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About the Institute

Profile of Peter Kim

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Dr. Peter Kim

By: Justin Faiola

Dr. Peter Kim, PhD

  • Scientist, Cell Biology
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Biochemistry, University of Toronto

1. Where are you from?/Where did you study?
I immigrated to Toronto with my family from South Korea when I was 6, so I have spent most of my life here. I completed my undergraduate degree in biochemistry at the University of Toronto and PhD also in biochemistry at McMaster University in Hamilton. Then, I completed my postdoctoral fellowship in cell biology at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland before returning to Toronto to work here at SickKids as a cell biologist. Despite having lived in Toronto for most of my life, I have travelled a lot. I used to consider Toronto a small place but as I travelled more, I began to realize how much of the world we have in our very multicultural city. So I love living in Toronto.

2. What are you researching right now?
I currently work on organelle maintenance. Organelles are small, specialized compartments within a cell that allow the cells to carry out many different tasks for the body. More specifically, I work on two different organelles called mitochondria and peroxisomes. As a cell biologist I am really interested in what their functions are and what happens to a cell and the human organ that the cell is part of once these organelles stop working.

Peroxisomes in particular are really interesting because not much is known about them. What we do know is that they carry out biochemical reactions that can be toxic to the whole cell. By confining these harmful reactions within peroxisomes, the cells are better able to deal with the toxic byproducts made during the production of essential components for cell growth and function. Peroxisomes have various components that allow them to deal with the harmful waste and without this function, various diseases can occur in the body – one of those being Zellweger syndrome. Zellweger syndrome is a rare, neurodegenerative disease found in children that is characterized by the absence or reduction of functional peroxisomes and it usually affects the brain, kidneys and liver.

I am also interested in how defects in a cell’s ability to remove damaged peroxisomes and mitochondria are linked to diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. We also think there is a possible connection between these organelles and different immune reactions that are involved in fighting cancer, viruses and bacterial infections.

3. Who is your all-time favourite scientist and why?
My favourite scientist would have to be Michael Smith, the 1993 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. Smith won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the development of site-directed mutagenesis, a technology that has changed the way we investigate protein structure and function. Smith is my all-time favourite scientist not only for his brilliance, but also for his philanthropy. Smith gave away most of his prize money to help further medical research. I was at a very early stage in my research career when I first met him and I was impressed with his humility and his openness despite his accomplishments. His passion for science and his dedication to the bettering the research community is an inspiration!

4. What in your opinion is the most important scientific breakthrough and why?
That’s a hard question. Science builds on past discoveries; we stand on the shoulders of great people before us. So, I don’t think there is one single most important scientific breakthrough. But, one breakthrough that really influenced what I do would be the discovery of the green fluorescent protein, it’s cloning and its uses in cell biology research. Green fluorescent proteins originated from jelly fish, but there are also some that are in coral. When you shine light on one of these proteins, it illuminates at specific wavelengths, which allows researchers to look deep into the cell. From here, we can look at the dynamics of how the protein moves within a live cell. This allows us to study diseases such as diabetes because we are able to witness the effects of the movement of proteins such as insulin and glucose transporters.

In my research, we use green fluorescent proteins to observe how peroxisomes are formed in the endoplasmic reticulum in real time, which is really useful. Think of it this way, when you look at a picture, there can be different interpretations of what has happened and what will happen. However, if you were capturing the event with your video camera in real time, you can see the event unfolding in front of you. Similarly, fluorescent proteins allow scientist to capture cellular events in living cells in time lapse images as they are occurring. This technology has changed the way I literally look at medical research.  

5. What are your major interests outside the lab?
Right now I have three young kids so they are my number one interest outside of the lab. My wife and I also love travelling but because we have a two year-old, it is hard to travel at the moment. We love travelling because it’s very easy to get insulated in your workplace, your family, your city and your own culture. Traveling allows you to see how others live and shows you there is so much out in the world other than your immediate surroundings. My two favourite places that I have travelled to are Paris and Beijing. I loved Paris because of its rich culture and history and I loved Beijing because its culture was unlike anything I have ever experienced.

6. Why science?
There wasn’t any one moment that gave me the realization that I wanted to pursue science. I think the reason why I got into science has more to do with my personality than anything. I love making discoveries and I have a passion for understanding how things work. Most of all, I knew I wanted to try and make a difference in the world with my profession. I initially thought about engineering because I love to work with my hands. However, my math wasn’t that strong so I decided to pursue biological sciences instead. That’s when I realized being a medical researcher was the right career for me; it allows me to work with my hands and investigate the nature of things with the hopes that my work will one day make a difference.

7. Why SickKids?
When I was completing my postdoctoral fellowship, my wife and I really enjoyed living in the U.S. However, one thing I learned while living outside of Canada is that Toronto is great place to do research. In Toronto, the research community is densely populated with many scientists conducting research within a few square kilometres. This means you can find an expert in almost all areas of health-science research, which is a tremendous resource to have as a scientist! Working at SickKids was also my dream job, especially because my research focuses on studying a rare set of childhood diseases (Zellweger spectrum of diseases). Being able to conduct research at an esteemed children’s hospital like SickKids was the perfect fit for my research and my desire to give back to my community.

8. What is the most controversial question in your field right now?
One of the main areas of study we are focused on is determining whether defects in peroxisome maintenance, such as having too many or too little peroxisomes, could be linked to immunity-related and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. We want to explore this connection further, as well as the potential connection between peroxisomes and malnutrition and whether these conditions and diseases are causes or effects.

9. What are you reading right now?
The books that I read most of these days are Thomas the Train Engine, Spot, and Sam I Am. I read these books almost every night to my kids. Aside from children’s books, I mostly read scientific publications related to my research and only get around to leisure reading while on vacation. The last book I read was The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It’s about this character Don that is very similar to Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory TV show. Don, who is a professor of genetics, has high functioning Asperger syndrome. He is a brilliant scientist but he is also very quirky. He finally decides it’s time to find his life partner, but he has very specific criteria for what the ideal woman for him is. He ends up meeting this woman named Rosie who he falls in love with despite being everything opposite to the criteria on his list. The book is a love story, but is also about trying to understand, empathize and embrace someone who is completely different from you. I really enjoyed the book and laughed through most of it.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering a research career, what would it be?
You have to love science and research. When you pursue a research career, you don’t do it to get rich; you do it because you love the job itself and want to contribute to society in a way others may not be able to. There is a cliché saying: “if you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.” This exactly how I feel about my job.
On the other hand, a research career is also a lot of hard work. You have to make your own rewards because the big results from an experiment are far and few. But when you finally make that discovery, its one of the best feeling in the world. I guess what I’m saying is that you need to enjoy the entire process – from that big discovery to all of the trial and error you encounter along the way. You need to have a passion for science and research, but you need to be willing to work hard too.

11. What does the SickKids Centre for Research and Learning mean to you?
I am supportive of collaborative work and there are a lot of smart people at SickKids who have a wide variety of expertise and knowledge. I’m a basic science researcher so I look at how our body works at the molecular and cellular level, but I don’t understand the medical implications and how my findings can be translated to possibly treat patients. So, by bringing scientists like myself and clinician-scientists under one roof, it allows me to think and collaborate with others to translate my research to the bedside and potentially help individuals with diseases. One of my biggest collaborations is with Dr. Robert Bandsma, a clinician-scientist recently recruited to SickKids who works on malnutrition in children at the Centre for Global Child Health. Robert and I have been working together for a while now and initially, I would have never thought that my peroxisome work could have related to malnutrition until I met Robert. This is really a perfect example of what the PGCRL is doing for research at SickKids. This beautiful building allows all of us to interact and mix together and I think big collaborations and findings will come of this.

June 2014

Scientific profile