“I say to people, ‘I’m a small, skinny guy and I have a dream, I want to do something for Asia,’” beams Prof. Haiwon Lee, Director of the Institute of Nanoscience and Technology at Hanyang University in South Korea.
Small as his stature may be, Lee’s wit, enthusiasm and intelligence make up for it in fair measure. Holding more professorships, directorships and editorial posts than there is space to mention here, it is immediately clear that here is a man who does not define himself by these titles, but by his actions. In particular, it is the Asian Research Network that he speaks of with a passion often rare in professors who are comfortably at the top of their game.
In 1989, on his own accord, Lee started yearly trips to Japan—a step made all the more significant by the historical tensions between the two countries. He sought to establish relationships with other researchers and institutes, integrating science in Asia for a better future. It was a slow process. Apart from exchanges on a company or government level it was, and perhaps still is, highly unusual for a South Korean individual to be promoting research, development and educational cooperation across borders.
Step-by-step Lee built a performance-based relationship with RIKEN. Nevertheless, it was not until 2003 that an alliance between RIKEN and Hanyang was formally established. The significance was profound. Never before had Japan opened up its doors for a private research university.
Next Lee sought to obtain funding for a cooperative research laboratory to give tangible structure to the Asian Research Network. In 2008, following grants from the Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, Seoul’s mayor and Samsung electronics, the Hanyang-RIKEN Collaboration Centre was established. Here researchers from both institutions could work side by side to produce world-class research.
Many would be satisfied with these achievements. For Lee however, it is just the start. The alliance needs to go across Asia. “The idea is to exchange information and relationships at a high level,” he explains. ARN is starting with tangible goals, initially focusing on the areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology. Lee points to a poster advertising a recent joint RIKEN-Hanyang nanoscience conference. However, as they expand ARN is to encompass all science and technology and include other Asian partners such as China, India and Singapore.
“Our aim is to build a borderless research environment,” says Lee. He stresses that this is not just for Korea, but also for Asia and ultimately he aims to go global. The reason that Lee has made his dream a reality is due to his insistence on a pragmatic approach. He looks to innovate, change and truly engage rather than go through set patterns and motions.
“In the beginning, I was talking to government people who would always say, ‘Show me the MOU’ said Lee. A ‘memorandum of understanding’ or ‘MOU’ is a traditional document indicating a multilateral agreement between parties. MOU’s are popular across Asia, so Lee took me by surprise when he continued matter-of-factly: “MOU’s don’t mean anything – it's just politics”.
He continued, “It took five years to get people onboard. They always wanted to wait and consider things endlessly, it was very difficult.” If there is one thing that is clear about Lee, it is that he is a man of deeds, not just words, who does not shy away from getting things done.
But why put so much effort into this? I asked. Of course there are huge benefits, but most academics are more concerned with climbing up the citation league table, (and it is clear that Lee has spent at least a hundred papers worth of time establishing ARN). He looks at me with thoughtful eyes and stares into the distance. “I was born in 1954, right after the Korean war,” he says. “I was one of eight children, there was nothing left of Korea and it was miserable. Our parents sacrificed everything for our education. They did not spend even a single penny. I am not from a rich family, my mother only went to elementary school, but because of their efforts three of us are now professors. They knew how to save material, how to manage, how to change their country. This is the strength and spirit of our parents.”
And the spirit of cooperation is certainly helping the research productivity and output of ARN members. Take for example Choi Eunsuk and colleagues; they recently announced they had made a transparent touch sensor using carbon nanotube thin films (Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, vol. 11, 2011). These films are optically transparent and electrically conductive in thin layers. The applications are enormous: think of flexible electronic interfaces such as “e-paper”, or television screens that you can roll up.
Similarly, Jong-Man Kim and his team have managed to devise an ink solution that can repeatedly change colour upon exposure to heat or UV radiation. Their results in the Journal of Advanced Materials (Vol. 23, 2011) open the possibility of printing electronic circuits on paper. Being able to integrate such circuitry into lightweight, disposable materials such as paper using simple ‘inkjet’ technology is of great interest to manufacturers.
Prof. Lee meanwhile revels in this spirit of collaboration: “Giving is better than taking. So I thought to myself, what about giving something to the other people in Asia? I want to give something as long as I have something to give.”
To find out more about the Asian Research Network and to get involved please visit http://www.asianrn.org or contact Professor Haiwon Lee, Department of Chemistry, Hanyang University Tel: +82-2-2220-0945 Email: [email protected]
Choi Eunsuk, Kim Jinoh, et al. "Fabrication of a flexible and transparent touch sensor using single-walled carbon nanotube thin-films" Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Vol. 11 7 pp. 5845-5849 (2011)
B. Yoon, D.-Y. Ham, O. Yarimaga, H. An , C. W. Lee, and J.-M. Kim, "Inkjet Printing of Conjugated Polymer Precursors on Paper Substrates for Colorimetric Sensing and Flexible Electrothermochromic Display", Advanced Materials, 2011, 23, 5492-5497.