Whenever I meet new people, they always ask “Why Korea? What made you settle down here?” The truth is that when I moved to Korea in early 2007, it was impossible to imagine what was about to happen. Right after college, I entered the highly competitive Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program of Cornell University, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and Rockefeller University. The first two years of medical training went well, and I successfully completed my PhD under the direction of Dr. Leslie Vosshall at Rockefeller. There was just one problem; I was dreading my return to Cornell for the completion of my medical training. I had joined the MD-PhD program with dreams of a career in translational medicine, but I never developed the interest in patient care I had hoped the medical school experience would stimulate. The scientific aspects of my medical training were fascinating, but I had real difficulty seeing myself taking direct responsibility for another person's health and well-being.
I took a temporary leave of absence from the MD-PhD program and moved to Korea with my wife to learn more about her language and culture. I spent a semester learning Korean at a private language academy, but soon applied for a teaching position at KAIST to keep my mind occupied while I pondered my future. My interview with KAIST's President Suh Nam Pyo for that teaching position was particularly telling. He questioned my intentions and doubted how long I would stay as a visiting professor at KAIST in a strictly educational role. I had a feeling I would enjoy teaching, but President Suh warned me that teaching by itself would not satisfy me for long. Although I was not ready to agree with him at the time, he was totally right. Within a year and a half I missed experimental science enough that I was ready to transition to a full-time tenure-track position and start planning my own lab.Since I was already teaching at KAIST when I signed my employment contract, I did not have the benefit of any kind of transition phase. I simply jumped head-first into drawing up a floor plan and calling contractors for lab renovations. The lab space I was allotted was being used at the time as a storage room by several other professors and it was in desperate need of remodeling. (Check out the photos!) Thankfully, though, the work was completed in time for my first graduate students to join the lab in March of 2008. Since that time, in just two short years, the lab has grown to eight full-time people along with a smattering of undergraduates who come and go. We are one of the most international labs at KAIST, with representatives of 6 different countries, none of whom can ever agree on what to eat for dinner. Fortunately, the science pulls us together. After all, who doesn’t love insects?
For more on my educational and professional background and for a list of my publications, please refer to my CV (Download PDF).