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Sam Lim on Protecting Plants with Proteins

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

Like the organisms he studies, Sam Lim has been able to thrive in a variety of environments. He was born in Indiana, moved to Seoul, Korea at age two, spent his undergraduate years in Massachusetts, and did his Ph.D. in the San Francisco Bay Area. Now, he’s hoping to use the proteins that enable tardigrades, or water bears, to survive in harsh ecosystems to protect plants from extreme conditions, like drought. Learn more about Sam and his work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss. 

What are you working on? 

Sam Lim on Protecting Plants with Proteins
Sam Lim, Postdoctoral Fellow. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

There are some lifeforms – animals, plants, or microbes – that can survive in harsh environments, like high temperatures, low temperatures, dry conditions, or even inside hydrothemal vents. I’m studying how they do that in order to harness that quality and use it to protect parts of biological systems essential to human life or industry.  

Specifically, I’m focused on microscopic animals called tardigrades, or water bears. They’re eight-legged, small, cute animals that are famous for surviving in incredibly extreme ecosystems. They’ve even done an experiment proving that they can survive exposure to outer space. I’m studying the specific proteins that we believe are essential for their survival, and then we will use these proteins to protect biological systems, like enzymes, bacterial cells, or eventually plant cells.   

What real-world problem does this solve? 

Unlike tardigrades, most organisms and biological systems are very sensitive to their environments. Even a small difference in temperature may harm them. So, protecting these systems would have a huge impact.  

With climate change, there are more droughts. If we can protect crops, and other plants, from dehydration, it would mean a lot for agriculture and sustainability. Currently, some microbial cells are being used as agricultural additives to boost crop growth. Hopefully, we could also one day use our tardigrade-derived protein to protect them.  

We’re still in the exploratory phase, but we’re most focused on this plant application. However, there are many other potential use cases because there are so many biological systems that rely on specific environmental conditions.   

What inspired you to get into this field? 

When I was younger, my parents always had sci-fi movies or science documentaries on the TV. If it was intentional, and they wanted me to develop these types of interests, their plan worked. I became naturally curious about science.  

In high school I really enjoyed chemistry, but when I had to choose a major, I went with chemical engineering because I thought adding that engineering component would give me a better chance to solve real-world problems. Eventually, I added biology as I found I was interested in how the chemical principles are applied to living systems. Most of the biology you study in middle school and high school is just about observations. As you go further into college, you learn that all these biological processes, like photosynthesis, are maintained by chemical principles, like reactions. That fascinated me so much that I ended up majoring in chemical and biological engineering, with biology as my minor, and continued on that path for my Ph.D.  

What continues to motivate and excite you? 

In the day to day, it’s really exciting when you plan experiments and get the results you want. That moment when you confirm your hypothesis feels like checking the lottery numbers and finding out you’ve won!

It’s really exciting when you plan experiments and get the results you want. That moment when you confirm your hypothesis feels like checking the lottery numbers and finding out you’ve won!

Sam Lim

It’s also interesting to see everything I learned from textbooks back in undergrad applied in the real world. In college you learn these concepts to get good scores, but it often feels very vague and it’s hard to understand why it matters. Doing this research, I see firsthand the value of my education and how what I’ve studied can make our earth more sustainable.  

In the big picture, I get motivated when I see mention of my field in the outside world, like on social media, on TV, in the news, or in a documentary. It doesn’t have to be my work, but just something related to the organisms I work with or even another group at the Wyss. It makes me feel like I’m working on something that matters. 

What are some of the challenges that you face?

In many cases things do not work out as I expect, which is natural for any scientist. Before participating in research, you might believe science works like in the movies, where a single genius does one big experiment and sees huge results, but it’s not like that. In many cases you find out your hypothesis was wrong or needs optimization, and one experiment won’t solve everything. That’s why I think it’s good to participate in research as an undergraduate student, to see the reality of the work and decide if it’s a good fit. For me, despite the challenges, it is. 

Why did you want to work at the Wyss?

The title itself has everything I’m looking for: biologically inspired engineering – that’s been the theme of my research since my Ph.D. thesis project. Also, the Wyss has a really unique combination of innovation, science, and business. There is a lot of support on all aspects of your project, which is a huge advantage.

The Wyss has a really unique combination of innovation, science, and business. There is a lot of support on all aspects of your project, which is a huge advantage.

Sam Lim

What is unique about the Wyss and how has that impacted your work?

Sam Lim on Protecting Plants with Proteins
Sam (right) spoke with other members of the Wyss community, including Core Faculty member Pam Silver (left) about their projects related to sustainability at the Wyss Retreat in 2022. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The Wyss sits at a unique position in the middle of academia and industry. I am doing academic research, but my project was selected as a Validation Project. As part of that cohort, the Wyss provides a ton of resources. For example, we have a Business Development Team who I constantly talk to about topics like how the technology can be commercialized and how we can file intellectual property. They connect us researchers to industry professionals, like venture capitalists, who I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Hearing their feedback is incredibly helpful. All of this allows me to see my project from a broader perspective and consider the practical applications.  

In a more day-to-day sense, working at the Wyss gives me access to core facilities and makes it easy to connect with other collaborators or people working in a different field in a way that would otherwise be more challenging.  

What do you enjoy outside of work?

Sam Lim on Protecting Plants with Proteins
Sam enjoys exploring the Boston area. Here he is in Rockport, MA. Credit: Sam Lim

I like exploring Boston – I was here in college, left, and returned for my postdoc. The city has changed so much over the last ten years, and it’s fun to find those differences, discover new areas, and see new things. I also enjoy visiting restaurants and eating good food from various cuisines.  

What’s something unique about you that someone wouldn’t know from your resume? 

I come from an interesting international background. I was actually born in Indiana, though I don’t remember it. I was raised in Korea, where I attended high school. I came back to the United States for college in Boston then moved to the Bay Area. That unique combination of experiences in distinct geographic locations has formed my character.  

If you had to choose an entirely different careers path, what would it be? 

Since participating in the Validation Project process, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with more people on the business side of science, like venture capitalists. Now, I’m usually the one asking for funding, but it might be interesting to stand on the other side and have the opportunity to select what project to fund as a tech investor.  

What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society? 

In everyday life, I don’t really feel that. Usually, I feel like I am playing a small part, conducting a single experiment to see if I can improve a value by 10%, for example. But then I have moments where I’m reminded of the bigger picture, when I write a proposal or try to build a slide that introduces my work in context, where I think that what I’m doing is part of something significant. That makes me proud.   

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