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In the Spotlight: From concert violinist to neuroscientist

This In the Spotlight Q&A features Garam Kim, a former professional violinist pursuing a PhD in neurosciences at Stanford.

Garam Kim, a Knight-Hennessy scholar pursuing a PhD in neurosciences, has performed around the globe as a concert violinist. She holds a bachelor's degree in violin performance and biological sciences, and a master's degree in biostatistics.

When I interviewed her, I was charmed by a warm, humble person with a quick laugh and many personal and professional passions. Kim told me about her academic journey, her research and her rich intellectual life at Stanford.

You used to be a concert violinist performing on TV and competing internationally. What role does music play in your life now?

I was a violinist professionally, so I can never see playing violin as a hobby. I don't compete or perform all the time anymore, but if people ask me to play for gigs or smaller events like a showcase or alumni event, I'll do that.

When I'm really warmed up, the violin feels like a genuine extension of my body: it feels so natural. Playing can be quite painful emotionally, though, because it reminds me that I'm no longer doing it professionally. But I've realized with time and as I've grown as a person that I was always going to have to make a choice. I don't think of moving the focus from violin to science as discarding the thing I like less, but rather as choosing one of several professions that I find to be highly meaningful.

How did you become interested in science?

When I started college, I was in a five-year dual-degree program. I went in as a violin performance major, and my second degree was "undecided." One of the places that asked me to play was a nursing home, and I ended up volunteering there a couple times per week for a few years. My relationship with late-stage dementia patients touched me deeply. This experience led me to want to study neuroscience and neurodegenerative disorders on a molecular level.

I googled "Northwestern Alzheimers neuroscience research" and found the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center. I told them I'd never done research in my entire life, but I was eager to learn. I didn't start thinking about biology until my third year, and I didn't start working in a lab until my fifth.

What are you working on currently?

Before I came to Stanford, I was looking at postmortem human brain slices to study neuropathology and neurodegeneration. From there, I became very interested in how the diseases formed in the first place -- I realized that treating these end-stage diseases is less likely to succeed than something more preventative. I wanted to go as far upstream as possible, which is what brought me to genetics: the basic key to what we'll become as humans, on a molecular level.

Now I'm working in a lab that primarily studies ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease]. I'm doing CRISPR/Cas9-based genome-wide screens using human cells to try to identify potential therapeutic targets and learn more about the molecular mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disorders. What drives me every day is the potential to actually be able to help patients in the future.

What has your experience as a Knight-Hennessy Scholar been like?

I cannot express in words how happy and grateful I am to be part of it. The program is full of incredible diversity, not only in terms of the scholars' backgrounds and nationalities, but also in terms of academic fields and broader interests. I'm the only scholar from the neuroscience program, and talking to people with different backgrounds/interests keeps me rooted in humanity and the world. This community's greatness comes not just from the incredible accomplishments and inspiring stories, but also from the kindness and humility of every single individual.

What do you like to do in your free time?

To me, the best job is one that doesn't feel like a job, but rather a hobby. I'm doing science all the time because I want to. I also obviously love to play music, and I really, really love having deep conversations with friends. I also love basketball. I keep a basketball in my lab and try to get my lab mates to play with me. And I read a lot. I just finished -- and loved -- Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramon y Cajal. It has so many words of wisdom for any scientist-in-training, but could be shared with any non-scientist. I love sharing it with my friends because it has so many uplifting insights.

Photo by Daphne Sashin

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