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New Faces: Mira Han

The School of Life Sciences professor studied computer science when she first entered college, but fascination with evolution eventually drew her to genomics.
People  |  Sep 4, 2014  |  By Shane Bevell
School of Life Sciences Professor Mira Han.

With her father in the South Korean military, Mira Han grew up moving from city to city in her native country and even had a chance to live in the United States for three years. She continued to move throughout her college and professional career: from Seoul, South Korea (where she got her bachelor of science degree in computer science and engineering from Seoul National University) to Bloomington, Ind. (for her doctoral degree in informatics from Indiana University) to Durham, N.C. (where she was a postdoctoral associate at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center).

Now an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences, Han is grateful that UNLV gave her the opportunity to fulfill her dream of becoming an academic. "I think universities are a special place and I am happy that I can live my dream at UNLV," she said.

What is your area of research?

I do research in genomics. It is an area that studies information coming from the genomes of organisms. I am interested in the question of how genomes evolve through mutations such as insertions, deletions, or rearrangements. These mutations are mostly detrimental, but in rare cases, they can create new genes or even contribute to the reproductive isolation between species.

I study how the genomes change by comparing genomes of closely related species and identifying the differences. This question is interesting in itself, but it also has biomedical implications. By identifying regions of the genomes that are more or less prone to change, we can predict the harmful effects of those types of mutations in our species as well.

What drew you to your profession?

I became interested in evolution while I was studying computer science in college. The subject fascinated me initially because it is connected with the questions of who we are and where we come from.

What do you find most interesting about your field?

I find it interesting that DNA molecules are vehicles to store and transmit information. Just like information is stored in alphabets in English, or in zeros and ones inside computers, information necessary for life is stored in the DNA through the four bases. So, a lot of the knowledge that we have learned about information processing can be applied to the DNA as well. For example, the measure of information content used in signal processing can be used in genomics to identify regulatory signals in the genome.

What's the biggest misconception about your field?

There are many misconceptions in the general public about evolutionary concepts. Perhaps one of the most common misconceptions is that biologists argue that man evolved from monkeys. No, humans did not evolve from monkeys; we share a common ancestor with other apes, monkeys, as well as the rest of the tree of life. Humans are apes. The common ancestor of all apes was likely as different from us as they were different from other modern apes.

What is the proudest moment in your life?

I was quite proud when my first scientific paper came out and I could see my name in print. I remember I collected the journal issue from friends who subscribed to the hard copies, and sent one of them to my parents. I still have a copy of that issue at home.

If you could fix one thing in the world, what would it be?

I don't know about the world, but I was surprised at the amount of daily waste when I first came to the United States. I think we can do better with reducing wastes and recycling in the U.S.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I enjoy assembling IKEA products.

Do you have any hobbies?

Embarrassed to say that I don't have hobbies. Whenever I have time I like to go see my husband (who lives in California) and we just idle at home together.