Dr. Mee-Sook Kim collects fungal spores in Hawaii from rose apple (Syzygium jambos) leaves infected by an invasive forest pathogen that causes myrtle rust disease in tropical/subtropical forests. Photo courtesy of a local cooperator.
Dr. Mee-Sook Kim is a research plant pathologist with the Pacific Northwest Research Station. Kim has spent her 21-year research career advancing our knowledge and ability to manage the threat of native and invasive forest pathogens worldwide, which can cause the loss of billions of dollars of forest products annually. She is an internationally recognized authority on the DNA-based detection of forest pathogens, and prediction of forest pathogens under climate change scenarios, who is frequently called up on by agencies, managers, and fellow researchers to provide expertise and training on pathogen detection and mitigation.
Kim recieved the 2020 Pacific Northwest Research Station Director's Award for Distinguished Scientist and was recently featured on Faces of the Forest Service. That article is reprinted below.
I was born and grew up in Seoul, which is the capital of South Korea with a population of nearly 10 million people. Not many people know that Seoul has seven mountains, including a large national park. Although I was a “city girl” growing up, I was surrounded by a mountainous, forested landscape and inspired by the great success story of reforestation in South Korea after the Korean War.
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.
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.
I am conducting studies on different tree diseases to better understand pathogen and host (tree) biology and genetics. For example, 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. at the University of Nebraska—Lincoln, I worked as a plant pathologist for the USDA Forest Service in 2002, and I rejoined the Forest Service as a research plant pathologist in 2018 after a 9-year professorship in forest pathology with Kookmin University in South Korea.
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!
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!
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 (e.g., beetles, wildfires, etc.) 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.
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. Additional public services were provided by the Forest Service during the 2008–2009 financial crisis through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The great legacy of public service provided by the Forest Service is not widely shared or recognized.
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!