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A life devoted to research

Sep 16, 2020

Distinguished Professor Taeghwan Hyeon, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Distinguished Professor Taeghwan Hyeon, Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering

When Professor Hyeon first joined SNU as assistant professor in 1997, the field of nanomaterials was still in its infancy. Over the span of his career, Professor Hyeon has pioneered numerous seminal projects, the most notable of which is a heat-up process for synthesizing uniform nanoparticles. Professor Hyeon has received countless awards, including the prestigious Korea Science and Technology Award from the President, and is one of South Korea’s most promising candidates to receive the Nobel Prize. In our interview, we set out to learn more about the drive behind his uncompromising pursuit of scientific discovery.

Scientist meets miracle

In the first four months of 2020, Professor Hyeon and his group published papers in four blockbuster journals, Nature, Nature Materials, Nature Nanotechnology and Science. What makes this feat all the more impressive is the diversity of his high-quality research, as well as the sheer time and effort invested in these projects. His work elucidating design principles that govern the synthesis of highly ordered multigrain nanoparticles, published as the cover article for Nature in 2020, was the result of over seven years of research. Achieving high performance catalytic production of hydrogen peroxide, inventing a novel nanosensor for monitoring neuronal activity, pioneering the use of 3D liquid-cell electron microscopy to elucidate nanocrystal characteristics in solution – the list of his achievements goes on and on.

“A total of ten of my students contributed to the three Nature papers and one Science paper that I published this year. The paper that was selected as the cover article for Nature involved the collaboration of seven professors, three of whom are from SNU and one from UC Berkeley. A genius can no longer change the world by him or herself. In the 21st century, professionals from different specializations must come together to create something greater than anything that is possible working alone. This is because science has become much more complicated, as have the questions we are assigned to think critically about.

His 3 rules for his students

1. Before obtaining one’s doctorate one must publish at least 2 papers in top journals to have established one’s ability as an independent researcher
2. One must have the ability to communicate and work collaboratively with others
3. Be humble, be thankful

The work that got him here

In Professor Hyeon’s illustrious career, one work stands above the rest. As cars and computers are composed of smaller parts, materials are composed of nanoparticles and nanoparticles themselves can be orchestrated to develop nanoparticle-based materials for various applications. However, nanoparticles have to be synthesized in a controlled manner such that so that the larger whole is able to function smoothly. This was a largely unsolved, outstanding question in the field until Professor Hyeon’s 2001 paper, “Synthesis of highly crystalline and monodisperse maghemite nanocrystallites without a size-selection process,” published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society and at present with over 2000 citations. Three years later he published a paper in Nature Materials proposing an improved method of nanoparticle synthesis. With nearly 4000 citations, this is often considered his most influential work.

“Before my work, research coming from MIT and UC Berkeley proposed intelligent solutions such as using chemical methods to select only nanoparticles of desired properties. But I thought that this process was too time-consuming and therefore difficult for use in bulk synthesis. We had to solve the problem with something new, something revolutionary. Simply put, we came up with a heat-up process that was not only 1000 times more efficient than previously proposed methods, but was also environmentally friendly.

From basic science to a pioneering nation

There was a bit of a stir when Professor Hyeon was first recruited as faculty, as it was unusual for a person with a background purely in the natural sciences to become a professor at the College of Engineering. Completely immersed in basic chemistry up to that point, Professor Hyeon wanted to do something completely his own.

“When I was doing my PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I learned about the then emerging field of nanotechnology and found it extremely interesting. I had always had aspirations of returning to Korea and doing something novel as an independent researcher, and so I read several papers and began to think a lot about nanotechnology, even though it had nothing to do with my doctoral thesis, which was about sonochemistry. When I was appointed at SNU, I began to explore the field of nanotechnology with my students.”

Largely due to Professor Hyeon’s research, Korea has become a leader in the nanotechnology field and boasts an impressive amount of achievements over the last 20 years. Gone are the days when nanotechnology research was a rarity; currently, over 30% of SNU professors at the College of Engineering perform research in the field.

“When I first became a professor, I was given 40 million won to set up my lab with my students. As I was able to publish two of my most important papers shortly after my appointment, I was able to receive grants to keep my lab running smoothly. Four years after my appointment, in 2002, I became the director of the National Creative Research Initiative Center, and in 2012, Director of the Center for Nanoparticle Research at the Institute of Basic Science (IBS). At present, our Center for Nanoparticle Research boasts the best research environment, professors, researchers and students in the entire world.”

A day in the life

The father of nanotechnology leads a simple life. Every day, he spends an average of 10 hours focused solely on research, in addition to his duties as editor of the Journal of American Chemical Society and director of the Center for Nanoparticle Research of IBS.

“My life is simple. I read papers, and I write them. I read new papers as they provide the framework for novel ideas, and I organize the work from our group for publishing.”

He often compares conducting research to fishing. The most important thing is for one to come up with ideas on one’s own. “Once you’ve started, you’re already halfway done. It’s important to know where the good fish are. Whether it's finding the best fish by using sonar technology or by a family secret, you’ve got to apply yourself and find the best way to find your fish -- or in the case of a researcher, your idea. After that, it’s just a matter of polishing your skills and perfecting your technique, and ultimately bringing in results that matter. Then, you give an account of your story in a way that is compelling, and the result of all this is your paper. Afterwards, you exchange opinions with reviewers and your paper is polished even further and made ready for print. To become a world-class researcher, one has to be able to do all of this on one’s own.”

Professor Hyeon constantly stresses to his students the importance of becoming an independent researcher. Firmly believing in the importance of setting a good example to his students, he prepares himself for another day of hard work.

“When the day comes for me to leave SNU, if my students continue to remember me in a positive light, I will know that I have succeeded and lived a life worth living. To never let my students down, to do the best for my country -- these are the aims for which I strive.”

Original Source: SNU People
Written by SNU English Editor Cheesue Kim,
Reviewed by Professor Travis Smith, Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations,