ECE alumna awarded NIH Pathway to Independence Award

4/12/2021 Allie Arp, CSL

Illinois ECE alumna Minji Kim recently received a Pathway to Independence Award from the NIH. This award supports research for up to two years of postdoctoral training, followed by an optional three years of independent research.

Written by Allie Arp, CSL

Each year, the National Institutes of Health awards a limited number of postdoctoral researchers a Pathway to Independence Award. The award supports their research for up to two years of postdoctoral training, followed by an optional three years of independent research if they secure a tenure-track research position. This year, one of the recipients is Illinois ECE alum Minji Kim, who will study the “Roles of allele-specific chromatin interactions in transcription regulation during development” at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine.

Minji Kim
Illinois ECE alumna Minji Kim

"The most rewarding experience for an advisor is to see her students grow into highly accomplished and independent academic researchers,” said Illinois ECE Professor Olgica Milenkovic, Donald Biggar Willett Scholar and Franklin W. Woeltge Professor. “I could not be more proud of Minji and what she has already accomplished at the beginning of her career.”

Similar to the ways other electrical engineers have devised methods to transmit information efficiently and reliably, Kim plans to do the same with the communication mechanisms of regulatory elements inside an organism’s cells. The instructions to carry out cell function are encoded in the genome, but how this information is organized within the three-dimensional space over time is still largely unknown.  Recent advances in 3D-genome mapping technologies allow researchers to obtain the global interaction network of the genome. Kim will apply some of the new techniques to identify which interactions help one cell type to become another cell type, determining if the cell will become skin, hair, liver, or another part of the body.

“Jackson Laboratory is well known for mouse genetics and has a rich resource of database genetics in mouse strains,” said Kim who is also a CSL alumna. “By utilizing a collection of hybrid mouse strains, we can dissect if an interaction pattern came from the maternal or the paternal strain.”

Olgica Milenkovic
Olgica Milenkovic

An example of this could be if a distal (away from the center of the body) location is close to the gene and initiates the change activity, and this pattern is inherited only from the mother. These parental-specific chromatin interactions may play a role in guiding cells to reach their final function and may be critical in understanding human health and early development. However, because the analysis of these comprehensive datasets is not straightforward, Kim proposed to convert interaction maps to graphs and to develop a set of computational algorithms.

Kim is grateful that her mentors and peers during her graduate studies at Illinois prepared her to be able to receive this award as a postdoc.

“A rigorous training in engineering can be applied to many different domains and have a lasting impact,” Kim said. “In the future, I hope to see CSL students explore seemingly distant fields–including genomics.” Milenkovic is affiliated with the Beckman Institute and CSL


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This story was published April 12, 2021.