Go to contents

Nobel Laureate Bullish on Korea’s Science Development

Posted April. 02, 2009 21:30,   


“Think about a hitter whose hit turns the tide of the game at the bottom of the ninth inning in the World Series. Every baseball player dreams of it, but that opportunity doesn’t come to every hitter. If you’re also not a Major League player, you cannot seize that opportunity. Korea’s science has developed enough to qualify as a Major Leaguer, however, and who hits a homer is no more than an accident of history.”

On the morning of March 24 in a classroom at the science department of Hanyang University in Seoul, an American professor began his lecture on RNA interference with his laptop computer to about 100 undergraduate and graduate students. The professor was Dr. Andrew Fire of Stanford University.

Fire discovered RNA interference in which double-stranded RNA prevents creation of new genes, something which earned him the 2006 Nobel Prize for medicine. His discovery allowed scientists to forestall certain genes that trigger diseases such as cancer. In other words, Fire found the fundamental mechanism for controlling the flow of genetic information.

After an enthusiastic one-hour lecture, Fire said he saw many talented people who could change the world, and that he was very surprised to meet students fluent in English.

The Nobel laureate came to Korea March 22 as a chair professor at Hanyang University. The university invited him under the World Class Universities program led by the Education, Science and Technology Ministry.

He spent his first week giving four lectures and leading a debate class. He also opened a joint laboratory with Hanyang professor Ahn Ju-hong. Fire returned home Tuesday and will visit Korea again in October.

Fire graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and received a Ph.D. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The following is excerpts of The Dong-A Ilbo`s interview with him.

Q: Given that you graduated from schools earlier than others, you probably grew up hearing you were a prodigy. Did you stand out among your peers when young?

Fire: As a child, I liked playing and reading. I read sci-fi novels a lot as well as science books. I also liked doing experiments in a bathtub. Most of the experiments didn’t work, but I enjoyed doing them. My favorite subject was mathematics. Thanks to my friend’s father who worked at a computer company, I could use a computer, which helped me develop logical thinking.

Q: Did you get additional education other than from school?

Fire: I attended public schools for primary, secondary and higher education. I’ve never attended private schools for intensive studies. I took afterschool classes for advanced mathematics, and they helped me get into university earlier than others.

Q: Interest in education for gifted and talented children is growing in Korea. Do you think separate classes are necessary for gifted children?

Fire: It’s good for a student to have an opportunity to learn more on something in which he or she has special interest. In the United States, however, the way of teaching gifted children varies depending on region. In Baltimore, science high schools recruit students with a talent for math and science. This method is called selection and concentration. In contrast, other regions emphasize a well-rounded education that allows students with differing academic capabilities to mingle together. The judgment on which method is more desirable depends on each region’s social circumstances.

Q: In Korea, if a child is good in school, he or she is often advised to become a doctor, judge or prosecutor. Did your parents recommend that you pursue a different career?

Fire: I once told my parents that I wanted to be a cellist because I liked music. They didn’t agree with me at the time. They told me a cellist couldn’t make a living. On the contrary, when I said I wanted to be a mathematician or biologist, they agreed with me and threw their full support behind me.

A: Why did you change your major to biology at MIT?

Fire: As a child, I found describing the world through mathematical means fun. To be honest with you, I chose math because I was young when entering university. When you`ve grown up, you will realize pure science cannot earn a living. So those who dream of being scientists end up being engineers. When entering university, I was young and wasn’t aware of that.

I still think math is great, but it has a lot of problems that only expert mathematicians can understand. In addition, it takes a lot of time for a mathematical discovery to benefit human beings. Above all, only a genius can make such a discovery. In contrast, biological discoveries lead to treatment and cures for disease, thus benefiting people in a short period of time.

Biology develops through participation from many people. Many biologists devote themselves to their respective fields, but in the long run, they`re connected to each other and develop together. A new discovery when I was considering graduate study played a great role in changing my major.

Q: Korean students are reluctant to major in science and engineering and this has become a social issue. Among those who enter science and engineering departments, many end up going to medical school and most who finish medical school become physicians instead of researchers. What do think of this?

Fire: Leaning about treating patients is as important as studying pure science. We cannot force students who want to study medicines to study pure science, and vice versa. It will be problematic, however, if one chooses medical school because of the social status his or her career will bring.

If you need help in choosing your career path, get advice from people in the respective fields. If you want my advice, I’d tell you that in five or ten years, only those who have firm science knowledge will be good doctors.

Q: People often say students should choose their majors according to their aptitude and abilities. Is there a way to find them?

Fire: If I knew the way, I`d become a millionaire by getting paid for letting people know the way. Most important is that we should take all opportunities seriously. We should always listen to our inner voice. People who think their current path is the best can encounter unexpected hurdles.

The question comes down to how to make right decisions at every moment. Those successful in business or academia are good at adjustment. You should constantly ask yourself whether my current path is the right one or whether a better path is out there. In this regard, education is important because people can learn flexibility through education.

Q: You won the Nobel Prize at a relatively young age. Was receiving the award one of your childhood dreams? What does the prize mean to you?

Fire: I didn’t conduct research to get the prize. When I first published my thesis in Nature in 1998, I couldn’t imagine winning the prize. Rather I was worried over publishing incorrect results. After the publication, the value of our research was borne out by other researchers who studied the subject.

It’s a great pleasure to see my research recognized, but I think I won the Nobel Prize by luck. Constantly devoting myself to research is the only thing I have before and after winning the prize.

Q: Korea wants to produce Nobel Prize winners in science and engineering. What needs to be done to reach that goal?

Fire: Korea’s science level is high. I think Korea’s future is very bright because the country has many scholars who have contributed to scientific development and lots of enthusiastic students. Korea has the qualifications for the prize, but has yet to see an accident of history.

In 1970s, I met many great Korean students at MIT. At the time, studying pure science in Korea was literally a challenge. The same was true in many other countries. The Korean students stayed in the United States to continue their research and laid the groundwork for the development of U.S. science. I heard many students are returning to Korea. Given this, I believe Korea’s science will develop further as time goes by.

Q: As a biologist, you probably have much interest in stem cell research. Under the Obama administration, full-fledged stem cell research is expected to start, and signs of resuming the research in Korea have appeared as well. What’s your take on this?

Fire: You should`t consider stem cell research to be an absolute virtue in biological research. Stem cell research is part of biology. It’s natural that people are excited about new research in science, but it’s hard to predict now what the results of stem cell research will produce. Also problematic is the perception that stem cells are a magic bullet to cure intractable diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s and cancer.

We cannot rule out the possibility that stem cells can act as cancer cells in the body. In addition, stem cell research is deeply related to social and ethical issues. So we need a social consensus on the issue. We should cast away the view that stem cell research is a starting point that can resolve all problems.

Q: What do you think is the most important value in life? How do you want your children to grow?

Fire: It’s difficult to pick one value. Striking a balance between many values and making up for what you lack are important. Since I joined Stanford University five years ago, I`ve done many joint studies with medical schools. Hopefully, such studies will benefit human beings as well as my colleagues.

I want my children to do something they like and are good at, and with which they can make a living. If they find it, I will give my full support to them.