Jin Woo Oh

Gene regulatory DNA elements, such as enhancers, are enriched with pathogenic mutations associated with devastating diseases such as cancer and schizophrenia. Despite the significant medical implication, functional characterization of individual enhancers has been difficult. For example, many human genes are regulated by complex networks of enhancers, and it remains unclear how these network properties affect phenotypes and how their disruptions cause disease. Further, putative pathogenic regulatory variants are often tested through their conserved counterparts in mice, but mapping human enhancers to mice has long been a computational challenge due to both rapid evolution and sequence complexities of enhancers. In Dr. Michael Beer’s lab, we addressed these challenges in two orthogonal approaches. First, we collaborated with multiple labs to functionally characterize a large number of enhancers near genes of high medical significance using CRISPR. For example, we epigenetically perturbed enhancers that drive stem cell differentiation, and discovered that enhancers can regulate the speed of cell-state transitions. Fetal development is a finely controlled dynamic process with high spatiotemporal precision, and our discovery will help us understand how enhancer mutations may cause developmental disorders. Second, we developed a novel genome-alignment algorithm (gkm-align) that can detect more than 20,000 novel distal enhancers conserved between human and mouse. Using our novel method, we published an expanded catalogue of conserved enhancers, which we believe will streamline functional characterization of human enhancers. I aspire to contribute to advancements in the diagnosis and treatment of regulatory diseases through our research efforts.

Questions & Answers

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I received my undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins in the department of biomedical engineering, and I loved every class I took from the department, especially those related to mathematical modeling of complex biological systems. Two of those courses were taught by my adviser, Dr. Mike Beer. I did not know much about regulatory genomics at that time, but his genuine passion for science resonated with me, and I decided to have my Ph.D. training under his guidance. It turned out I made the right decision.


What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

Dr. Strand was a phenomenal and selfless scientist who dedicated her life to finding cures for parasitic diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people. As a junior scientist finishing graduate school, I am inspired to emulate her commitment to science, and this award will be a constant reminder of my resolution to devote my career to advancing science.


What contributed to your project’s success?

All of my scientific contributions were made possible by the ample amount of mentorship I received from my advisor, Dr. Mike Beer, and by the extensive collaborative opportunities that I was fortunate to have. I would like to share this honor with my adviser and all of my collaborators.


What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles students and fellows play in research at Johns Hopkins?’

Learning that our research is appreciated by the broader scientific community encourages and motivates me to continue working hard to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge by solving important problems.


What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Johns Hopkins?

At the end of my first year as a Ph.D. student, I gave a lab presentation on the very first project I worked on as a graduate student. After the talk, my adviser approached me excitedly and told me he was always thankful to have a creative student like me. This gave me the courage to work on difficult and important problems and the energy to bounce back whenever I hit rock bottom after countless failed attempts throughout my Ph.D.


What are your plans over the next year or so? Graduating, looking for faculty positions, etc.?

I will graduate this May and continue my career in scientific research. I will explore various opportunities over the years before I settle, and I’m excited for this journey ahead.


Tell me something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

This Young Investigators’ Day marks the culmination of my 17 years of studying abroad in the U.S., including 11 years in Baltimore! I believe my independence from a young age has contributed to my growth as an independent scientist. While I will be leaving for Korea for a little while to finally reunite with my family, Baltimore will always hold a special place in my heart as my second home.