Miyoung Chun: Decoding the Brain’s Mysteries

Miyoung Chun: Decoding the Brain’s Mysteries
Miyoung Chun was invited to meet President Obama three times to discuss her work on the brain.

Dr. Miyoung Chun was invited to meet President Obama three times to discuss her work on the brain.

Dr. Miyoung Chun leverages 30 years of experience in academia, science, industry, and philanthropy to transform ideas into reality and orchestrate strategic multi-stakeholder initiatives. Miyoung has been a researcher at MIT, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine, an assistant dean at UC Santa Barbara, and a lead scientist at Millennium Pharmaceuticals, where she advanced drug-discovery in cardiology and oncology. As Executive Vice President of The Kavli Foundation, a philanthropy supporting science for the benefit of humankind, Miyoung drove their scientific programs into new territory. There, she managed 20 research institutes in neuroscience, nanoscience, astrophysics, and theoretical physics. She launched, catalyzed, and shepherded national and global scientific projects, including the U.S. BRAIN Initiative, the United Microbiome Initiative, the International Brain Project, and The HUMAN Project. Wherever she goes, Miyoung brings her signature energetic passion for imagining blue-sky ideas and delivering big, game-changing results.

By Paksy Plackis-Cheng and Nicholas F. Pici

“The profoundly complex social, economic, and scientific issues we’re facing today—one person cannot solve them all. One organization cannot. One sector cannot. One style of thinking cannot. It’s all just too complex. We have to work together.”

Miyoung, you were a leader in launching and coordinating the huge, and hugely complex, project that eventually became the U.S. BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative. First, why the fascination with or focus on understanding the brain in particular?

Our brains define who we are. The organ commands not only how we think, reason, and emote, but how we move, talk, dream, socialize, store memories, and make decisions. It is the seat of consciousness and it holds the secrets of the unconscious. Decoding the brain’s mysteries, while discovering treatments for its many intractable diseases, would be humankind’s greatest feat so far.

Can you take us through some of your management or decision-making strategies as you shepherded this project’s development?

To truly understand the brain, in depth and detail, we needed a fresh, better-orchestrated strategy. The brain’s operations are so complex and spread across so many levels, getting the right knowledge amassed and integrated will be like rising to the millionth floor of a building. Today we are barely off the ground floor. We have made many great strides, to be sure, but there is so much more to go. We needed an elevator to speed the process. At the rate we were going, it could take hundreds of years.

We knew neuroscientists tended to work in silos, tackling one problem one step at a time. They weren’t communicating and sharing their results and ideas in any systematic way. Long drug trials compounded the inefficient progress. We implemented a systematic, long-term plan that could get many different stakeholders—scientists from multiple fields (not just neuroscientists but nanoscientists, bioengineers, computer scientists, and more), government officials, investors, and industry—on the same page, working together for mutual benefit. That became our blueprint for building this express elevator to advance brain science and medicine more rapidly.

Were there key breakthrough moments in the process? Any “aha moments” where it all seemed to cohere and you knew you were on a fruitful path?

One major inflection point in our strategy came when we recognized new tools would be a key to unlocking the elevator’s speed. We thought about other fields. Like astrophysics. Galileo’s first telescope was a rudimentary one. Still, with this new tool, rudimentary as it was, he was able to prove the Earth orbited the Sun, debunking the Western world’s geocentric view of the universe. You can’t get more revolutionary than that! We decided to foster a research ecosystem that incentivizes building high-potential tools. The hope is many revolutionary discoveries will eventually emerge from that ecosystem.

We’ve come a long way since Ramón y Cajal mapped the neuron over 100 years ago. We can measure the activity of small numbers of neurons, up to a few hundred; and we can measure the activities of patches of 30,000 to one million neurons across certain timescales using tools like fMRI. But many critical brain functions involve millions of neurons, firing across both short and long timescales, connecting up into complex circuit patterns. Certain components of the brain’s infrastructure also function at the nanoscale. Thus our tools for measuring and manipulating those components must operate at this level, too. Twenty, even ten years ago, the time wasn’t right. With new advances in nanoscience and nanotechnologies, new paths have opened. So I was able to match and leverage those advances with what brain science needed. Success came from my circulating through many fields and sectors, recognizing challenges and potentials, and keeping my pulse on the scientific developments—and the gaps to be filled—across wide horizons.

But the purpose of BRAIN was never to simply develop more tools for reading more neurons. We wanted tools to decipher brain activity, link human behaviors to that activity, and treat neurological disease. The interdisciplinary network of scientists and engineers working in BRAIN’s programs are making new, powerful prosthetics, improving educational strategies, and building smart technologies that mimic the brain’s extraordinary abilities. The momentum is building in the right directions.

It was also crucial for my team, funders, policymakers, and the public to understand we’d be playing a long game here. Radical changes and discoveries take time. And money. And strong leadership that can harmonize divergent stakeholders. Not to mention some luck. The stakeholders leading BRAIN today had the wisdom and foresight to plan for long-term investments. They’ve secured $5 billion in funds through 2026, and engaged a diverse array of scientific minds and institutions.

Its leaders now must keep the project’s mission and strategies coordinated. To imagine, design, fabricate, scale, and share all these tools, for instance, you need all kinds of unlikely stakeholders to work together. NIH has to work with the National Science Foundation. The Kavli Foundation has to work with the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Building partnerships between distinguished institutions and their stakeholders is harder than you might imagine. They are not always so inclined to cooperate with external partners. When you work together on large-scale projects, some stakeholders can become more prominent, while others take more of a backseat. In the end, though, our goal was understanding the brain’s mysteries and treating diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and mental illness. Objectives like that can unify even the most skeptical parties.

You recently decided to leave The Kavli Foundation, where you had so much success, without having a new position or predetermined plan locked in. That is a bold move. Can you take us through your decision-making process?  

Periodically I ask myself: Are my capabilities being optimized? Do I have urges to solve new problems? Could I make bigger impacts somehow? It’s a habit of pushing my boundaries and testing the boundaries of organizations I work for. Sometimes my answers tell me: Okay, Miyoung, time for a new venture.

Do I know what will it be like? No! There’s a 99 percent possibility of failure. But I focus on the 1 percent of potential success. Why worry about 99 percent? That is business as usual. I probably don’t know what “business as usual” even means. I’ve never been a “business as usual” thinker. For better or worse. Thinking differently, apart from the crowd, has mostly served me well. But it rarely feels safe. It can be unsettling.

There is compelling research—studies at Intel and McKinsey, for instance—demonstrating that diversity adds to the bottom line. That begs the question: Why do we still see so few women in the boardroom? If it makes business sense, not just political or humanitarian sense, how is it that in boardrooms and executive presence, we are still not represented as well as we should be?

This is such an important question. It’s a complex issue with complex answers that I’m not going to be qualified to answer comprehensively at all. But I can relay a few personal impressions and anecdotes, for whatever they’re worth.

In the boardroom, so much depends on how comfortable you are with the people sitting in front of you. If someone who looks different, acts different, speaks different, or thinks different isn’t comfortable, this can become a core leadership issue. In my work as an executive vice president, I had to report, frequently and thoroughly, to the board of The Kavli Foundation. In my estimation, this was probably a fairly common kind of boardroom, with many wise and accomplished people. There were past presidents of well-known universities, and successful executives. They are all very kind, thoughtful, intelligent people. Intellectually, they want to embrace someone like me. But sometimes they seemed less than inclined to buy into some of the ideas I would present them. Sometimes their reflex was to be more skeptical than supportive.

When I was laying the groundwork and pitching my ideas for the BRAIN Initiative, for instance, I was proposing we provide incentives and support for what I called “gatherings of great minds”—spaces where world-class scientists could congregate and feel free to pose questions, openly discuss and explore their blue-sky ideas, and strategize how to turn those dreams into realities. Most of the board members didn’t get where I was coming from, or at least see the need for this kind of approach. To their credit, I’m sure they had good reasons to be skeptical, having experienced or witnessed many letdowns or proposals that didn’t pan out. I just kept plowing ahead, bringing them new developments until they finally saw what I saw. It took a lot of effort. Was this partly because I didn’t look like them, didn’t come from the same backgrounds as them? I really don’t know for sure. But I suppose it could have played some small role, sure.

Looking back, I think my personal background must have helped me to succeed here. Helped me to keep dreaming big, to keep firing away until I got results. I’m an immigrant, and a woman, who came to this country [from Seoul, South Korea] with basically nothing. When I arrived in the U.S., I lived in a room next to the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant—where I also got a job—in Dayton, Ohio. I couldn’t even get my own apartment yet. The odds were against me from the start. But I prevailed. In my mind, I had no other choice.

I tackled learning English, going to school in a new language and culture, getting my PhD, researching at top universities, making a living in the United States—it seemed to me like everything is possible. So I suppose I was not bogged down by the doubts and cynicism some of the board members had. And maybe I was blissfully ignorant! In certain ways I had no idea how challenging launching something like the BRAIN Initiative really is. Surviving in a new country was as big of a challenge in my mind.

With the BRAIN Initiative, I sensed the directions and pulse—of the science, the scientists, the policymakers, the funders—and made sure everybody was coming along. I was looking out for everyone’s needs, steering a ship composed of many entities, personalities, interests, and ideas, which could often clash. I would ask, genuinely: What’s in it for NIH? What’s in it for the scientists? What’s in it for The Kavli Foundation? I worked under the assumption that when the tide rises, it raises everyone up. This project couldn’t work as a silo, as a high-rise building where some stakeholders stood tall while others were left under a shadow. No one should have the upper-hand. No one should function in a “supporting” role. Rather, everyone should have equally important, tightly interconnected functions.

This kind of cooperative, everyone-wins style or method of leadership might be a little more natural to women. That’s a big generalization, of course. But maybe it would hold up under scientific scrutiny. You’ll have to ask a sociologist or psychologist about that! Whether or not this leadership style is more naturally “male” or “female,” it is certainly very effective, for multiparty collaborations especially. It can enable possibilities that would otherwise be infeasible if you were applying a more hierarchical, competitive, winner-take-all style of leadership.

The profoundly complex social, economic, and scientific issues we’re facing today—one person cannot solve them all. One organization cannot. One sector cannot. One style of thinking cannot. It’s all just too complex. We have to work together.

What’s next?

I am tackling why standard approaches for curing some of our worst diseases are not working, why our paths to breakthroughs and treatments remain so inefficient. We have few treatments, let alone cures, for so many devastating brain diseases. Alzheimer’s, in particular. This is unacceptable. To catalyze a path toward more efficient and successful process, with higher ROIs, I will be establishing a 501c3: the Alzheimer’s MegaFund.

More than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s. Projections suggest that number could increase to 16 million by 2050. The last drug approved for managing Alzheimer’s symptoms was in 2003. With these increasing rates, and without disease-modifying treatments, Alzheimer’s care could cost Americans a trillion dollars, bankrupting our medical system. So what’s the answer?

First, we know Alzheimer’s manifests itself differently in different people. There are some commonalities but also many differences. Experts no longer consider it a single disease, with one silver-bullet miracle drug that will cure everyone. Rather, it will be multiple drugs that target multiple biological pathways. Some drugs will work for you, others will work for me. Solutions will emerge if study many target pathways and test many different drugs. We need, in other works, to be taking “multiple shots on goal.” Funding multiple projects simultaneously raises the possibility of finding drugs that work, which in turn reduces investment risk.

Second, we must expedite our pharmacological research and procedures for drug trials. Reducing drug-trial times is absolutely crucial. The process as it stands is terribly inefficient. I have several tactics in mind here but won’t go into detail.

All of this will take more money. But how do you convince an investment community, which has not seen a return-on-investment in Alzheimer’s research for decades, to not only keep investing but increase its contributions?

Not unlike the BRAIN Initiative, it takes everyone working together: multiple stakeholders—from scientists and government officials to philanthropists, pharmaceutical companies, and other private industry—cooperating toward a common good. Policymakers, philanthropists, and scientists do not circulate regularly with the investor community. Right now we aren’t talking to each other about all the potentials, all the reciprocal possibilities waiting to be tapped. We need government and philanthropy giving more money to scientists, who will explore new pathways and create more targets, which will create better RIOs for investors in the long term. Pharmaceutical companies can work really hard—but we may need to help by inventing new entities or regulations that make drug trials more efficient. So, again, it’s all about cooperating for a common goal. That may sound cliché. But it’s the simple truth. And once that happens, we hope to get another express elevator built and running.