Today, we have Seo Yeon Yoon, Research Scientist at Gladstone Institutes. She is an avid researcher passionate about bringing diverse talent and ideas together to innovate solutions that overcome incurable diseases. She was also recently named to the Poets and Quants 2022 list of Best & Brightest Executive MBAs.
Seo Yeon is originally from Jeonju City, South Korea, a mid-small town that didn’t have a lot of people from other countries or cultures. Her parents sent her and her sister to Canada as international students to study and be exposed to a world with many people from different ethnicities, races, and cultures.
In this episode, Seo Yeon talked about her experiences as an international student, how she ended up in Berkeley as an undergrad, and why she chose to study Biology.
She also shared her career at Gladstone Institutes, why she pursued her MBA later in her career, and her experiences at Haas. She also shared what made her start using her Korean name once again and why it was one of her impactful decisions.
One of the lessons she learned as an international student
I think, looking back, it was really important that I had that much exposure to this bigger world with people that just didn’t really think like me or even talk like me. But they were just really kind and really good people with really good hearts. And I always kept that with me as a life lesson that, wherever I go, that’s something that I do have to keep in mind that I also have to extend as a friend and as a colleague in any places that I work.
On her MBA application
I went through the application process and tried to be as authentic as possible about who I was and why I really wanted to come to Haas. And while it was stressful, it just felt relatively good. It didn’t really feel like it was an extra chore, per se. It was hard, but it wasn’t something I was dragging myself into because I still wasn’t sure about something. It was definitely a really good process to go through. And, of course, I was very, very happy to find out that all that effort and bidding on myself like that ended up very, fortunately, being a success. It was really wonderful.
Why she started using her Korean name
I was thinking about how my parents named me. They didn’t just name me just out of a whim or just out of nothing. They really had thought about it carefully about what they wanted to name their first child as. And my entire name is really, in and of itself, a form of a person, a woman my parents wanted me to be.
And so, when I started to piece all of these puzzles together, I began to realize that, am I really doing justice to myself and also to the people that I love? That I will be sticking with an English name when it doesn’t make anybody comfortable? And, first and foremost, it didn’t make me comfortable.
And so, I think that series of internal questioning and meditation and just, really, self-discovery process really got me to think about what is the easiest and also the most forefront thing on action can I really take to start on that discovery path. And the first thing was, really, the name.
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:04] Chris: Welcome to the OneHaas Podcast. I’m Chris Kim. Today, we have Seo Yeon Yoon, graduate of the Berkeley Haas Executive MBA program and research scientist at Gladstone Institutes. Seo Yeon is an avid researcher, with a passion for bringing diverse talent and ideas together to innovate solutions that overcome incurable diseases. Seo Yeon, welcome and great to have you on the show.
[00:27] Seo Yeon: Thank you very much, Chris. Lovely to be with you.
[00:28] Chris: Seo Yeon, you’ve had a ton of accomplishments to date. I just wanted to summarize a couple. You are a Cal Double Bear, a Berkeley Haas MBA, a 2022 Best & Brightest Executive MBA by Poets & Quants. And you were also nominated as Class Speaker by your peers at your commencement. So, my first question is, when you were a little kid in Jeonju City, did you know you would be where you are today?
[00:52] Seo Yeon: Just hearing all of those things that have happened in the past year or so, it just gives me a little bit of a chills to think that a little girl that didn’t know anything about the world, let alone America, got to do all of those really amazing things that was such a high privilege for me to be part of.
But no, Jeonju City is like Berkeley. There’s not that much of a population. It’s very much of a mid-small town. And I was born and raised in a town that didn’t really have a lot of people from other countries or other cultures. It was very much of a homogeneous population. And so, the answer to that question is absolutely not. It would not be even imaginable for me to be sitting here and talking with you about all of those things that have happened in my entire life.
[01:43] Chris: What was your journey like early on? Can you share a bit about your background?
[01:47] Seo Yeon: That’s actually one of the weirdest things. My story is very unusual in my family. My family is very academic, but in other areas, not in the sciences at all. And so, I’m very well-known in the family as the mutant of the family, being very unusual in terms of what I like to do and what I’m interested in. And so, no one was interested in biology or sciences. I just really got very, I guess, gravitated towards biology and medicine growing up because I would see some really amazing figures on TV or even in cartoons back in the day. And you would see a lot of stories that had heroes that would go out and cure people or heal people. And that’s something that I always had some sort of fascination as a little child. And I think being in the science classes in elementary school and middle school definitely got me to be even more intrigued about this, perhaps, being part of my future. But I had no idea exactly what form that would actually take when I actually did become an adult.
[02:53] Chris: How did you go from Jeonju to Berkeley, where you eventually would go become an undergraduate student?
[02:59] Seo Yeon: Well, actually, there’s two, I guess, regions that I had to go through in order to get to California. So, from Jeonju City in South Korea, my father and my mother sent my sister and I — I have a sister who’s two years younger than me — to Vancouver, Canada as an international student. And so, we were there. I was 14 years old and my sister was 12. And so, we were there to, essentially, study abroad and be exposed to this world that was international with a lot of people from different ethnicities, races, and cultures. And so, that was really my first introduction to this idea of a global stage with a rich diverse community. And from Vancouver, I went to Richwood, New Jersey, of all places, in the United States, still as an international student. That’s really where I got to really understand and also learn about America. With a little bit of twist and turns that life always stores at you, I ended up being in Albany, California. That’s where I did my last semester of my high school and subsequently went to Berkeley right after that.
So, it’s definitely a lot of twists and turns that I didn’t anticipate. But I think, looking back, it was really important that I had that much of exposure to this bigger world with people that just didn’t really think like me or even talk like me. But they were just really kind and really good people that had really good hearts. And I always kept that with me as a life lesson that, wherever I go, that’s something that I do have to keep in mind that I also have to extend as a friend and as a colleague in any places that I work at.
[04:45] Chris: That’s an amazing experience and probably not uncommon amongst folks in the Haas community. But could you share a little bit about, what was that experience like going from your hometown to you living in Canada and then the states, and then you come to Berkeley, of all places, as an undergrad, which has its own culture in and of itself? What was it like being exposed to so many different things? And any memories or experiences that you think about now or you still remember from that time?
[05:11] Seo Yeon: Oh, it was such a big shock. I’ve never seen anybody in real life that was not Korean. And I remember walking into my day one of class and I was in a school at West Vancouver in Canada. And I remember seeing white people, seeing also people from Iran, and seeing some Russian kids as well. It was like all over the map. And so, I had that initial shock of a girl that never knew that such other ethnicities and, also, people with a different look even existed in the world in real life until I actually went into that classroom in West Vancouver.
So, that was a huge shock. And then, on top of that, I didn’t know how to speak the language. So, I think, for me, wanting to really get to know them just out of a personal curiosity, but also knowing that I didn’t speak English enough to really build that relationship and to really get to know people, that was definitely a big challenge. And also, this mind and this thinking of, will I actually be able to exist and survive in such an ecosystem when I don’t know anybody and I don’t also know what the general culture is like?
So, it was a lot of shock and, also, personal worries that I don’t know if I’ll be able to survive, if I will be able to thrive in a community like this.
[06:37] Chris: Seo Yeon, academically, you definitely thrived and ended up coming to Berkeley as an undergrad. What was that like? For a lot of MBAs and folks in the Haas community, even choosing a school and going through that application process is really one major inflection point. What was that like for you? And what did it feel like when you got on campus?
[06:56] Seo Yeon: So, UC Berkeley, just as a name and as a brand, is huge in all parts of the world, but particularly in Asia. So, I think, even if I didn’t really understand or know about America so much, I always have heard something about Berkeley. So, there is that sort of familiarity there and, also, the awe and just the respect for what this institution stands for.
And so, I think I definitely was very intimidated by this idea that I will be applying to a school like this because that would mean that I felt that I was qualified and I also felt that I was smart enough to get into a school like this. So, a lot of intimidation and, also, a lot of, “I just don’t think this will work, so why bother even writing the application?” I remember that thought very distinctively.
And I think, for me at that point, I’ve gone through and also learned a lot through that multicultural environment, both in Canada and the states, to know that life is really about trying things and you’ll never know if you don’t try. And so, really, the application was more about, I know that I’m not going to get in, but let me just give this a try. You never know. And so, that’s basically the mindset that I had, that I’ll probably not get in, for sure. But I’m just going to give it my best shot. And if my best shot doesn’t work out, then I’ll go with my plan B or plan C.
So, I remember that anxiety that has always been with me. And so, of course, when I heard the news that I got accepted, I was beyond puzzled and also thought, I think surely there had been some paperwork mixed up because I got admitted. And sure enough, when I actually did get that letter, the hard copy letter in my mailbox back in the day, I thought, okay, this is now different. This is now a real thing, and I really need to put my A-game on.
[08:50] Chris: That’s awesome. Seo Yeon, when you got on campus, you ended up studying biology. But did you gravitate immediately to biology? Or, what was that journey like?
[09:00] Seo Yeon: I think biology was something that I had in mind to major in. But I didn’t really know what that would look like. And I remember the first few classes that I had to take, it was just really big. The biology department in the College of Letters and Science at UC Berkeley, in and of itself, was a huge department and there’s hundreds of students. And so, I remember distinctively, on one of the days, I was at the auditorium in the Wheeler Hall and there were about 800 students in one class.
[09:30] Chris: Oh, boy.
[09:31] Seo Yeon: And I’m only one of 800, and I don’t know where to sit. I don’t know people. I just didn’t know how I would survive an ecosystem like this. But one of the classes that really I was gravitated towards and that really got me to think, I really want to do biology, I really want to do neuroscience, of all things, was, in a human anatomy class, I was taught by Marian Diamond, who is no longer with us, unfortunately. And I remember, on the very first day of the class, she brought one of those English hat boxes that ladies would use to sort their fascinators. And she went on the podium in that auditorium of 800 students and she wore a nitro glove and then opened the box and pulled out a real human brain.
And that was my first introduction to neuroscience. And that was my first introduction to what biology or what a life and career in biology could look like in studying things like this, and also, studying things that may go wrong if you do something where if something just happens. And so, that was really my first real grab in thinking, I really want to do biology, I really want to do neuroscience.
[10:45] Chris: Wow. One of the things that folks experience is that transition from going from full-time student to full-time working professional. What was that like for you? And any memories or things that stick out to you from that time period?
[10:58] Seo Yeon: I think the transition from being a student to a working professional was really, really tough for me. So, keep in mind that I was still an international student as an undergraduate student at the time. And so, I was still on a student visa when I joined Gladstone as an extension of it, and then later on got a working visa. So, I think, the moments when it dawned on me that I was no longer a student anymore was when I got that working visa. And I also had to work really hard with my lawyers and other folks in the legals to make sure that I actually got that paperwork done. And I didn’t have any support for me to really rely on and to guide me through the process. So, I think that’s when it really dawned on me. And also, when I started to get that first paycheck, which was a really, really interesting experience.
I remember having this conversation with some colleagues of mine in the laboratory, and they were all very curious about what I was going to be doing with my very first paycheck. And I said, “I gave it all to my mother and my father.” And they said, “Well, why?” And I said, “Well, I’ve always heard growing up that, when you get your first paycheck, it is your duty as a child of a parent to give that first paycheck as an expression of, here I am having grown to this phase in my life, and I just want to show my gratitude by giving you this very first paycheck that I’ve earned all on my own.”
And so, I thought that’s what everybody was supposed to be doing. But, of course, you’re in America; you’re not in South Korea anymore. And everybody’s more puzzled and just baffled by this decision that I made. It wasn’t about banking this for my future graduate school or for my retirement. It was like I just gave it away. So, that’s probably what sticks out to me the most in that particular time period.
[12:55] Chris: Could you explain a bit actually what Gladstone Institutes does as an organization and what would a scientist typically do in that type of organization or a lab within Gladstone?
[13:04] Seo Yeon: Absolutely. And I’m hoping that I’ll be able to explain things in a way that’s very succinct and clear because it’s such a unique organization. And, I think, life science generally as a discipline, particularly in a business school like Haas, is still not dominant enough for people to right away understand what it does.
And so, Gladstone, on its own, is an independent affiliate of UCSF, which is a Medical School here in San Francisco. And on a day-to-day basis, we do research in diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or cardiovascular disease, HIV-AIDS, COVID. Those are the kinds of the research work that we do. And in my particular team, we do research in Alzheimer’s disease. And specifically, we’re studying the genetic risk factor of Alzheimer’s disease, which is called the a apolipoprotein ɛ4. And so, on a day-to-day basis, my job is to work with a team of scientists to understand the mechanism of an apolipoprotein ɛ4 and how it actually contributes to a patient developing a worse symptom of Alzheimer’s, as they’re going from the early to the mid to the late stage of the disease phase.
So, that’s kind of the work that I do. And I’ve been very fortunate to work with graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and other staff scientists, both at Gladstone and, also, UCSF, to continue that work. It’s very similar to a lot of the biology departments in UC Berkeley ground as well, in terms of the academic sciences concerned. And we definitely tried to take all of our work really out by publishing in peer review journals or taking this and spin this out as a startup company to commercialize and to discover certain drugs that actually ends up going into the patients.
[15:02] Chris: Seo Yeon, that’s awesome to hear. What was that like for you, trying to figure out that you wanted to go and pursue getting an MBA? And can you bring us back to the application process and what you were thinking as you were going through the process and also finding out that you were, in fact, going to come to Haas for the Executive MBA Program?
[15:20] Seo Yeon: I even chuckled as I’m hearing your question because I’m being brought back to the time when I thought I would never, ever be stepping on the grounds of Haas. When I was an undergraduate student, I just thought business school was definitely not for me. I actually had some Haas undergraduate friends back in the day, and I just remember them being so tired all the time and just so busy. And I thought that’s just so much work for me, I just can’t really do it. And biology is more than enough trouble I want to get myself into.
And fast forward about 10 years into my work at Gladstone doing the research that I absolutely enjoy to do, I began to really understand that, in order to do our science, so case in point of Gladstone, you can’t just do science, you also have to operate. It’s like an organization. It’s like a company, right? You have to make sure that all these other things and pieces are in good shape and are running just fine for you to be able to get the money and to use the money to do your science.
And so, I really got curious about, what does operations look like? What does finance look like? What does having a strategy of an organization really look like in a way that really gets us to stick and persevere with our mission, which is all about doing the science that actually overcomes diseases? And so, I got really curious of what this may look like, and I quickly realized that I don’t have any business background. I don’t know economics. And I also just don’t know what I used to call the ABCs of business. Do I know the alphabet of accounting? Do I know the alphabet of operations?
And so, for me, the logical conclusion at that point was, well, if I want to learn the language, I have to go to a school, I have to go to a business school. And so, it’s such a weird thing that, after all those years, promising myself that I would never go to a business school, that I ended up thinking that I actually have to go to a business school to satisfy that side of curiosity and that, really, yearning for the learning experience.
And so, I was looking through some programs. I still wanted to be able to work while studying. And so, the Full-Time MBA program wasn’t going to be an option for me. And so, I started to look at Evening & Weekend programs and, also, executive programs across the country. And I thought that I probably will not go to Berkeley because that’s where I have been as an undergrad, and I wanted to do something a little bit more new but something that was quite local. And I went to an admissions event in San Francisco. And the former Dean of Haas, Rich Lyons, was there to give a talk about why Haas and why now. I think this was probably in 2019 or later part of 2018.
And what he said about the four defining leadership principles just really, really resonated with me. And the very last thing he said that really stuck in my mind… And I’m going to paraphrase this, I don’t want the exact words. But he basically said, “Look, any business schools that you go all around the world, including the United States, you’re going to be learning and going through the same set of classes. You’re going to be learning all the same business courses. It’s not going to be different. And so, when you are trying to make a decision about which business school you want to go to, you should really be thinking about what kind of leaders those institutions train and also graduate by the end. And if all of those leaders, or at least most of the leaders that you’re seeing that are being graduated, if you think that there’s something about them that’s really special, particularly from Haas, it’s probably because of these four defining leadership principles. That’s the reason why they are different than any other institutions that you are seeing.”
And so, that really got stuck on my mind. And so, I started to talk with a lot of graduates and really, really fell in love with just who they are as a leader, but also just who they are as a person, beyond the fact that they were very well-versed, they knew what they were doing, and they were world experts when it comes to all things business. And so, at that point, I made a bet on myself, looking by it’s probably not a wise thing to do. But I put all my eggs into one basket and only applied to Haas thinking that, if it’s not going to work out, it doesn’t work out. But let’s just see how it’s going to pan out. And I’ll probably shed a little tears if I get a rejection letter.
And so, I went through the application process and tried to be as authentic as possible of who I was and why I really wanted to come to Haas. And very, very fortunately, I was able to go through the application process, all the tests that I had to take, and also, of course, the interview process. And it just really felt, while it was stressful, it just felt relatively good. It didn’t really feel like it was an extra chore, per se. It was hard, but it wasn’t something that I thought that I was dragging myself into because I still wasn’t sure about something.
And so, I think that process was as stressful as it was. It was definitely a really good process to go through. And, of course, I was very, very happy to find out that all that effort and, also, bidding on myself like that ended up, very fortunately, being a success that I actually got into the Executive MBA program. So, it was really wonderful.
[20:53] Chris: One of the things that really spoke to me, and we were sharing it before we started recording, is you shared really impactfully, I think, that the experience of being in Haas made you feel comfortable to use your — or I guess maybe compelled, almost — to use your Korean name or your given name at birth. Could you share a little bit about that and why it was so impactful to you? And maybe share, maybe if you would just a bit of the backstory of that journey and how you got to where you are today.
[21:21] Seo Yeon: Sure. So, I entered the program with an English name that I will not say here. And I thought that having an English name, having learned English and also being in a foreign country, both in Canada and the states, it just made sense that I needed to assimilate and also make other people’s lives easier by having a name that was recognizable and that was easy to remember, that was easy to pronounce. It just made sense to me, to some degree, but it also, at the same time, I remember thinking, I just don’t really feel too comfortable about this, but I’ll just do it because it just makes everybody’s life very, very easy.
Fast forward to the 2021 early part, after going through the experiences, I really began to ask myself a question of, why am I here to make other people’s lives easy when it’s not making me feel true to myself? And I really started to really think hard about what it really means to be living as an Asian-American in a foreign country. And I wasn’t also born and raised in this country. And so, there was a lot of learning that I had to do. And I also intend to remember a conversation that I had with some group of friends who told me, one of the things that I just cannot really understand is a lot of the Asian friends and a lot of Asian-American friends that they have, they always make a choice to change their name to an American name. And they didn’t really understand why our community was doing, at least some members of the American community were doing that. And I tried to explain to my friends at the time why it was, and also, really, the stress, and also, the pressure that it is given on many of us, often, to take that course. And they told me, “I totally understand that. But at the same time, at a certain point, you have to think about what this means to you, and you have to take a stance.”
And so, that really hit me hard because I was thinking about how my parents named me. They didn’t just name me just out of a whim or just out of nothing. They really had thought about it carefully of what they wanted to name their first child as. And my entire name is really, in and of itself, a form of a person, a woman that my parents wanted me to be.
And so, when I started to piece all of these puzzles together, in tandem with that conversation with my friends, I began to realize that, am I really doing the justice to myself and also to the people that I love? That I will be sticking with an English name when it doesn’t make anybody comfortable? And first and foremost, it didn’t make me comfortable.
And so, I think that series of internal questioning and meditation and just, really, self-discovery process really got me to think about, what is the easiest and also the most forefront thing on action can I really take in order to start on that discovery path? And the first thing was, really, the name.
[24:33] Chris: Now, you’re on the other side, transitioning into post-MBA life. Could you share a bit about, professionally, what do you see in the future? I know you shared that you have a passion for incurable diseases. And even beyond work, what are some of the things that you think about and reflect about now that you’re beyond the program and you’re now stepping into this new phase of life?
[24:55] Seo Yeon: It’s sort of like the question that high school seniors get from their parents or from their friends. Like, what are you going to do? Which culture are you going to go to? And, of course, for the college seniors, it’s the question yet again of, what are you going to do after you graduate? Are you going to get a job? Are you going to go to grad school? And then, of course, when you graduate from a graduate school, then everybody’s asking, “Well, what are you going to do now?” So, these questions are always coming back to us and, for some, really haunting us.
But I feel strongly about this idea of doing the things that I love to do with the people that I love. That’s basically really what I want to do. And if that means that I am at a company in some sort of very junior level or in some other levels, it doesn’t really matter. If it’s something that is related to what I would love to do and what I’m really interested in doing, then I’m an open book. And my attitude is, just take me and let’s go on a ride. I’ll do whatever it takes for me to be doing that kind of work with the people that I truly can respect and, also, really love to work with.
And so, to that end, for me, the life sciences as an industry and, really, as a career, something that I’m very interested in pursuing even more. Just the decision of coming to Haas, I realized that there are so many functions and roles in the life sciences beyond just doing the research that one really needs in order to deliver that cure, deliver that solution to the patients that are suffering from the diseases. And, I think, oftentimes, we feel that only the doctors or the nurses or the scientists are the ones that really deliver. And they are the main players, there’s no question about that. But I think it’s also not an intellectual honest thing to say that it only takes people that are working on the benches and in the clinics that really deliver the solutions. It’s really everybody in the ecosystem.
[26:48] Chris: Yeah. Well, Seo Yeon, that’s awesome to hear. As we’re winding down on the podcast episode, we have a tradition on the OneHaas Podcast of really sharing some words of wisdom. It goes without saying, Seo Yeon, your story, your journey, your passion for the future, really just there’s so many nuggets of wisdom. But if you had any other words of wisdom, I’d love if you would just share with our Haas community, just reflecting on everything that you just shared about. Are there any words of wisdom that you would share with others?
[27:18] Seo Yeon: I guess I’ll just borrow something that one of my all-time favorite comedians has said. So, I think you and everybody else that’s listening to the podcast may know of a comedian named Conan O’Brien. And one of the things he said that really struck me, but also is a word of wisdom, or the phrase of the wisdom that I still keep to this day is, “Nobody knows what they’re really doing.”
And it’s a wisdom because we have, sometimes, being a Haasie, we’re being anybody in the world. We have sometimes this illusion that someone who we think is very accomplished must know everything and must know how to figure things out and must have all the solutions, or at least, know how to get the job done. And when he said that nobody really knows what to do, and hope it really has an idea, it’s really speaking to this idea that, if you don’t try, you’ll never know, and you’ll never be able to discover the next step and the next path. It may not be the exact time or the moment, or even the right environment, for you to try something.
And, I think, in both of our cases, both you and I, the pandemic was definitely not the right moment, if you kind of think about it, to be teaching on an educational journey, as intense as it was. But, I think, because, by the virtue that we tried, we don’t really know exactly how we did it or why we did it. We don’t really know the exact steps of it. But because we still gave it a try, we had a lot of learning and we’re definitely a better version of ourselves than compared to two or three years ago.
So, I guess, in borrowing his words, that nobody really knows what they’re doing, I would just really implore everybody to keep their mind wide open. And I think more about this mindset of the growth mindsets that we’ve learned in our classes. Think more about expanding the pie. There’s a lot more to learn from, and there’s also a lot more to share. And so, it’s really the idea of never being satisfied with what you’re doing. And also, don’t be too anxious about the unknown. It’s always going to be there. But you’ll never be able to get closer to what it is that you want to be able to get closer to without giving a shot.
[29:40] Chris: Well, Seo Yeon, I’ve been so inspired by our conversation today. I’m so thankful to have you on the podcast. We definitely, at the podcast, wish you all the best in the future. And thanks again for having you here today.
[29:55] Seo Yeon: Thank you so much, Chris. This was really an awesome conversation. And thank you so much for having me here today. It was such an honor.
[30:07] Outro: Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of the OneHaas Podcast. If you enjoyed our show today, please remember to hit that Subscribe or Follow button on your favorite podcast player. We’d also really appreciate you giving us a five-star rating and review. You’re looking for more content? Please check out our website at haas.fm. That’s spelled H-A-A-S.F-M. There, you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter and check out some of our other Berkeley Haas podcasts. And until next time. Go, bears.