Alzheimer’s Research UK has awarded the David Hague Early Career Investigator Award 2023 to Dr Soyon Hong, a Group Leader from the UK Dementia Research Institute (UK DRI) at University College London (UCL).

The award recognises the most outstanding early career researcher in the field of biomedical dementia research. Previous winners have gone on to become leaders in their field.

Ahead of her receiving the award at the Alzheimer’s Research UK Conference 2023, we caught up with Soyon to find out more about her.

Uncovering the role of microglia in neurodegenerative diseases

This year’s award recognises Dr Soyon Hong’s incredible contributions towards the understanding of how the nervous and immune systems work together in our brains to mediate the function of synapses, the connections between nerve cells, and what happens to these nerve connections in neurodegenerative diseases.

Soyon received her PhD in Neuroscience in 2012 from Harvard University and completed her post-doctoral fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “My first love, ever since I was a novice undergraduate research student at the University of Washington, has been microglia, which are a type of immune cell found in the brain,” said Soyon. “I thought microglia were the coolest cells, and I still do! For my PhD studies, I wanted to learn more about neurodegeneration—specifically, I was curious about what makes us lose memory. So I joined the lab of Dennis Selkoe to study synapse pathology in Alzheimer’s disease. For my postdoc, I wanted to marry these two interests, so I joined the lab of Beth Stevens to study the role of microglia in Alzheimer’s disease. Together with Beth, we showed that microglia in mouse models of Alzheimer’s become aberrantly activated to engulf synapses. Since our study, microglia have been implicated in synapse pathology in various other neurodegenerative diseases, suggesting a central role for microglia in disease.”

In autumn of 2018, Soyon started her independent lab at the UK DRI, with the aim of understanding what triggers microglia to engulf synapses in disease. The lab recently discovered a surprising role for perivascular cells, which reside around the blood vessels in the brain. Using mouse models with features of Alzheimer’s disease, the team found that these perivascular cells can influence the ability of microglia to engulf synapses. “Specifically, we found that these cells secrete SPP1/Osteopontin, a glycoprotein that acts as an immune modulator, leading to activation of microglial engulfment of synapses. We are now collaborating with industry partners to test SPP1 as a potential therapeutic target against synapse loss.”

Work from Soyon and her team suggests an intriguing crosstalk between two types of brain-resident immune cells in earliest stages when amyloid starts to build up. The lab is now working on spatial transcriptomic tool to visualise these kinds of cell-cell interaction. “We are also working on various in situ and in vivo proteomic approaches to elucidate where, when and which brain immune cells alter synapse health and fate. These results will help us understand how and when to target microglia to modify disease.”

From the US to the UK DRI

Having spent most of her career in the US, we asked why she chose the UK DRI at UCL to set up her own group in 2018. “My husband is also a PI, so we were on the job market as a “two-body” offer. The job hunt required patience and time but was worthwhile.” Soyon and her husband managed to land several offers. Most of them were in the US but in the end, they chose the UK DRI.

“One of the most important reasons is because we both loved the UK DRI’s vision to drive strong, collaborative, high-risk, high-reward research. We loved the innovative, yes-we-can attitude of the new Institute and the energy - we wanted to be part of this. We were also going to be based in UCL Neuroscience and the Institute of Neurology, where the breadth and depth of research are top-notch. And to work alongside the top leaders in neurodegeneration – it was an easy decision to make.”

Challenges of starting a research group

Soyon faced many challenges as a new group leader – how to organise time more strategically and how to manage budgets. And how not to take rejections and failures personally and instead turn them into growing opportunities. “Four years in, I am learning how to better balance mentorship, leadership, and expectations, and importantly, how to be a better communicator.”

“I started up my lab about a year after the UK DRI had started, so there was this huge infectious new-ness buzz, and UCL has a longstanding, world-renowned reputation in neuroscience. So, I was lucky to be able to recruit super talented PhD students and postdoctoral fellows.”

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic started just less than a year after her first postdoc joined. “At first it was learning how to navigate this global pandemic— my biggest worry was whether my lab would be able to go home to their families. Then it was the stress around my lab’s present and future, because we had to stop all experiments and lost precious resources, while also dealing with uncertainty around funding.”

It was a testing time for a young lab. However, she considers herself incredibly lucky, “My lab is this amazing group of people who are genuinely kind, resilient, and work interdependently as a team. Spousal and family support was critical as well, including my sister who helped with our little ones when schools were closed. I also had mentors at the UK DRI who were supportive, especially when I felt like I was failing.”

The value of mentorship

Soyon brought up the importance of mentorship multiple times. “Mentorship is critical at every stage. I was very lucky because Dr Michel Kliot, a world-renowned neurosurgeon who was leading an ALS study, said yes to my email requesting to join his lab when I had zero idea about what lab research actually entails. Then Dr Patrick Weydt and Dr Thomas Moeller, two brilliant neurologists and microglia biologists, took me under their wing as I was taking scientific baby steps. My PhD advisor, Dr Dennis Selkoe, was central for cementing my quest for dementia research with his deep-rooted passion, critical thinking, and patient mentorship. And then Dr Beth Stevens, my postdoctoral advisor, whose infectious creativity inspired me and genuine belief in me gave me the courage to further pursue an academic career as an independent PI. As a new PI, I need constant mentorship, especially on how to be a good mentor, how to strategize, and so forth. My mentor is Dr Giampietro Schiavo, who has been selfless in offering me his time and ear to give me much needed advice and strategies on how to run a lab.”

When asked about what aspects of her career apart from her scientific achievements that she is most proud of, the topic of mentorship came up again. “I love working with the upcoming generation of scientists and the opportunity to help shape their critical thinking skills. It is a real privilege that I am in a job where I can help people fall in love with science and make discoveries. I love discussing data and challenging their thinking, and I love that I can inspire them to think bigger, deeper, and more critically.”

On winning the David Hague award

To Soyon, winning this award is an affirmation that her lab's research endeavours are heading in a direction that may be meaningful for dementia research. “We hope that the discoveries we make in the lab will make a fundamental difference in what we understand about the brain, and in doing so, help identify new avenues to alter disease prognosis.”

There is also a more personal reason for Soyon’s motivation in conducting dementia research. “My father passed away due to Alzheimer’s disease-related complications just one week before we were to move together to the UK to start my lab. I understand the struggles and challenges that this disease brings to patients, families, and caregivers. So taking part in a global concerted effort to bring real hope to people affect by dementia, and being recognised for our efforts, is an honour and an encouragement to my team and me.”

What comes across throughout the interview is Soyon’s immense appreciation for the people around her and that it is a team effort. “Like many other full-time parents who are also full-time scientists, I am constantly juggling various tasks and at times feeling overwhelmed to balance them all like a Jenga puzzle. But I am super blessed that I have an amazing life partner who is a critical enabler of my career. A brilliant scientist of his own, my partner understands where I am and has been selfless in his support. He believes my career is as important as his own. I am also blessed because throughout my career, I have had the sacrificial support of my mother, who moved states and countries to help look after my little ones. I am also thankful to have a lab who genuinely care for and support each other and me and take ownership. We all believe in and take pride in our work. It really takes a village and a collaborative team effort for scientific discoveries, and I am only a part of the reason we are getting this early recognition.”

Find out more about Dr Soyon Hong and read about the previous winners of the David Hague Early Career Investigator Award of the Year.