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October 14th, 2020 at 10:10AM

A picture of Mee-Sook and her collaborator, Dr. Yuko Ota from Japan, kneeling next to a tree.
Mee-Sook (left) and her collaborator, Dr. Yuko Ota from Japan, collected an invasive fungal pathogen (cause of brown root rot) in Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia. The tree behind them is infected by the fungus. (Forest Service Photo/Ned Klopfenstein.)

Born and raise in Seoul, South Korea, the nation’s capital city  of over 10 million people, one would think Mee-Sook had little exposure to wildland spaces--but that would be wrong. What many in the United States are unaware of is that Seoul, an international success story of forested reforestation after the Korean War, has seven mountains surrounding it, including a large National Park. Indeed, a self-described city girl growing up, the forested landscape of Seoul’s open spaces greatly inspired her decision to work in wildland conservation. 

What do you do in the USDA Forest Service and when did you start working here?

I’m a Research Plant Pathologist and I diagnose tree disease using DNA-based tools to identify the pathogen. Many tree diseases are caused by fungi, and just like human disease, it is critical to identify the actual cause of the disease before treating the disease. After earning my Ph.D. I worked as a Plant Pathologist for the Forest Service in 2002, and I rejoined the Forest Service in 2018 after a 9-year professorship in forest pathology with Kookmin University in South Korea.  

What is your favorite part of your job?

My job as a scientist involves a degree of simultaneous excitement and anxiety. It gives me surprises and sometimes nervousness before I examine intriguing experimental results. In addition, my job provides me with many opportunities to meet and work with people from diverse geographic areas and cultural backgrounds. Just like human pathogens, tree pathogens do not recognize geographic boundaries, so studies on tree diseases require many international collaborations, especially for research on invasive pathogens. Diverse collaborations have opened my mind further and enriched my experiences. It is a great feeling to continue learning as I become older! 

A picture of Mee-Sook Kim conducting research out in the field.
Mee-Sook is currently working on detection and management of an invasive forest pathogen that causes myrtle rust disease in tropical/subtropical forests. She collected the fungal spores from infected leaves of rose apple (Syzygium jambos) in Hawaii. Photo by one of local cooperators (Photo courtesy of Mee-Sook Kim)

Describe a professional or personal achievement that you are particularly proud of.

Professionally, I am proud of discovering key scientific information with my collaborators for distinguishing and predicting an invasive forest pathogen (myrtle rust fungus) that directly affects regulatory policy. Personally, I am very proud of completing my doctoral degree in the United States. This was extremely meaningful for my family and me because I am the first one in my family to graduate from college and earn a doctorate degree. My parents strongly believe that education is the key to open opportunities for my future career, and I am happy to say they were right about that! 

Why do you think your field is important?

Forest diseases are a primary cause of forest damage, which leads to significant economic and environmental impacts and losses of ecosystem services associated with trees. By some accounts, forest diseases cause more long-term damage to forest ecosystems than all other natural disturbances combined. And, perhaps most importantly, forest diseases can dramatically reduce the capacity of our forests to sequester carbon. Maintaining healthy forests is essential to maintaining life on earth.

Who inspired you growing up?

My family, especially my parents, provided the most inspiration for me when I was young and even more now. My parents could not afford the education they deserved, but they recognized the importance of education for their children and they were determined to support their childrens’ education as much as they could. My parents’ incredible work ethic and unconditional dedication allowed my three sisters and me to pursue our education and life goals. 

A picture of cookies that Mee-Sook Kim baked.
Mee-Sook likes to bake and share her baked treats with her family and friends. She is very proud of successfully making macarons (lower left) after a few previous failures. (Photo by Mee-Sook Kim.)

What do you like to do for fun on your free time?

Hiking and baking are great ways to spend my free time. I enjoy hiking in local parks and forests. It relaxes me and brings positive energy to my thought process. I also like to bake because I can see tangible products within a short amount of time—it gives me an instant feeling of accomplishment and gratification. In addition, I can serve my baked treats to my family and friends, although I am unsure if they are totally honest with me about the taste. 

How would you like the public to perceive the work we do at the Forest Service?

I hope the public will become aware of the great public services provided by the Forest Service, especially during economic crises. During the Great Depression, the Forest Service administered more than half of all Civilian Conservation Corps to restore forests and build roads, trails, and other infrastructure on public lands. The great legacy of public service provided by the Forest Service is not widely shared or recognized. 

A picture of Mee-Sook Kim standing next to a very large tree.
Mee-Sook explores one of largest trees in the world, giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), at Calaveras Big Trees State Park, CA. (Photo by Emmanuel Duarte-Mata.)

Do you have any advice for someone wanting to serve their country as a Forest Service employee?

As an employee of Forest Service Research and Development, you can plan your own career path and use your creativity to contribute knowledge and experience for maintaining healthy forests and rangelands, while serving people who benefit from healthy forests and rangelands. There is no time for boredom with these Forest Service jobs!