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Who We Are As Scientists

The recent Korean stem-cell scandal shocked scientists everywhere by exposing duplicity and corruption in a lab once considered a world leader in one of biology’s hottest fields. But for Korean scientists both at home and abroad, the news struck particularly hard. “Our morale was crushed,” says Jaeyul Kwon, an immunology postdoc at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, one of several hundred Korean postdocs and other early-career scientists who live and work in the region of Washington, D.C.

For Kwon and some of his capital-area compatriots, the revelations of coercion and deceit by Woo-Suk Hwang and his renowned team at Seoul National University was a blow to their confidence in scientific integrity and a humiliation to their homeland. The ethical violations that the scandal revealed inspired them to examine the standards that should guide their own lives as scientists.

But these scientists--who, like scientists everywhere, spend their workdays weighing evidence and the ideas of leading investigators--didn't settle for solitary soul-searching. They instead took time from busy schedules to engage the Korean, Korean-American, and American scientific communities, meeting with scientists--and others who have thought hard about the issue--within a cultural context that reflects and expresses the complex reality of their lives as Korean scientists in America. From 8 to 10 September, nearly 80 people—including eight who had traveled from Korea and others from Pittsburgh and Boston—gathered in suburban Rockville, Maryland, to explore, in both English and Korean, the moral and ethical issues posed by a life in science.

This initiative by Kwon and his cohorts offers an intriguing glimpse into the adaptation of one set of international scientists to life in the United States. The nation’s estimated 30,000 international postdocs come from a multitude of countries with distinctive cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Each national group faces particular challenges while living and working here. The Korean postdoc group, for example, is engaged with their local Korean-American immigrant community, which, like many others, has evolved its own set of institutions and strategies for responding to the challenges and opportunities its people encounter in America. These young scientists mobilized resources from the Korean-American and wider American communities, as well as from Korea, in fashioning their own personally satisfying response to this unique and uniquely troubling scientific crisis.

Finding “who we are, what we can do”

Like the majority of first-generation Koreans living in the United States, Kwon and his conference colleagues belong to Korean-language Christian churches. Only about a third of Korea’s population is Christian, the majority practicing Buddhism. When they arrive in the United States, however, many Koreans adopt Christianity, says Kyunglim Shin Lee, vice president for international relations at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. They join Korean congregations affiliated with American denominations, which play a central role in the Korean-American community, helping newcomers adjust to the country and providing social, cultural, and practical connections for newcomers and old-timers, all in their native language.

About 2 years ago, Kwon’s pastor at the National Korean United Methodist Church (NKUMC) in Rockville, Maryland, the Reverend Seung Woo Lee, noticed that his congregation included several dozen young scientists and suggested that they get together to discuss matters of mutual interest. These young scientists--mostly postdocs or other junior researchers at government organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of Standards and Technology, and local universities--formed a group called Korean Christians in Science (KCIS).

One of KCIS’s early steps was reaching out to American scientists who share their Christian commitment by contacting the American Scientific Affiliation (ASA), a 1600-member, 65-year-old organization of scientists who are professing Christians headquartered in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Kwon, Lee, and several other KCIS members attended ASA’s 2005 annual meeting and decided to model their own, much smaller, group on ASA. Although KCIS remains “more a group” than a formal organization, Kwon said, membership soon expanded beyond NKUMC, and the executive board, which Kwon chairs, now includes five Methodists, three Baptists, and a Presbyterian. In September 2005, the group held its own first conference, which attracted about 40 people from the local area.

Then came the electrifying disclosures of fabrication and corruption by their country’s erstwhile scientific superstar. Clarifying ethical standards in science became a central personal concern to the group. They were particularly disturbed because “the Korean system supported that [dishonest] aspect” of Hwang’s work, Kwon said. The confused and dispirited researchers “want[ed] to realize some dignity,” Kwon told Next Wave in an interview. “Our members want[ed] to establish who we are, what we can do.” Although their first conference had lacked an overarching theme, they decided that this second one would focus on the ethical issues of a life in science. Because of KCIS’s religious faith, their exploration of the ethical issues confronting scientists naturally took a Christian approach.

Seeking answers for daily life

At the second conference, about 80 participants, including spouses and other interested individuals as well as scientists, heard a roster of speakers presenting Korean, American, and combined perspectives. Chong-Min Kyung, who is both an engineering professor at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, one of South Korea's most prestigious technical universities, and co-president of an organization called the Korean Christian Forum in Science and Engineering, gave a plenary address in Korean. American views were presented in a plenary address in English by ASA’s executive director, Randy Isaac, a physicist who formerly headed IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Combining Korean and American approaches was a talk by United Methodist Bishop Hee-Soo Jung of Northern Illinois, one of two people of Korean descent who currently hold that post in the American denomination. In addition to the presentations, the conference broke into smaller discussion groups. Except for Isaac’s talk, the proceedings took place in Korean.

Conference participants were “particularly interested in daily life,” in how to live “within the scientific laboratory,” Isaac told Next Wave in an interview. His speech emphasized that "the code of ethics and integrity and behavior [was] the same for doing good science as [for] being a Christian,” he said. The spiritual motivations of religious and secular scientists may differ, but their scientific “behavior, nonetheless, should be identical” in regard to conduct and reporting of research. “There’s so much pressure to succeed [that] there’s often a tendency to say, ‘I can get away with it,’ ” he continued. “The pressure [in science] is enormous. When I was running the IBM research labs, that was one of my biggest challenges [in] sustaining quality.”

Jung said that scientists have a “calling” to strive “to solve the [world’s] problems,” Kwon told Next Wave. Kwon believes that this understanding of “why [scientists] are so important in this age” has particular importance for early-career researchers, who bear “a lot of burdens in family and career development.” Speakers also discussed the position of scientists who are religious as members of two minorities; religious people are a minority among scientists and scientists are a minority among believers. The conference yielded plans for a monthly study group to help the young researchers “understand all these issues [in order] to understand the shape of science and the scientist,” Kwon said.

Still, given the many conflicting responsibilities facing young scientists at a “very demanding stage” of their lives, “another response is that [the conference and attention to these issues] is a distraction,” Kwon said wryly. But clearly he discounts this interpretation and believes that the conference provided guidance and inspiration that helped KCIS members clarify values in both their professional and personal lives. Pleased with this year’s larger attendance and the quality of the presentations, KCIS is already thinking about its next conference, tentatively planned for next year at a different venue in the Washington, D.C., area. Their hope remains, Kwon said, to “help us to be better and make the world better.”

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