Ken W. Y. Cho

Born: August 26, 1956 | Seoul, KR

Ken W. Y. Cho was born in Seoul, South Korea, but moved to Japan when he was five years old. His Korean heritage limited his career options, so he attended university in the US, receiving his B.A. in Chemistry from Grinnell College. Cho was forced to rapidly assimilate a new language and culture, spending entire nights just completing reading assignments. While completing his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he conducted research in Roberto Weinmann's lab at the Wistar Institute. During a postdoc at University of California, Los Angeles, Cho became interested in homeobox genes and their role in the development of embryos. Now a faculty member at University of California, Irvine, he researches the regulation of homeobox and goosecoid genes in the context of embryological development in vertebrates.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0449
No. of pages: 93
Minutes: 349

Interview Sessions

Helene L. Cohen
3, 4, and 7 June 1999
University of California, Irvine Irvine, California

Abstract of Interview

Ken W. Y. Cho was born in 1956 in Seoul, South Korea; the eldest of three siblings. His father, a shrewd entrepreneur from a very modest background and his mother, the daughter of a well-to-do Korean family, both fled North Korea in 1945, following the Soviet takeover at the end of World War II. Cho's parents would later meet and marry in South Korea and eventually move to Japan when he was only five years old. Cho was therefore forced to learn Japanese rapidly in order to excel in the rigorous educational environment. His childhood interest in the sciences came from watching his favorite cartoon about a scientist. Cho received his B.A. in Chemistry from Grinnell College in 1979. He elected to attend an undergraduate institution in the United States based on the advice of a family friend and because his Korean heritage severely limited his career options in Japan. Once again Cho was forced to rapidly assimilate a new language and culture, and often spent entire nights just completing reading assignments and homework. He matriculated into the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he conducted his research in Roberto Weinmann's lab at the Wistar Institute, and received his PhD in 1985. Cho began his postdoctoral research at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1986 in Dr. Edward M. De Robertis's Lab, where he became interested in homeobox genes and their role in the development of embryos. He studied these homeobox genes in Drosophila before switching to Xenopus and creating a cDNA library that would shed light on several new developmentally crucial genes; most notably goosecoid genes. In 1991 Cho was appointed assistant professor in the Department of Developmental and Cell Biology at the University of California, Irvine. His research there has encompassed an interest in the regulation of homeobox genes and goosecoid genes in the context of embryological development in vertebrates. Most of his research focuses on the implications of these genes on a specific group of embryological cells in amphibians, a group known as Spemann's Organizer. Throughout his oral history Cho stresses the importance of choosing a career that one truly loves, and he hopes that his children will be happy in whatever career path they choose. He has received several award and grants, including a March of Dimes Basil O'Conner Starter Research Scholar award, an American Cancer Society Junior Faculty Research award, and most notably a Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences grant, which he discusses in the oral history interview. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1979 Grinnell College BA Chemistry
1985 University of Pennsylvania PhD Molecular Biology

Professional Experience

University of California, Los Angeles

1986 to 1991
Postdoctoral Fellow, David Geffen School of Medicine, Laboratory of Edward M. De Robertis

University of California, Irvine

1991 to 1997
Assistant Professor, Department of Developmental and Cell Biology
1997 to 2000
Associate Professor, Department of Developmental and Cell Biology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1992 to 1994

March of Dimes Basil O'Conner Starter Research Scholar Award

1993 to 1995

American Cancer Society Junior Faculty Research Award

1994 to 1998

Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences 

Table of Contents

Growing Up
1

Parents escape North Korea. Korean infrastructure and culture. Education in Japan. Life as an outsider. Career options. Applying to colleges in the United States. Uncle's influence.

Undergraduate Education
27

Grinnel College. Language barriers. Keeping up with classes. Dormitory life. Social life. Sports. Religious upbringing. Christianity in Korea. Religion and science. Sisters. Parental expectations.

Graduate Education
40

The University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Roberto Weinmann's lab. Research environment. Wistar Institute. Looking for a postdoctoral lab.

Postdoctoral Research
44

University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Edward M. De Robertiss' lab. Research on Drosophila homeobox genes. Embryology. Switch to Xenopus laevis Homeobox genes. Goosecoid gene identified. cDNA Library. Looking for a job. Marriage.

Principal Investigator Research
54

University of California, Irvine. Challenges of the principal investigator role. Current lab. Publishing. Funding. Receives the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences Grant. Teaching. University of California system. Students. Administrative responsibilities.

Everyday Life
69

Family. Japanese and Korean School. Extracurricular activities. Citizenship.

Biomedicine
73

Race and gender discrimination. Art and science. Creativity in science. Competition. Technology. English as a second language. Goals.

Index
89

About the Interviewer

Helene L. Cohen