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An evangelist of science, humanities convergence

Biologist Choe calls for change to system to foster interdisciplinary studies

Samsung made headlines recently by recruiting more than 190 college graduates to train as software experts. All of them were liberal arts majors without computer programming knowledge.

The rationale was that innovation sprouts from a broad understanding of humanism ― something biologist Choe Jae-chun emphasized eight years ago when he said in the coming years workers with a well-rounded education would be more favorable over ones with specialized knowledge.

Choe’s talent crosses disciplines. The renowned animal behavior expert, ecologist and bio-sociologist has built a career far beyond the stereotypes of a scientist.

He first came to prominence in 2005 by introducing Korea to the concept of consilience ― linking together principles from different disciplines ― after translating “Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge” (1998) by Edward O. Wilson, the doyen of sociobiology, under whom he studied at Harvard.

Trumpeted as a map to a Theory of Everything, Wilson’s magnum opus describes the synthesis of knowledge from different fields and gave a fresh impetus to interdisciplinary studies in Korea’s academia in which high walls divided natural, social and human sciences, blocking collaboration and progression.

Choe soon became a star scientist. A number of intellectuals fell under his spell as he published more than 30 books, wrote in newspapers and popular magazines, and appeared on TV programs. He played a leading role in popularizing cross-discipline studies and integrated research.

Yet, in a long conversation at his office at Ewha Womans University, Choe revealed he is very disappointed at what has happened over the years.

His office is a small, cozy room off a narrow hall in the science department filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases. A plastic bird with flapping wings hangs from the ceiling. He moved here in 2006 from Seoul National University to establish a new postgraduate course called ecoscience.

The department epitomizes how he believes sciences should be taught: It recruits from diverse fields and provides a curriculum weaving together many subject areas.
Choe Jae-chun, professor of Eco Science at Ewha Womans University. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
Choe Jae-chun, professor of Eco Science at Ewha Womans University. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

“But I regret that there has been little progress, and I kind of regret my decision,” he told The Korea Herald in a recent interview.

He said one of the major challenges for running the new postgraduate course was the shortage of teaching professors.

“We currently have no full-time professors, but all adjunct professors. This makes it extremely difficult to run a diverse curriculum,” he said.

“We’d like to have more full-time faculty, but it does challenge the institution.”

Another problem, he said, is that universities here are divided narrowly by each subject, and professors focus on teaching one subject at a time ― making it almost impossible for students to engage in integrated research for different subject areas.

“Colleges here also have been changing, merging and creating courses every year to offer cutting-edge education. Students who major in such specialized courses may easily find a job after graduation, but what if they need a new job when they are in their mid-40s?

“I don’t believe their knowledge will be special and unique by then,” Choe continued, noting that a life-span extension that occurred more rapidly than expected will extend the average retirement age.

“Changing jobs more than three or four times during your career will become normal. So it will be crucial to attain a well-rounded education that encompasses many subject areas, so you can adapt well to any kind of job,” he said.

“But universities here still focus only on preparing students to get a job first. They should have more long-term perspectives, and should consider why prestigious institutions in the U.S. still concentrate on teaching primary academic subjects.”

Choe was named a junior fellow of the Michigan Society of Fellows and taught at the University of Michigan from 1992 to 1994. He said his three years in Michigan were among the best times of his life.

“There were about 12 junior fellows, all with different backgrounds, when I was there. We had lunch together every Wednesday, and every time we discussed different subjects.”

“One day we brought up the question of why the middle class exists. We couldn’t finish the discussion after lunch and continued it until 2 a.m. the next morning.”

He said he realized the importance of integrated studies while discussing more than 200 subjects with his fellow scholars.

“I really miss that time. I wish we could do the same thing here,” he said.

He noted, however, that he senses change coming, as the business community is pushing for more integrated studies. He cited as an example his three Ph.D. students who were recently hired by affiliate companies of LG Group and Samsung’s newly recruited software engineers.

In addition to being more outspoken, Choe said he wants to focus on a new research initiative called the Biodiversity Foundation, which he jointly set up with primatologist Jane Goodall.

In his first mission with the foundation, Choe helped two illegally captured dolphins return safely to the ocean off on Jejudo Island last month. Also, he has regularly written columns and books not only about science, but prominent social issues ― as part of his belief that science is a field where interpretation is needed and more scientists need full commitment to popularizing it.

“Professor (Edward) Wilson, when he wrote a fictional work called ‘Ant Hill,’ said fiction could communicate to an audience far better than scientific journals. I couldn’t agree more,” he said.

Choe Jae-chun

● Choe is chair professor of Ecoscience, director of its research institute and director of the natural history museum at Ewha Womans University.

● He served as a professor of biology at Seoul National University from 1994-2005. He was named as a junior fellow of the University of Michigan and worked as an assistant professor from 1992-1994.

● Choe graduated from Seoul National University with a bachelor’s degree in zoology in 1977 and earned his doctoral degree at Harvard University in 1990.

● Choe, who specializes in animal behavior, ecology and sociobiology, has published more than 30 books and appeared on numerous TV programs over the last 10 years on making science more interesting to the public.

By Oh Kyu-wook (596story@heraldcorp.com)
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