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Korea's Stephen Hawking: I've never cried

Seoul National University professor Lee Sang-mook. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Seoul National University professor Lee Sang-mook. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Lee works to improve lives with technology, facilitate science education for disabled students

In July 2006, marine geophysics professor Lee Sang-mook of Seoul National University was on a field trip in the U.S. along with his 12 students when the vehicle carrying them rolled over in the desert. One student was killed and Lee was seriously injured.

Six months later, he returned to teach at the school. Paralyzed from the neck down, he uses a wheelchair and relies on caregivers and electric equipment for the most basic movements.

Despite his disability, the quadriplegic scientist, called the “Korean Stephen Hawking,” has been active not only in his academic work but also in helping other physically challenged people.

“What is important is not that I was involved in an accident, but that I survived an accident that occurred in the middle of a desert,” Lee said.

“I should have died. It was impossible to get out of there alive, but because I was to live, many things clicked into place.”

Despite a prolonged stay in hospital, which resulted in a medical bill of 1.2 billion won ($1.07 million), and the life-changing results of the accident, Lee says that he has not once felt self-pity.

“Believe it or not, I haven’t even cried, not once, about my circumstance,” Lee said, adding that his friends joke that the part of the brain responsible for feeling grief must have been badly damaged in the accident.

However, even Lee’s composure was shattered four months after the accident when he learned that a female student had been killed.

“I only found out four months afterwards because the doctors said that the news would push me into despair,” Lee said. He added that until that moment he had believed that everything would be back to normal once he recovered as he thought that he was the only one to be seriously injured in the accident.

“It felt like the world was falling apart. The students were in my care but the accident happened. I didn’t want to come back to the university as I felt that I had no right to be an educator.”

Nevertheless, he returned and spent more than a year quietly teaching.

Then, an unexpected donation from a fellow Seoul National University professor planted the seed for his fame that led to his becoming involved in the government-funded Quality of Life Technology, or QoLT, project.

“Professor Lee Kun-woo of the college of engineering donated 100 million won ($89,500) to me, and the story was published in the university paper,” he said.

Lee gave half of the money to the scholarship fund named after the student who died in the accident -- Lee Hye-jung -- and the rest was used to cover the expenses resulting from the accident.

The story was then taken up by national newspapers and broadcasters, and in 2008 he wrote a column about the country’s first sight-impaired judge.

The column was noticed by Ministry of Knowledge Economy officials, and two years later he was heading the QoLT project that receives 10 billion won annually in funding from the ministry. As part of his efforts for raising social awareness about disabled people, he also went on a 40-day trip earlier this year to the U.S., where he traveled 12,000 kilometers in his electric wheelchair.

He has also been working to facilitate young people with disabilities studying science. According to Lee, many disabled students turn away from sciences due to difficulties in carrying out experiments caused by their physical conditions.

“The basis of all science is observation and experimentation, but there are areas where observation and experimentation are not possible in science, and computational science is employed to conduct simulations for these areas,” Lee said.

“Last year an interdisciplinary program in computational science and technology was established and various convenience features for the disabled such as captioning and online lecture systems were provided. To put it simply, if the traditional areas of computers and mathematics can be seen as a staircase, we turned it into an inclined path.”

Such activities and his personal condition have given him a reputation as a beacon of hope and an exemplary case of overcoming disabilities.

Lee, however, says that he is no more than a catalyst for changing society’s views on disabilities and for creating a more supportive environment.

“There are many in our society who work for the disabled behind the scenes. But when someone famous does something for them, the changes come faster,” Lee said. He added that he uses the media to help other disabled people to see for themselves what can be achieved regardless of physical difficulties.

“I go on television to show the equipment and myself as I am -- not to deliver some message of hope,” he said.

“I don’t use words like hope, optimism and courage. I don’t have the right. My saying to people who are worse off than me to have courage and hope would be nonsense.”

By Choi He-suk  (