A Cooperative Research Community of Free Individuals UC San Diego (Jeong-mi Kang, UST-KIST Campus)
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- Registration Date : 2015-10-06
UC San Diego, the global frontline of biotechnology research, is driven by “freedom” and “cooperation.” I have learned that the ensemble created through an organic combination of the two seemingly contradictory principles is the major difference between them and us as the global leader of the field.
The global center of biotechnology
The endless sea spread out of the window of the plane taking off. It was at that moment that I realized I was heading to UC San Diego in the far east from KIST in the far west of the Pacific Ocean. It was a 16-hour flight. I was curious about whether the academic distance between the two was as far as the physical distance, and this curiosity was the starting point of my participation in the overseas training program. I wanted to check myself, out of the boundaries of UST, how far the state-of-the-art technology in medical engineering of the world’s advanced countries and how the system that enabled the advancement was organized. That was how I started my training course at Shyni Varghese lab of UC San Diego with the support of staff members of UST and the care of my advisor Professor Sang-heon Kim who does his best to answer his pupils’ curiosity.
The capability of UC San Diego as a research university is far beyond the relatively low recognition in Korea. Indicators such as 16 Nobel Laureates, 41st place in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings of 2014 to 2015, and 32nd place in the top 1 highly cited paper are just a part of the school’s reputation. With other globally renowned research institutes, such as the Salk Institute and the Scripps Research Institute, nearby, UC San Diego represents San Diego as a city of high-tech clusters at the world forefront of biotechnology and engineering. This is the key identity of the school. In particular, Professor Shyni Varghese, who supervised me during the training course, is a world-leading authority on stem cell research, and owing to her global reputation, she was offered professorship by Stanford University and Harvard University at the same time.
As the Shyni Varghese lab had been conducting joint research with KIST, I could continue the work that I had been doing in Korea without difficulty. The work consisted of two key contents. One is making artificial tissues using stem cell-based biomaterials, and the other is applying the biomaterials inducing the artificial tissues to animal disease models. In addition, to increase the therapeutic effect of the treatments for diseases considered as challenges for the modern society, such as ischemic diseases, is the key goal of the research. Although it was a short period, I decided to have constant commitment to the research in the world center of biotechnology to gain a new momentum that I could not gain in KIST.
Difference in the people and the culture
However, maybe my expectation was too high. I could not find any significant difference with KIST with regard to the research environment and systems of the lab. It was probably because my natural-born social skills helped me get close to the colleagues and I got to mingle with them immediately. The researchers there were not much skilled at animal test, so in the early days, I spent longer hours in teaching them animal test methods. Thanks to my own competitive edge, I, as a trainee from a small Asian country, gained the confidence of the colleagues soon. I felt suddenly grateful for the boring days of repeated animal tests in KIST. However, I was, in fact, full of arrogance with the ideas, “What? The most prestigious American university is not a big deal?” albeit for a moment.
It did not take long to for me change my mind. As I began to spend longer hours in the lab, the clues about “the difference between them and us,” which was the starting point of my participation in the training, was naturally found. The answer was not in the infra and the system, but in the people and the culture. It can be summarized into two key words: “freedom” and “cooperation.”
The researchers of UC San Diego thought more freely than anyone else and carried out an approach to their research in various perspectives. When a researcher is experienced, and the scope of a research is specified and fixed, typicality and path dependence also arise to some extent. Of course, excellent researchers should recognize and correct them, but it is not as easy as it sounds. In this regard, the people of UC San Diego were extraordinary. Sometimes, they looked too frivolous and too free-spirited to be serious, but they had a different way of thinking in which they looked for an answer in a completely new context when they are faced with a standstill in their research and had to find a breakthrough. The impressive scene reminded me of the passage that I had read in the writing of a British biologist Max Perutz, who likened scientists to artists. He said that the creativity of science, like that of the arts, is manifested by not the bureaucratized system but by free individuals spontaneously. The atmosphere of the lab in UC San Diego exactly represented the passage.
The world is wide, and there are many things that you have to learn
Also, they had ingrained habits of doing cooperative work as researchers. Everybody knows joint or fusion research is more important than ever as the key agents of modern science s from “genius person” to “cooperative group.” However, there is a major difference between knowing it and making it into a habit. In UC San Diego, exchanging ideas and having discussions were just a routine in their daily lives. Adding to the discussions in the official lab meeting, conversations about researches filled their daily lives and their space completely. From light chats to a full-scale debate, they got out their issues without hesitation, listened to other people, and sought for solutions together. Professor Shyni Varghese was at the peak of this culture. She liked debates more than anyone, and her debaters ranged from undergraduates to postdocs. I, as a foreign trainee, was not an exception, but I did not feel comfortable at the debate with her because I was not that fluent in English. Nonetheless, I gained a considerable number of ideas during the discussions with her, for which part I was the most grateful to her throughout the training period. I came to realize that the strong point of the Shyni Varghese lab was to combine free individuals organically and to maximize their creativity at the group level on the basis of the strong directorship of P.I. based on debates.
As always, time flew away, and the six months training was over so quickly. It was regretful that the research schedule was so tight that I did not have enough time to look around California, the most livable area in the US, and to say good-bye to my colleagues. However, as a return for the efforts, I am about to publish a paper as the first author, and left my name as a coauthor in the paper of a doctoral course student in UC San Diego. I achieved the desired goals.
However, aside from the tangible performances, I learned and realized many things in the training. I could look back to my attitude as a researcher and contemplate what was necessary for better researches in the level of an organization and culture. Of course, I could learn these lessons only because of my experiences with world-leading researchers. Someone said, “The world is wide, and there are many things you can do.“ Borrowing this passage, I want to sort out my impressions of the training. “The world is wide, and there are many things that you have to learn.” I wish the overseas training project of UST would provide more opportunities for enlightenment like what I had to its junior student researchers.