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Korea`s Top Tech School Hires Youngest Professor

Posted July. 24, 2009 07:53,   


When Choi Seo-hyeon attended Seoul Science High School, she drew fame as an outstanding talent who won two gold medals at the International Mathematical Olympiad - one in Romania in 1999 and another in Korea in 2000.

She graduated from Seoul National University with a degree in math in three and half years and went on to Harvard University, where she simultaneously earned a master’s and doctorate in just five years.

The 26-year-old Choi yesterday became the youngest professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, or KAIST, in Daejeon. Her lack of post-doctorate study also made her hiring all the more exceptional.

The youngest professors at the country’s top technical school had been Mary Kathryn Thompson of the civil and environmental engineering department and Shin Jung-hun of the physics department. Both were 27 when hired.

On how she excelled at mathematics, Choi said, “I’ve just done what I want. I couldn’t have succeeded had I been forced to study law or medicine.”

On Korea’s math education, she said, “It’s hard for me to comment on Korea’s math education since I’m too young and have not yet proven my academic achievement. But it’s definitely true that American students use calculators when they face difficult problems.”

“I want to follow the educational philosophy of the Jews in teaching how to catch fish instead of giving fish.”

“Mathematics is the study of logic but has its own beauty. I’m nervous over teaching students at KAIST but I also feel excited. Most of all, I will teach the proper attitude to approach mathematics.”

She added, “I hope students trouble me with many questions. Students will think about what they really want while asking questions and struggling to find answers.”

“Korea’s public schools seem to set high standards for math education, thus discouraging many students. I hope students enjoy a feeling of achievement by solving problems instead of considering math as a difficult subject.”

Choi’s appointment is in line with a reform drive pursued by school president Suh Nam-pyo. A KAIST source said, “The basic principle of appointment is how creative a candidate is and how many efforts he or she has made to solve significant problems. I’ve heard Choi’s creativity was appreciated.”

Creativity enabled her hiring despite her lack of a research paper in the Science Citation Index.

Choi’s appointment process also drew much attention. She had individual interviews with all 30 professors in the math department early this year. The final interview was with President Suh after a joint seminar and interviews with the deans of the department and the school’s academic affairs.

Before this, Suh visited the U.S. to hold a preliminary interview with Choi in November last year. He is known to have appreciated the potential and creativity of the young mathematician.

Park Won-hee, who simultaneously completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics at Harvard in June, said, “Choi was known as a mathematical genius. Generally, it takes six or seven years to simultaneously finish a master’s and doctorate, but she did so in five years since the titles of her theses and ideas were appreciated.”

It is too early to evaluate Choi’s academic achievement, but her potential is intriguing.

Kim Dong-su, dean of KAIST’s mathematical science department, said, “Choi is a mathematician who studies the latest issues of number theory. We hired her because of her potential, not because of her achievements.”

A Korean mathematician added, “Choi has majored in a field requiring a long time to publish research papers. KAIST’s effort to hire a young mathematician to solve future problems should be appreciated.”