Welcome new faculty: Founder Professor Jun S. Song

Siv Schwink
2/6/2014 8:00 AM

Jun Song is a theoretical biological physicist with joint appointments in the Department of Physics and the Department of Bioengineering. His research program in computational biology and biomedicine leverages the methodologies and tools of physics and mathematics to discover how transcription factors, chromatin structure and non-coding RNAs regulate gene expression. Song is particularly interested in the genomic study of cancer. His ongoing research has implications for prognosis and treatment of cancer, in particular of malignant melanoma, one of the deadliest cancers.

“In my field of research, it’s easy now to produce 40 gigabytes of data from one experiment. Using DNA sequencing techniques, it’s possible to generate several terabytes of data just for one patient. I use statistical and mathematical tools to overcome the challenge of analyzing and integrating such large data sets.”

Song looks forward to collaborating with other theorists in both biophysics and physics at Illinois—access to quantitative theorists and the University’s growing strength in bioengineering are largely what drew him to Urbana.

“I am very happy to be here,” shares Song. “Being able to teach and recruit students who are trained in physics will allow me to develop diversity in my research program. That’s very attractive to me, and I like the interactive ‘Urbana style’ approach to collaborative research.”

Prior to joining the faculty at Illinois, Song held an appointment as associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics and in the Department of Bioengineering and Therapeutic Sciences at the University of California at San Francisco, where he advised students within the biomedical sciences graduate group, the biological and medical informatics graduate group, and the developmental and stem cell biology graduate group.

Song joins the faculty at Illinois as a Founder Professor. His primary laboratory is at the Institute for Genomic Biology. He brought two postdocs with him from UCSF to Illinois. Tomas Rube joined Song’s lab in 2012. He earned his doctoral degree from Stanford University studying theoretical high energy physics and switched to the study of genomics after graduating. Miraslav Hejna received his doctoral degree from Princeton University, studying high energy and theoretical condensed matter physics. He joined Song’s lab in 2013.

A third postdoc appointment followed Song to Illinois: Courtney Onodera, who earned her doctoral degree in bioinformatics at the University of California at Santa Cruz, will finish her research under Song this academic year while remaining at UCSF.

Song has already attracted students to his lab who want to engage in interdisciplinary research. Given his own background, he is very interested in helping young quantitative scientists find their way into biology. Song also puts a high priority on teaching quantitative and computational approaches to students of biology.

“I believe Illinois can lead in this area of research, because it has a very strong presence in computational physics, physics, and biological physics,” comments Song.

Song plans to develop an educational program that crosses disciplines. He intends to take advantage of a teaching release this spring to develop new cross-listed courses that will teach state-of-the-art technologies and methodologies in computational genomics and computational biology.

“I hope to bring people together from different departments and disciplines, including mathematics, physics, statistics, and biology. I plan to introduce educational research projects for graduate students and upper-level undergraduate students.”

Song received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Harvard University in 1996, graduating summa cum laude, and went on to receive a master of advanced study degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge in 1997, graduating with distinction. He received his doctoral degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001 under thesis adviser Gang Tian of the Department of Mathematics.

Prior to his appointment at UCSF in 2009, Song held a position as a Charles B. Morrey, Jr. Assistant Professor of Mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley (2001–2003); held an appointment as instructor and research fellow in medical physics and as research fellow in biostatistics and computation biology at Harvard University (2003–2005); and was a member of the Institute for Advanced Study’s Simons Center for Systems Biology (2007–2009).

Song is the recipient of many honors, including a National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2011) and a Sontang Foundation Distinguished Scientist Award (2011). He was also awarded a National Science Foundation Fellowship (1997).

In addition to his academic research achievements attested by a long list of invited talks and a longer-still list of publications in peer-reviewed journals, Song has shown a strong commitment to service. Song served as an expert reviewer for the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation (2010-2014) and served as a review panel member of numerous NIH study sections.

Recent News

  • Research
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Using an atomic quantum simulator, scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have achieved the first-ever direct observation of chiral currents in the model topological insulator, the 2-D integer quantum Hall system.

Topological Insulators (TIs) are arguably the most promising class of materials discovered in recent years, with many potential applications theorized. That’s because TIs exhibit a special quality: the surface of the material conducts electricity, while the bulk acts as an insulator. Over the last decade, scientists have extensively probed the microscopic properties of TIs, to better understand the fundamental physics that govern their peculiar behavior.

Atomic quantum simulation has proven an important tool for probing the characteristics of TIs, because it allows researchers greater control and greater possibilities for exploring regimes not currently accessible in real materials. Finely tuned laser beams are used to trap ultracold rubidium atoms (about a billion times colder than room temperature) in a lattice structure that precisely simulates the structure of ideal materials.

  • Accolades

Professor Nigel Goldenfeld is the recipient of the 2017 Tau Beta Pi Daniel C. Drucker Eminent Faculty Award, conferred on faculty members who have received national or international acclaim for contributions to their fields through exemplary research and impactful teaching.

Asst. Professor Gregory MacDougall is a recipient of the 2017 Dean’s Award for Excellence in Research. This award is presented annually to recognize the best research to emerge from the U. of I. College of Engineering’s 15 academic units.

  • Events

The universe is an extraordinary place. At the cosmic scale, the universe expands, galaxies form and swirl around their centers, stars ignite into being and undergo fiery deaths, massive objects set off gravitational ripples in space-time.  At the microscopic scale, the laws of quantum physics defy imagination, atoms together form complex building blocks of matter, and under ultra-cold conditions, quantum states of matter exhibit beguiling emergent behavior.

In the project-based course Phys 498 Art, Where the Arts meet Physics, the class explored this extraordinary place under three umbrellas – the Universe, Fluids and Flow, and the Quantum World. You are warmly invited to experience the world they have created.

  • In the Media

SAVOY, ILL - Pulling a tablecloth off of a table filled with dishes or riding around on a fire-extinguisher powered scooter may not seem like activities that teach the fundamentals of science. However, one program that has existed in Central Illinois for nearly 25 years has been doing just that. The University of Illinois Physics Van program teaches students from Kindergarten through 6th grade all about science in a fun and interactive way. 

"The larger the word you use when explaining something you start to lose kids interest. You have to show things on a really life sized level." says Brian Korn, Coordinator of the Physics Van 

The Physics Van presents a variety of programs to students, including teaching the principals of electricity and the laws of gravity.