Enriching Education

Bessie Lawrence Alum Eric Sun: Reaching for the Stars

• TAGS: Education, Community, Culture

In July of 2016, incoming Harvard freshman Eric Sun gazed up at the starry night while camping in the Judean desert. For the first time, Sun, who spent a month in Israel as part of Weizmann’s Dr. Bessie F. Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI), was thousands of miles away from his family. And yet, the awe-inspiring experience felt to him like a piece of home on the other side of the globe.

Through ISSI, Sun gained lab experience at a renowned research institution, while also experiencing Israel’s spectacular landscapes. It was the perfect combination for a teen whose fascination with the natural world in his small town of Pueblo, Colorado, had always fueled his interest in science.

200205 Sun, Eric 020
Eric Sun. Photo by Christopher Smith

Four years after that transformative summer, Sun is taking the next step in his scientific journey as a PhD candidate in biomedical informatics at Stanford University. This year, he was named a recipient of the prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. The $90,000 merit-based scholarship is given each year to immigrants and children of immigrants to pursue graduate work in the United States. Out of more than 2,200 applicants, Sun was selected as one of 30 promising New Americans who are poised to make significant contributions to the nation through their work.

An Outdoors Kid

The son of Chinese immigrants who settled in southern Colorado, Sun grew up surrounded by natural beauty. Exploring the mountains and Great Plains near Pueblo, he loved “watching animals and catching tadpoles and grasshoppers.”

His time outdoors inspired his early love of science. Learning about rain forests in school, he thought of becoming an ecologist. Fascinated by dinosaur bones, he later wanted to be a paleontologist. Then, observing the clear night skies of Pueblo, he imagined his future as an astronomer or an astronaut.

By middle school, he discovered a field that still captivates him today: the biology of aging. “I started reading a popular science book on modern genetics,” he recalls. “One of the chapters talked about Cynthia Kenyon, then a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who showed that by turning a gene on or off, you could double the lifespan of a worm.”

“It was around that time that I realized life doesn’t go on forever. Aging is inevitable, but I thought, maybe there’s something we can do to understand the process better and increase the healthy lifespans of individuals.”

Having narrowed his focus, Sun wanted to gain hands-on lab experience. “In Pueblo, I had no interaction with scientists,” he explained.

His first foray into the research world came during a summer internship at the National Institute of Aging in Baltimore, MD, while he was still in high school. The experience solidified his desire to pursue research, so when he learned about Weizmannn’s ISSI program, it seemed like a natural fit. “I was excited to do something in science that would also broaden my horizons,” he said.

ISSI exceeded his expectations: “It was the most memorable month I’ve had so far.”

A Universal Language 

At Weizmann, Sun joined approximately 80 other budding scientists from across the globe who lived together on campus and completed research projects in the Institute’s labs. Sun was assigned to the lab of Prof. Dov Sagi in the Department of Neurobiology, working under PhD student Ron Dekel. His project involved exploring computer vision models—or as Sun put it, “teaching computers to see like humans.”

“Ron was a very supportive mentor,” Sun recalls. “He would meet with us every day and walk through different experiment designs.”

Sun’s preliminary results led to a long-term collaboration with his mentor. The two kept in touch after Sun returned to the U.S., communicating every few weeks. Today, they are close to submitting a paper to scientific journals based on their joint research.

Eric Sun And Grecia Garcia
Eric Sun with his lab partner, Grecia Garcia

 

Both in and outside the lab, Sun bonded with like-minded peers from around the world. From practicing Spanish with his Mexican lab partner to watching his new friends cheer for their countries’ teams in the World Cup, he appreciated the diversity of cultures and traditions.

“Everything about the way the Weizmann Institute was designed lends itself to innovation.”

At the same time, he found it “eye-opening” to see how similar he was to his fellow participants who shared his love of science. “Science is a universal language,” he said.

During walks around campus with his new friends, he admired Weizmann’ garden-like grounds as well as the modern architecture of the buildings: “Everything about the way the Institute was designed lends itself to innovation.”

Another highlight was the opportunity to explore Israel and indulge his lifelong passion for nature. “The landscapes were very beautiful. You could take a bus and one minute you’re in the desert and the next, you’re by the sea. The Dead Sea was unlike anything I had seen before.”

Eric Sde Boker
Eric Sun in Israel's Sde Boker area

Sun spent the final week of the program at a field school in Judean desert. At night, he found himself stargazing, as he often had as a child: “Seeing the stars in the desert was impressive. It reminded me of home. I never realized how lucky I was.”

From Stargazing to Stanford

In the four years since ISSI, Sun has continued to take major leaps towards his scientific goals. After returning from Israel, he entered Harvard College—the first graduate of his high school to attend an Ivy League university. Declaring his major in chemistry and physics, he hoped to apply quantitative approaches to the study of aging. He joined an applied mathematics lab, where he focused on physical and mathematical modeling. In the process, he designed protocols for optimally repairing systems that undergo aging. He also spent the summer after his junior year at Stanford University, studying the genetic pathways along which people age over time.

He now returns to Stanford as a PhD student in biomedical informatics, supported by the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. The highly competitive selection process caused him to reflect on his experience as the child of immigrants and one of only a few Chinese Americans in his hometown. He’s especially grateful to his parents, who “slowly built a life” in this country in order to make his and his brothers’ successes possible.

Today, his goal is to apply computational tools to uncover new insights into age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and more. He envisions becoming a professor with his own lab—and hopes his path will lead him back to Rehovot through a collaboration with Weizmann scientists.

Meanwhile, he will undoubtedly make the most of every opportunity that comes his way—as he has since he was a young boy scanning the stars.

Enriching Education

Bessie Lawrence Alum Eric Sun: Reaching for the Stars

• TAGS: Education , Community , Culture

In July of 2016, incoming Harvard freshman Eric Sun gazed up at the starry night while camping in the Judean desert. For the first time, Sun, who spent a month in Israel as part of Weizmann’s Dr. Bessie F. Lawrence International Summer Science Institute (ISSI), was thousands of miles away from his family. And yet, the awe-inspiring experience felt to him like a piece of home on the other side of the globe.

Through ISSI, Sun gained lab experience at a renowned research institution, while also experiencing Israel’s spectacular landscapes. It was the perfect combination for a teen whose fascination with the natural world in his small town of Pueblo, Colorado, had always fueled his interest in science.

200205 Sun, Eric 020
Eric Sun. Photo by Christopher Smith

Four years after that transformative summer, Sun is taking the next step in his scientific journey as a PhD candidate in biomedical informatics at Stanford University. This year, he was named a recipient of the prestigious Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. The $90,000 merit-based scholarship is given each year to immigrants and children of immigrants to pursue graduate work in the United States. Out of more than 2,200 applicants, Sun was selected as one of 30 promising New Americans who are poised to make significant contributions to the nation through their work.

An Outdoors Kid

The son of Chinese immigrants who settled in southern Colorado, Sun grew up surrounded by natural beauty. Exploring the mountains and Great Plains near Pueblo, he loved “watching animals and catching tadpoles and grasshoppers.”

His time outdoors inspired his early love of science. Learning about rain forests in school, he thought of becoming an ecologist. Fascinated by dinosaur bones, he later wanted to be a paleontologist. Then, observing the clear night skies of Pueblo, he imagined his future as an astronomer or an astronaut.

By middle school, he discovered a field that still captivates him today: the biology of aging. “I started reading a popular science book on modern genetics,” he recalls. “One of the chapters talked about Cynthia Kenyon, then a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, who showed that by turning a gene on or off, you could double the lifespan of a worm.”

“It was around that time that I realized life doesn’t go on forever. Aging is inevitable, but I thought, maybe there’s something we can do to understand the process better and increase the healthy lifespans of individuals.”

Having narrowed his focus, Sun wanted to gain hands-on lab experience. “In Pueblo, I had no interaction with scientists,” he explained.

His first foray into the research world came during a summer internship at the National Institute of Aging in Baltimore, MD, while he was still in high school. The experience solidified his desire to pursue research, so when he learned about Weizmannn’s ISSI program, it seemed like a natural fit. “I was excited to do something in science that would also broaden my horizons,” he said.

ISSI exceeded his expectations: “It was the most memorable month I’ve had so far.”

A Universal Language 

At Weizmann, Sun joined approximately 80 other budding scientists from across the globe who lived together on campus and completed research projects in the Institute’s labs. Sun was assigned to the lab of Prof. Dov Sagi in the Department of Neurobiology, working under PhD student Ron Dekel. His project involved exploring computer vision models—or as Sun put it, “teaching computers to see like humans.”

“Ron was a very supportive mentor,” Sun recalls. “He would meet with us every day and walk through different experiment designs.”

Sun’s preliminary results led to a long-term collaboration with his mentor. The two kept in touch after Sun returned to the U.S., communicating every few weeks. Today, they are close to submitting a paper to scientific journals based on their joint research.

Eric Sun And Grecia Garcia
Eric Sun with his lab partner, Grecia Garcia

 

Both in and outside the lab, Sun bonded with like-minded peers from around the world. From practicing Spanish with his Mexican lab partner to watching his new friends cheer for their countries’ teams in the World Cup, he appreciated the diversity of cultures and traditions.

“Everything about the way the Weizmann Institute was designed lends itself to innovation.”

At the same time, he found it “eye-opening” to see how similar he was to his fellow participants who shared his love of science. “Science is a universal language,” he said.

During walks around campus with his new friends, he admired Weizmann’ garden-like grounds as well as the modern architecture of the buildings: “Everything about the way the Institute was designed lends itself to innovation.”

Another highlight was the opportunity to explore Israel and indulge his lifelong passion for nature. “The landscapes were very beautiful. You could take a bus and one minute you’re in the desert and the next, you’re by the sea. The Dead Sea was unlike anything I had seen before.”

Eric Sde Boker
Eric Sun in Israel's Sde Boker area

Sun spent the final week of the program at a field school in Judean desert. At night, he found himself stargazing, as he often had as a child: “Seeing the stars in the desert was impressive. It reminded me of home. I never realized how lucky I was.”

From Stargazing to Stanford

In the four years since ISSI, Sun has continued to take major leaps towards his scientific goals. After returning from Israel, he entered Harvard College—the first graduate of his high school to attend an Ivy League university. Declaring his major in chemistry and physics, he hoped to apply quantitative approaches to the study of aging. He joined an applied mathematics lab, where he focused on physical and mathematical modeling. In the process, he designed protocols for optimally repairing systems that undergo aging. He also spent the summer after his junior year at Stanford University, studying the genetic pathways along which people age over time.

He now returns to Stanford as a PhD student in biomedical informatics, supported by the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans. The highly competitive selection process caused him to reflect on his experience as the child of immigrants and one of only a few Chinese Americans in his hometown. He’s especially grateful to his parents, who “slowly built a life” in this country in order to make his and his brothers’ successes possible.

Today, his goal is to apply computational tools to uncover new insights into age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and more. He envisions becoming a professor with his own lab—and hopes his path will lead him back to Rehovot through a collaboration with Weizmann scientists.

Meanwhile, he will undoubtedly make the most of every opportunity that comes his way—as he has since he was a young boy scanning the stars.