In popular culture, famous scientists are often depicted as eccentric and obsessive recluses who discover and generate great findings by themselves. Such images could not be further from the truth. The scope and depth of modern-day researches necessarily require intense collaborations as a team, and at the Institute of Basic Science Center for NanoMedicine (IBS CNM) in Yonsei University, interdisciplinary and collaborative research is the usual modus operandi. IBS CNM’s faculty consists of one of the most brilliant scientific minds in Korea, but almost as important to the success of their organization is how they have come together as an organization to conduct research. The Yonsei Annals interviewed Professor Sohn Chang Ho, one of the faculty members in IBS CNM who has research experience in biomedical engineering and single cell imaging, and his students to find out more about what makes IBS CNM unique as a research institute.
Annals: Could you explain what makes IBS CNM unique as a research institute?
Sohn: In IBS CNM, we propose what we want to research. This is perhaps the biggest difference. Big research institutes such as the Max Planck Society* or others in the United States have mission statements, and they are given funding based on these missions. So the topics are usually predetermined. But for us, the director will propose a new research topic and the government will accept it. We will be given research grants and are essentially free to decide on how to proceed with our research. We have 100% freedom of research. This autonomy makes all the difference.
Annals: What does joint research mean in IBS CNM?
Sohn: The purpose of IBS CNM is to create evolutionary nanomaterials, to observe the vital phenomenon at a molecular level, and to use high accuracy nano systems to diagnose and treat the human body at cellular level. It is an ambitious objective. These subjects I just mentioned, while different, are strongly interrelated. This logic is what serves as the basis of our “joint research.” I personally think that joint research requires a high degree of persistence and patience. It is not easy, and we strive to make the most out of the diverse range of expertise in IBS CNM by putting our strengths together for a single purpose. One of my objectives as a researcher is to promote “deeper and broader learning,” and I believe that I have come closer to this goal by joining IBS CNM last winter.
Annals: IBS CNM also seems to value “openness” and “elimination of barrier.” Could you explain their significance?
Sohn: IBS CNM promotes openness and elimination of barrier in many ways. When you have a mixture of people from different fields, it is likely that they know things that you don’t know and need to know. It is only by being open to others that interpersonal learning can take place. For instance, we provide such opportunity by having all sorts of seminars for students, so that they can learn to present ideas and listen to others. And by doing this regularly, we allow students to become more open-minded and accustomed to hearing about different subjects and opinions. We also break down barriers quite literally here as well, as you can tell just from the way the office is constructed. The interior is all glass. I can’t even take a nap here. But joking aside, such values and attitudes are integral part of the IBS CNM spirit.
Annals: What kind of relationship do you try to have with the students working for you?
Sohn: When I am working with students, the most important thing for me is that they experience “meaningful failures.” When I was a student myself, I was one of the most prolific students in my lab in terms of the experiments conducted. In this process, I came to realize that the trick to turn failures into successes is not to simply fail as much as you can, as some might attest to, but to learn as much as you can from your failures - to make them into “meaningful failures.” For this, you really need to be mentally flexible, to break your own paradigm, so that you can take a step back to gain a more holistic perspective.
I also try to encourage students to be more proactive and autonomous. For instance, when it comes to scheduling for appointments, I try to meet them as often as they request. Some students want to meet as much as three times per week - others meet me once or twice a month. Some students rely on me excessively, and others try to do everything by themselves. But I give them the necessary space so that they can learn through such problems themselves. This way, students can learn to be proactive and confident - which is invaluable during a joint-research process. It is very hard to have productive disagreements and debates if you were never encouraged to be proactive and were always a passive listener. So I try to encourage students to be active participants in the learning process and provide them the opportunity to broaden their horizons.
Annals: Could you tell me about the undergraduate students working currently in your team?
Sohn: They were previously at IBS CNM through Science Factory**. That is a slightly different program where they would have one supervising graduate students and an advising professor. I mentored the two of the students currently interning during that program. That is where I first met them.
Annals: How do you find working in IBS CNM? Also, could you elaborate on what you find unique about researching as a student in IBS CNM?
Lee Jun Suk (Sr., UIC, Life Science & Biotech.): We work here almost every day. The professor would try to come over to us to talk to us as much as possible. In the previous lab that I worked at it was sometimes hard to even see the professor’s face. Here, however, I can work and maintain a more-or-less horizontal working relationship with our professor. Also, professor Sohn is always respectful of our opinions, which really gives me a lot of motivation. He really tries to spend more time with us. I can even ask him individual questions regarding some research papers that I am personally reading.
Hong Yirye (Sr., UIC, ISE, Bio-convergence): I have several friends who are doing graduate studies in other universities and I can tell that IBS CNM feels much more open to interactions. The people here are more friendly. I not only converse with professors but also with post-doctorate students who are my seniors. I am allowed to be as curious as I want and learn things naturally through other people.
*Max Planck Society: Shortened from Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science, a research institute based in Germany regarded as one of the foremost research institute in the world
**Science Factory: A two-month long program held twice a year by IBS CNM that provides opportunity for undergraduates to plan and conduct research.