Raising Future Medical Scientists at POSTECH

2021-09-01 791

[INTERVIEW] Joon Won Park, former president and chemistry professor at POSTECH
– POSTECH’s Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering* will open in Spring 2023
– Synergy expected from applying POSTECH’s research expertise to new areas of medical science


“The goal for nurturing medical scientists (MD-PhDs) is to strengthen the competitiveness of Korea’s bio industry. Academia and industry must go together like two wheels of a chariot. As academia flourishes, industry reaps the benefits. This in turn enables reinvestment into universities which propels a collective growth in academia and industry. However, the bio industry in Korea is currently at a standstill. As students have nowhere to go, the talent pool is dwindling and industrial competitiveness is faltering. I believe cultivating medical scientists is key to enhancing the competence of Korea’s bio sector.”

Professor Park stresses that fostering medical scientists is fundamental in securing the lead in the bio industry. “The bio industry should be well supported to become the future bread and butter of our country.” He explained, “If universities feel no sense of crisis, there is a possibility that trained specialists will have no industry to work in and the speed of R&D may well slow down.”

Answering this call, POSTECH began working on the Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering from early this year. The school will open its doors in March 2023 with five full-time professors, 20 adjunct professors, and 20 students, of which half will be medical doctors and the other half will be those who have completed their undergraduate studies in science and engineering. Echoing the founding tenets of POSTECH, the school will select a small group of elite students and raise them into global leaders. The school is set to finalize faculty recruitment and operation details by the end of the year.

◆ Synergy with what POSTECH does best – research

POSTECH was established in 1986 to serve the nation and humanity by nurturing a select pool of talented students in science and technology. Over the past 30 years, it has accrued a tremendous amount of research expertise and now, it plans to converge medical sciences with its research excellence.

“We will focus on the research areas that can create the most synergy with POSTECH’s existing research capabilities including new drug development, artificial organs, stem cells, neuroscience, radiology, diagnostics, and biomaterials,” Professor Park explained. “With the arrival of new professors, we will be able to pinpoint which areas will have the most synergistic effects with our science and engineering disciplines.”

POSTECH’s competitive edge also comes from its excellent infrastructure. POSTECH houses both the 3rd and 4th generation synchrotron radiation accelerators. The 4th generation light source is specialized for biomedical research – including protein structure analysis – as it can identify the phenomena that occur in femtoseconds (one quadrillionth of a second) with a short pulse of light.

The campus is also home to the Bio Open Innovation Center (BOIC) and the Institute of Membrane Proteins (IMP). Recently, the city of Pohang has established a bio cluster in Pohang Convergence Technology Industrial Zone, strengthening the region’s capacity for the bio research.


◆ Long-term plans to build a medical school and a hospital

POSTECH has recognized the bio sector as a key future industry ever since President Moo Hwan Kim took office in September 2019. Early this year, President Kim presented the plans to build a medical school and a hospital, emphasizing the need for both institutions. These plans picked up speed with the COVID-19 pandemic, and are being realized with the opening of the Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering. Professor Park, who has led a boom in the biodiagnostics market with nanocon technology in 2006, is currently leading the project.

“The vulnerability of the domestic bio industry has been exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Professor Park points out. “In particular, university researchers had difficulty in identifying the unmet medical needs and conducting clinical trials, which led to a large gap in connecting to the bio industry and benefitting the public.” He explained that “POSTECH’s Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering is being established within the School of Convergence Science and Engineering to close this gap through merging science, engineering and medicine.”

Unlike KAIST’s Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering, POSTECH has the means to build a hospital on its own. In fact, POSCO created a one trillion won (USD 1 billion) venture fund in 2019 and selected the bio industry as a major future investment area. There is no reason not to invest in a science-medicine convergence business model at POSTECH. One of the strengths of POSTECH’s Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering is that if you launch a biomedical venture company, you are eligible to receive office space and financial support from POSCO.


◆ Turning to Pohang to treat specific diseases and excellent patient care

With the introduction of a medical school and a hospital, Professor Park wants to position Pohang as a world-renowned medical city in the long run. Like the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center – one of the world’s most respected centers for cancer treatment – he wants Pohang to be recognized as an epicenter for treating certain diseases in the future.

There are many hurdles that POSTECH must overcome to build a medical school and a hospital. There is some opposition from constituents in the medical sector including doctors, local communities, and universities. Professor Park urged a change in perspective, stating, “For our country to progress as a whole, we must move beyond simply preserving the interests of the universities, local communities, and industries.”

“I want Pohang to be a place where diseases are treated when no solutions are found elsewhere,” explained Professor Park. “With the medical school and a hospital, medical care in the region will be elevated and competitiveness gained in treating specific conditions. This may well draw patients from all around the world to Pohang in the future.”

“It is disheartening to lose the lead in the bio industry when the bio healthcare market is larger than the semiconductor market,” added Professor Park. “There should be no need to go to the U.S. or China at a time when POSTECH’s research findings are coming to fruition.” He emphasized, “The very reason for establishing the Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering at POSTECH is to create an environment where the bio industry can thrive in Korea.”

* Tentative name