JAE JUNG, PH.D., MET SCIENCE IN 1969, when he was in fourth grade. Thanks to a substitute teacher and her book on infectious disease, Jung discovered a lifelong fascination – he likes to study the small organisms that make people and animals sick.
“I don’t know why, but the book was just so fascinating. I just memorized it from the first page to the last page,” says Jung. His father soon bought him a microscope.
Jung chuckles, “I’d grab every dirty thing, everything dirty, and look at it! That’s how I studied.”
Growing up in Seoul, Korea, Jung was a friendly and energetic kid, traits that still define Keck School of Medicine’s new chair of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology.
His curiosity led him to Seoul National University, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in food science. But Jung wasn’t interested in food. He was attending one of the best microbiology programs his native country offered.
His next step was a move to the United States in 1985. Jung earned his Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of California-Davis within fours years, writing three publications during that time. An impressive
accomplishment, considering it took Jung three hours to translate one hour of lecture notes.
For his post-doctoral work, he chose Harvard Medical School’s New England Primate Research Center (NEPRC), which gave him the opportunity to learn about gamma-2 herpesvirus, a virus that can cause cancer. Studying how the virus infects the host, and then hides from the immune system, has become the core of Jung’s work.
When Jung began looking at gamma-2 herpesvirus in 1990, the virus was known to cause cancer in animals. By 1994, researchers had discovered that a human form of the virus causes Kaposi’s sarcoma,
a cancer that occurs in people with weak immune
systems, like those battling AIDS.
Already an expert on the animal form of the virus, Jung soon led research on the human version. “That wasn’t luck,” says Jung. “I was just ready.” He was also excited to be working on something that could help people.
He served as chair of the division of tumor virology at NEPRC, and became one the first tenured professors at Harvard from Korea.
Jung’s work continues today at the Keck School of Medicine, where he arrived in January 2008 after being courted by several of the country’s top medical schools.
“Here at LAC+USC we have literally 3,000 patients with HIV,” Jung explains. “There are so many opportunities to help them.”
Jung views himself as a good basic scientist, meaning he’s got a knack for figuring out how and why things work. His understanding of gamma-2 herpesviruses, Jung feels, can lead to great advances in HIV patient care at USC and beyond.
He plans to build a stronger molecular microbiology and immunology department by nearly doubling the size of the faculty, and he’s creating an active research program by attracting top clinical investigators.
He currently maintains academic and scientific appointments in Korea and feels they can provide an important bridge to the Keck School of Medicine.
“I believe that within five years China, Korea, Japan and Singapore will be extremely important in biomedicine,” Jung explains.
The accomplished Jung occasionally takes a break from his busy schedule at USC to enjoy his sole pastime – watching the New England Patriots. He holds head coach Bill Belichick in high esteem, despite the recent Super Bowl loss.
With the enthusiasm of a fourth grader, Jung says, “It’s very scientific what he does – I love it!”