Evan Mun Swings for the Fences

Evan Mun chose Northeastern University because of its identity as a research institution.


“Its location within Boston positioned me to work at the cutting edge of science like nowhere else in New England,” Mun, COS’20, said recently.


Mun’s choice has paid off. He was recently named a recipient of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP), which provides financial support towards graduate education for students who have the potential to make significant impact in STEM disciplines. He will pursue his Ph.D. in Bioengineering at Caltech beginning in the fall.


“There’s so much to be excited about… it has felt as if I’ve been waiting for this part of my career to finally arrive,” he said.


Mun’s time at Northeastern laid the foundation for his post-undergraduate success. He thrived in the University Honors Program, taking advantage of both the smaller class sizes in Honors-specific classes and the research opportunities available to Honors students.


“The Honors Program has assisted me in getting my name out for early research opportunities. Likewise, all of my closest friends are people whom I met in my earlier Honors-level classes,” he said. “Access to smaller class sizes [was] also certainly a plus. It makes collaborating or interacting with the professor easier.”


Mun’s work with the Monaghan Lab was most fulfilling while at Northeastern, and led him to his current graduate path.


“The most memorable part of my Northeastern experience is certainly all the time that I’ve spent working in the Monaghan Lab studying regeneration and development in the Mexican Axolotl,” he said. “[It is] an organism that is uniquely capable of regrowing its limbs. [When] I first got to take over a project was a really memorable experience for me. At that point I was working on a new platform for in situ hybridization, which allowed me to take some beautiful snapshots of the gene expression patterns in developing organisms to understand how the cells communicate.”


This research, in concert with his work on cancer metastasis and dependency on nerves, helped him find his current research in systems and synthetic biology, which he will continue at Caltech.


“My passion in research is to redefine what is possible within living organisms, programming cells as if they are computers to accomplish tasks beyond what evolution has made possible so far. The broader impacts on the applications end include curing lethal genetic mutations, replacing degenerated parts of the body (which cause things like Diabetes, Parkinson’s, and many others), and in recent cases the programming of specifically designed immune cells which hunt down cancer (CAR-T therapies),” he said.


Though he is communicating with his Caltech and Northeastern colleagues about research projects, Mun has a well-deserved break planned for the summer.


“I am just looking forward to catching up on some of my hobbies like novel writing which had been set aside for the crazy fall semester and I never had time to get back into,” he said.


With his proven success at Northeastern and beyond, Mun has wise words for fellow Honors Huskies looking to explore research and fellowships, particularly an intensive grant process like the NSF GRFP.


“The most important thing is to have a strong understanding of what it means to be a researcher (a lot of experience proving you are in it for the long haul, I had 3 years), as well as a strong perspective from which to detail your broader impacts,” he said.


“For me, that was leveraging how my desire to solve the “impossible” problem of same-sex reproduction (as a gay man) tied into my outreach with oSTEM (out in STEM), HIV awareness, and my work with special needs children (I love working with kids partially because I want one of my own). Likewise, leadership in the Biochemistry Club on campus gave me the opportunity to host events that spread science knowledge (the other half of the grant) and having these items are real considerations as you weigh which clubs are worth your limited time.”


What really made his application stand out?


“I will say that I really “swung for the fences” with my application which many supervisors would not recommend. That is to say, the review process is subjective, and I chose to speak truthfully from my personal goals which happened to resonate with my reviewers… These are the risks you have to weigh, and although many people will have opinions ultimately you have to get lucky,” he said.