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Building a Better Scientist at SNU

  • October 31, 2006
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Bright Future of the College of Natural Sciences at SNU
: Adaptation and Transformation

Transforming People

Natural science majors at Seoul National University take a certain pride in their developing nerdiness. A short nap across a classroom desk will prompt a student to ponder the science behind the fluorescent lights glaring down on his face. The student body president jokes that once she has a child, a little-kid question like “Why is the ocean blue?” will trigger a 16-part explanation.
Students relish how rigors of training and logic free them from some of the Confucian hierarchies embedded in Korean society. Distinctions between senior and junior do not hinder anyone, and though respect for elders is a given, rational argument takes precedence over automatic deference, even when someone is years ahead of you in school.
As every week brings another test and lab experiment, students are constantly studying. Despite the workload, however, natural science majors are quite human. The college’s soccer team is a perennial powerhouse, while others eye the basketball courts being paved next to the red brick research lab going up across the street. Even professors join in the semiannual Sports Day, and then take the undergrads out afterwards for barbecue and karaoke.

Crossing Boundaries

Nonetheless, Korean work habits are notorious. Austrian Ph.D. student Hannelore Waska laughs as she remembers the looks of dismay on her fellow students when their advisor told them to go home even if he was still puttering about in the lab. Leave early? Still, even hardcore students squeeze in an hour of online gaming during a late night work session
Waska discovered SNU last year, through a U.S. website announcement for a graduate fellowship that combined her previous training in chemical oceanography with biogeochemistry, an unusual interdisciplinary opportunity. After a semester of regular presentations of research findings and department-wide field trips to the seashore to collect samples, Waska feels welcome in the SNU community.

Transforming the School

An independent international committee recently ranked the College of Natural Sciences in the top twenty five worldwide. The top-notch professors and students impressed the evaluators. But the committee pointed out that the infrastructure did not yet match the energy and the ambition of the people - such as freshly hired Professor Nam Jwa-Min, already recognized for his work in nanotech medical biosensors by the 2006 Victor LaMer Award of the American Chemical Society.
The college has already begun stepping up, from the new research center to new methods of evaluating professors. Dean Se-jung Oh emphasizes, “The goal is to cultivate top scientists in their fields.” Though endowment fundraising is in its infancy, Dean Oh is confident that the college can bring in 10 million dollars in seed money to fund state-of-the-art lab facilities, and support the research of new professors.

Investing in People

Information technology has driven the global technology boom, and the legions of wireless gadget fiends running around Korea are inescapable proof. But the College is also preparing for the next wave of technology by investing in people capable of meeting such challenges. Fourth year student Jungrim Woo says that out of her classmates, nearly all hope to become research scientists after further training. “Because it’s fun,” she smiles.
In the hopes of transforming early but vague interest in the sciences into career choices, SNU joined forces with other top universities to launch a hands-on program that provides teenagers with a deeper encounter with the sciences. The college also holds a winter camp for elementary school kids - some families drive four hours round-trip for a three-hour lecture! With this focus on the long term, the College of Natural Sciences strives to keep its beloved filled with the passionate nerdiness of students and professors alike.

October 2006
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