Jung Wan Mok of the Department of Biological Sciences receives FameLab grand prize
Appointed science communicator by the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning
Five lectures to be given in small theaters and clubs in Daehangno
"Cheep!" This sound came from my bedside at dawn when I had just returned from working overnight at the lab. It was from one of the eight fertilized eggs. Cracks began to form on the surface, and a chick popped out. For the past three weeks, I had placed my laptop adapter in an ice box and played computer games nonstop. This had helped to maintain a constant temperature of 37 degrees, which was just right for hatching. I had succeeded in hatching one of out of eight eggs. I named it BY, after the Korean rapper, because of how it tilted its head to one side.
This is the story told by Jung Wan Mok, who has been conducting research on developmental genetics for the past six years as a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences at KAIST.
Recently, he earned another title—science communicator. At the national finals competition of FameLab Korea 2017, held on May 12, Mok won the grand prize for his presentation on his experience with egg incubation.
FameLab is an international event where young scientists and engineers give three-minute presentations on their thoughts and experiences. It was held in Korea this year for the fourth time.
Mok had represented Korea in the international round in Cheltenham, UK between June 6 to 11. Upon returning to Korea, he was appointed a science communicator by the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning. He shared his experience of the final round in Cheltenham with us, and his future plans as a science communicator.
Enjoying UK’s culture of science
Mok was the first speaker of the second session in the semi-final held in Cheltenham, UK, and he took the stage with a small chick on his shoulder. For three minutes, he shared his experience of hatching fertilized eggs.
Mok said, “"All life beings from a single cell, and each cell contains a grand plan.” He added that humans too begin from a zygote, and that we are all masterpieces.
According to Mok, the 31 representatives each gave unique presentations in the form of acting, dancing, singing and even rapping. Many of the presentations were humorous. “The audience had diverse preferences, so it’s hard to say which method was the most appealing,” he said.
One characteristic of the audience in the UK was that they often laughed out loud. Mok said, “The audience included many elderly locals, who laughed and clapped as they listened to the presentations.” Attending a scientific event seemed to be no different from going to the movies.
“The British think of science as a culture. They recognize the importance of science, and try to explore ways of using science to make their lives more meaningful.”
True to his new title as science communicator, Mok discussed how each representative communicated with the audience. Someone came up with the idea of taking turns to upload three-minute videos on Facebook and YouTube. He said, “I think these voluntary acts reflect their true passion for science.”
The growing appeal of pure science
Mok developed an interest in hatching eggs and in studying developmental genetics because of his grandfather, who kept him close to nature and animals during his childhood. He recalls when the first egg of his grandfather’s parrot hatched. “I gained courage from that experience, and it has helped me to earn the title of science communicator.”
Today, Mok is a graduate student specializing in developmental genetics, a field which is relatively unknown to the general public. He conducts research using drosophila, and works on human genes that have yet to be explored. “Developmental genetics is the study of things that happen to a fetus while growing in the mother’s womb. I wanted to introduce this mystery of life through FameLab.”
When asked about the appeal of developmental genetics, Mok replied, “Technology can be replaced over time, but knowledge in pure science is accumulated.” Research methods used many decades ago are still being used today. “The study of pure science requires a pure attitude, and the pure scientists are those who attempt to unravel the mystery of nature,” he said.
Finding answers in communication
"A good scientist sustains 10,000 lives, but a good science communicator nurtures 100 scientists.”
Mok emphasized the value of science communicators, and noted that nurturing young scientists is as important as conducting good research. With advancements in science and technology, it will become more important than ever for scientists to communicate with the public.
By communicating with the public, scientists will be able to gain a better perspective on their research and reflect on the needs of the people. Mok said, “Scientists must be socially responsible and think of the impact of their research on society.” Mok disagrees with those who refer to such communicative acts as a form of service. “I don’t think you should feel obliged to communicate and interact with the public.” In fact, he finds it both enjoyable and motivating.
Once, when he was speaking before a group of elementary students, one of them asked, “Why do you like flies?” This was a basic question that would not have been asked by any adult, and it made him feel more pride and affection towards his research. For Mok, science communication is always a win-win.
Even before being recognized as a science communicator, Mok had given talks at several schools. His communication activities began when he published a book on science high schools upon admission to KAIST in 2008. “I entered a science high school after meeting a senior who had graduated from one himself, and like that, I felt that I could inspire young scientists to pursue their dreams by sharing my experiences.”
Dreaming of becoming a warm-hearted scientist
The FameLab competition may have ended, but Mok’s journey has just begun. Together with four other Korean Famelabers, he will be giving five performances targeted at the general public. Four out of the five shows will be at Daehangno, and one will be at a hip-hop club. The first performance will be held on June 22.
"As a science communicator, I want to let people know that science is not as difficult or complex as they think. Once people are aware of this fact, they will play a part in building a culture of science.”
Mok feels that science-themed plays are the most effective way of showing the fun side of science. The Famelabers are preparing street performances, science magic shows, and SNL (Science Night Live) for adults. These shows will start in Seoul and soon spread to other parts of Korea.
Mok says, “I will make use of the many opportunities given to me, and concentrate on my research at the same time. My goal is to become a professor, but more importantly, my dream is to be a warm-hearted scientist.”
This year is his tenth year in KAIST, and since this is his sixth year in the MS-PhD Integrated Program, Mok will soon be graduating. His last advice to junior students is to do what they enjoy.
"I started hatching eggs out of a personal interest, and it led to the grand prize in FameLab Korea and the title of science communicator. Doing what you enjoy is the path to fulfilling your dreams. Be bold and shape your own future!"
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