Postdocs Play Vital Role in Research Initiatives

"This is a great place to grow as a postdoc and a great place to create science," says Jon Sin, PhD.

There are at least 144 reasons that Cedars-Sinai is considered a leader in biomedical science. This is the precise number – not coincidentally – of in-house and visiting postdoctoral scientists who work here.

"Without postdocs, we wouldn’t have as many active research projects," said Cathryn Kolka, PhD, associate director of the Postdoctoral Scientist Program. "They also provide lab training to graduate students and do a lot of the hands-on lab work and analysis."

In return, the program provides postdoctoral scientists and other junior researchers with up to five years of advanced training under faculty mentors.

Jon Sin, PhD, reflects the pivotal role that postdocs play in Cedars-Sinai’s increasingly robust research initiatives.

On the ninth floor of the Advanced Health Sciences Pavilion, seated behind a lab bench piled high with cell culture plates, Sin is creating science aplenty.

He was the first author on a much-cited study published earlier this year in the journal Autophagy. The study examined how the body removes damaged mitochondria, the energy engines of cells, from injured skeletal muscles. Sin concluded that this process, known as mitophagy, is crucial for maintenance and repair of these muscles.

That study set the stage for Sin’s current work: examining mitophagy in heart disease. He is trying to find medications that potentially could treat myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that can stem from a viral infection. "I’m picking apart the cell pathways that the virus likes to 'hijack' and then testing if drugs can disrupt that interaction or block the pathway to suppress viral infection," he explained.

Like many postdocs, Sin is a science hound. "When I first started doing research as an undergrad at University of California, San Diego, I felt at home," Sin said. "Research just clicked with me."

Sin at work in the Advanced Health Sciences Pavilion.

San Diego’s mild weather also clicked with Sin, whose parents emigrated from South Korea and settled in Petaluma, California, to raise Sin and his older brother. So he stayed in San Diego for graduate school. His time at San Diego State University proved both fun and fortuitous. Not only did Sin have a "blast" earning his PhD, but he also connected with a mentoring duo. Their collaborative research led to his dissertation and present research path.

The duo, viral immunologist Ralph Feuer, PhD, and Roberta Gottlieb, MD, were investigating whether an early, mild infection with coxsackievirus B (CVB) could result in a predisposition to heart failure later in life. A type of virus that infects the gastrointestinal tract and often spreads to other parts of the body, CVB can cause fatal organ damage.

"Our research revealed that even an asymptomatic infection can sensitize the heart to devastating cardiac damage," explained Sin. His dissertation was published as two research papers that have since been frequently cited.

After graduating with a PhD in cell and molecular biology in May 2013, Sin wasn’t sure where he would land for his postdoctoral training. Then in September 2013, he received an invitation from Gottlieb, who had moved to Cedars-Sinai as director of molecular cardiobiology at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute and professor of Medicine. She asked Sin to help her build the Gottlieb Laboratory and the Metabolism and Mitochondrial Research Core.

That's how Sin came to join the ranks of Cedars-Sinai’s postdoctoral scientists, who recently were celebrated during the annual National Postdoc Appreciation Week.

Not long after arriving at Cedars-Sinai, Sin’s passion for research and outgoing personality caught the attention of the Cedars-Sinai Postdoc Society, an organization run by postdocs that sponsors events and activities. He was asked to join the group’s leadership committee.

A natural ambassador, Sin relishes this role. "I want postdocs to know that we’re building a community that’s supportive of them professionally and personally," he said. Sin also made it his mission to involve more graduate students in the group. "A lot more grad students attend our events now," he said. "We provide mentorship, but we can learn from each other as well."

Sin sees his Postdoc Society position as a way of giving back to Cedars-Sinai. "When I first came here, I received funding for my initial research through a federal training grant awarded to the Heart Institute, and I really appreciated that," he said. "This is a great place to grow as a postdoc and a great place to create science."

Looking ahead, Sin said he hopes to always conduct high-impact research. He also is appreciative of the present. "It’s been very exciting to be part of this lab coming together, and to see it now running at full force and publishing is extremely rewarding," he said.