-Special interview with DGIST Fellow Dr. Hong Gil Nam
In the fall of 1989, the yellow autumn leaves of Toham Mountain in Kyongju amazed Hong Gil Nam, fellow at DGIST. Dr. Nam, then professor of life sciences at POSTECH, recalls, “Looking at the yellow colored mountain, I was wondering how those beautiful autumn leaves adjust. And that excited me to pursue a research career in the area.”
-The Better Aging, The Better Living: Life Cycle of Plant
He got the research theme of “aging” from those autumn leaves. When autumn falls, the foliage turns out to have an autumn hue. The autumn hue is the result of a scheduled aging program which reserves the nutrition dissolved from the leaves at the root or stem. Namely, well aging refers that well reserved nutrition would be used in budding a new leaf next year. “Aging is to follow the due course of life,” Dr. Nam explains. The aging of plants seems to be a very critical evolutionary strategy the plant has acquired and it is very crucial to age well in the right time. Thus, Dr. Nam thought that the aging of plant would be regulated by genes, focusing on the method of aging regulation of plant.
However, doing research in the areas was much more difficult than expected. Since only few scholars in the world have researched plant aging, there were very little published references. However, Dr. Nam continued his research with a spirit for challenge. “I was excited and proud to be one of the first to work in this field. And I was grateful to have students who followed me with confidence in my ideas.”
Years later, his research result rewarded those who supported him. Eight years since he started the research, he became the first in the world to uncover the gene that regulates the plant aging. Thereafter, he became a star scientist, publishing theses every year at the journals of “Science,” “Cell,” and “Nature.” Called as a pioneer of plant aging gene research, he was honored to be appointed the National Scientist as well as chair professor at POSTECH.
In 2012, his research career began to turn around. He moved to DGIST from POSTECH, where he had devoted himself to the research and education for more than two decades.
-Forward New Challenge, All Is Ready
“I thought I had achieved a lot in my research and career. However, I didn’t want to be satisfied with as it was. I wanted to be inspired to do something challenging once again and I was looking for a new momentum. At that time, President Sung-Chul Shin at DGIST proposed me to work together at DGIST,” he added. Starting at DGIST, Dr. Nam was also appointed the director of the Center for Plant Aging Research at the Institute for Basic Science (IBS).
In four years since he started at DGIST, he thinks all is geared for his new research. He now has an all-around lab available to conduct gene analyses as well as to grow plants. He also has put together research teams who can compare the aging of animals with that of plants.
“I feel like I just started over the research and it has all been practice until now. I think I have come to understand a little bit what science is and how I can help students. I will do my utmost to help each and every student can do their own research rather than just follow a leader’s research instruction.”
He said he would like to tell young scientists to be more adventurous. “Science is an adventure to explore nature. Without an adventurous mind, the exploration will definitely fail. The global competitiveness of science comes from an adventurous mindset. If you want to make your own footway, you should go to the way never taken before.”
-Convergence Recipe: Undeclared Major and No Major
DGIST recruited its first undergraduate freshmen class in 2013. Although most third years tend to part ways with one another once they immerse in their respective majors, the third years at DGIST still study altogether. In fact, they are not expected to choose a major at all. Thus, DGIST has no undergraduate department or major in order to better facilitate multidisciplinary education. The DGIST holds its educational philosophy that the barrier between the departments and majors obstructs the multidisciplinary education. Dr. Nam said that, “The main reason I moved to DGIST is to take a new stand toward multidisciplinary education. I believe that the new education system at DGIST will also pave the new way of creating a resounding research environment.”
Original version of this article appears on the Donga Science