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Interview with Professor Emeritus Koh Heejong, Department of Plant Science

2024-05-08l Hit 122

 After 32 years of teaching in the Program in Crop Science and Biotechnology, Dr. Koh Heejong is retiring. He received his Ph.D. in agriculture from the Graduate School of Agriculture in 1990 and became a professor of Program in Crop Science and Biotechnology in February 1992. From January to August 2001, he served as vice dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and in 1996 and 2002, he was a visiting researcher at Cornell University in the United States, where he conducted research on applying molecular labeling technology to breeding. In 2011, he became the head of the Next Generation Biogreen Plant Molecular Breeding Center, where he played a major role in advancing domestic plant breeding technology by leaps and bounds. He also served as the president of the Korean Society for Plant Molecular Labeling and the Korean Breeding Society, and in July 2022, he became a member of the 5th Division of Nature of the Korean Academy of Sciences in recognition of his contributions to breeding research. We asked Prof. Koh to share his memories and thoughts on leaving the school.

Q. First of all, congratulations on your retirement. How do you feel about leaving the school you've worked at for so long?

A. I've been a professor for 32 years, and while there have been highs and lows, twists and turns, and some overwhelming moments, looking back, I feel like I've had a very rewarding and happy time. I studied in Suwon as a student, and as a professor, I spent 11 and a half years on the Suwon campus, and in August 2003, I moved to the Gwanak campus, and since then, I have spent two and a half decades devoting myself to teaching, research, and social service, and I think it has been very rewarding.

Q. What are some of your favorite memories from your time as a professor?

A. When I was a new professor, two of my students came to me for an interview assignment, and they asked me, “Now that you have achieved your life goal of becoming a professor, what are your goals for the future?” I remember saying, “My goal was to be a researcher, not a professor. How can being a professor be a life goal?” I still think this way. Life goals should be about what you want to do, what you're passionate about, and what you value for the rest of your life, not just the short term. When life goals become about social status, jobs, or what you can accomplish in a short period of time, it can sometimes be disorienting. You need to think deeply about what you want to do, and aim for something that is difficult to do even if you risk your life for it. For me, that goal was research, and my goal in life was to develop agriculture through research and contribute to the betterment of not only farmers but also our country. Even when I chose my major, I chose it with the ambition to contribute to the development of rural areas and agriculture by studying agriculture. Jobs, social status, etc. are just social outcomes that you get when you strive to achieve your goals. I think that setting goals and doing our best is a simple way to fulfill our life's calling, and when we look back on our lives later, we can look back and say, 'I'm glad I still stuck to my goals, tried hard, and lived a happy life. Anyway, the two students who came to me that day nodded their heads and listened to my story, and both of them went on to graduate school and are making a good living as researchers.

Q. What has been your most rewarding research project?

A. The Next Generation Biogreen Plant Molecular Breeding Project, which I chaired from 2011 to 2020, was a research group that was created to advance and advance the state-of-the-art of plant breeding in Korea. I felt the most rewarding when the level of domestic breeding technology improved by leaps and bounds due to the research conducted in this project. We planned projects and provided research grants to key researchers to advance plant molecular breeding and develop new breeding technologies. Representative research achievements include breeding the world's first anthrax-resistant pepper variety, developing a barcode system for variety identification of crops such as rice and soybeans, advancing gene editing technology, and developing various functional crops. In addition to research, I also wrote a book, “Current Technologies in Plant Molecular Breeding” (Springer), to raise the status of plant molecular breeding in Korea internationally.

Q. When you encounter difficulties in your research, how do you overcome them?

A. Research is about exploring the unknown, so there is no need to attach the word “world first” to research; it should always be the world first. Every time I encounter a challenge in my research, I always think positively, “There's no problem in the world that doesn't have an answer.” I've always thought positively, “There's definitely an answer here. We just aren't looking for it,' and I've found it. There's an anecdote about when Edison was looking for the right material for an incandescent light bulb filament. When his research assistant told him that he had failed 100 times, he said that 100 failures were equivalent to 100 successes in finding 100 materials that couldn't be filaments. Eventually, after 2000 attempts, Edison found bamboo filament. I would tell my students that there is an answer out there, so don't give up and keep looking.

Q. What do you want to do with your life after you leave office?

A. I will continue to serve as an extension of what I've been doing. I will continue to advise and contribute, remain a member of the Academy of Sciences, and next year I will become president of the Seed Research Society. And of course, I'll still have time for my hobbies.