially when our bodies are under severely stressful conditions and the idea that patients with higher BMIs have higher survival rates in these conditions is still quite controversial.

9. What are you reading right now?
Between working here at SickKids and having a young family I don’t have much time to read! I do enjoy reading articles on social media on my commute and when I do have the time I enjoy reading a lot of scientific or science related articles.  

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
I think the most important piece of advice I can give is that you need to know who you are as a person and have a fundamental career goal; this is bigger and more important than getting your PhD or Master’s. Science is a very tough job because most of the time you get totally different outcomes than you originally expected. It is easy to be disappointed because in this field it can take a lot of tries before you get a successful result.  You must have confidence in yourself and in your work to continue in a research career. Collaboration is also very important because discussing with others is a great way to get to the final stages of your research.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
I am so proud to work in this building for many reasons. First of all, it is a beautiful building located in the middle of downtown Toronto and is truly an elegant and sophisticated design. Secondly, I feel very motivated to work hard and achieve my goals here to contribute to childhood health. It means so much to me and my colleagues that upstairs and downstairs in the PGCRL you have internationally leading and very famous scientists. Having the ability to all be working in the same building gives everyone a huge advantage and means a lot to us and to our work.

May 2016

Scientific profile