UV-resistant lichen is latest polar find
Antarctica is a region, not a subject area, and if Korea wants to grasp its full scientific potential, it must invest in basic science education, says Kim Yea-dong of King Sejong Station.
Korean scholars discovered plant material in Antarctica that is being developed into cosmetics for its strong resistance to ultraviolet rays.
Kim Yea-dong, director general of the Korea Polar Research Institute, told the JoongAng Daily that scientists at King Sejong Station discovered a substance in lichen that is now being developed by the cosmetics firm Amorepacific for possible mass cultivation and use in UV-protectant cosmetics.
“Ozone layer damage is more severe at the South Pole, and plants are producing materials to protect themselves,” Mr. Kim said.
“Nature is very wondrous. You would think animals and plants would die from the excessive ultraviolet rays, but they are creating substances to block the rays.”
Just back from his 25th trip to the Antarctic, Mr. Kim said that discovery was made by conducting research on plankton, microorganisms and soil, which is what the Korean science team mainly focuses on.
He said the institute would like to do studies in other areas, but that the station lacked the variety of expertise necessary.
“Koreans are too sensitive to trends and professors don’t nurture students in diverse subjects. There are hardly any experts in penguins or seals, for instance ― a lot of people studying microorganisms, but no one studying fish.”
Mr. Kim, himself a geology major, said that it is the government that is mainly to blame for not providing funding for basic science.
“Companies naturally will not invest in natural science. The government wants a Korean to win a Nobel Prize, but it does not invest in basic science. That doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“Samsung Electronics spends 5 trillion won ($5.3 billion) on its research and development for semiconductors. I don’t understand why the government has to spend research and development money on things that companies are already doing.”
Mr. Kim said it’s time to stop being selfish and stop thinking about immediate profits.
“If Korea is the 10th-largest economy, it has to live up its reputation. We may not be able to give countries in Africa cash, but if we invest in basic research to study things like global warming, we are contributing to the world,” Mr. Kim said.
Mr. Kim also pointed out that even so, studying the Antarctic is not charity ― the Antarctic is an entire region, not a subject of research, and millions of studies could be done here, he said.
“From natural science to engineering, anything is possible. We only focus on research that can only be done by actually going there. For instance, studies on stones can be done anywhere, but studies on glaciers is something only we can do.”
He said, however, that the institute does a lot of cooperative research, such as the recent joint study with Seoul National University, during which the team discovered a meteorite early this month.
Mr. Kim said that this was a rare find. “It was the first meteorite that Korea found in 40 years, and only five countries have found meteorites in Antarctica.
“It’s a sample of the solar system. To gain a specimen like this, we’d normally have to go to the moon, so we’ve saved ourselves a lot of money,” he said.
The Korea Polar Research Institute used to be a department under the Maritime Research Institute, and only became an independent research center three years ago, so it has a long way to go, according to Mr. Kim.
The institute is engaged in a significant effort to make the Antarctic a “closer” place to Koreans.
The “Pole to Pole” event, in which teachers and artists are selected to travel to the King Sejong Station for two weeks, is one of them.
The Korean team also plans to conduct research on a nearby breeding ground for penguins to provide evidence to later apply for its designation as a protected zone.
The institute recently commissioned for an ice-breaking ship to be built, in line with bigger plans to create a base on the mainland.
The current Korean base is currently on King George Island because Korea does not own an ice-breaking ship, which is needed to ship supplies to the mainland in winter if the country has a mainland base. The institute is hoping to establish a mainland base in 2011.
Meanwhile, this year is an epochal year for Korea, as it participates for the first time in the International Polar Year celebration, which happens once every 50 years.
Traveling with the Chinese team, scientists will conduct concurrent joint research and travel to the South Pole at the end of this year.
Mr. Kim says that he hopes people will build interest in science and the polar regions and that he will continue to do his part in researching the tips of the earth.
“I remember my first trip to Antarctica in 1981, when I was studying in the United States. After a seven-hour plane trip from New Zealand, I got off and everything was just white and blue. I can never forget how impressed I was. It was so beautiful,” he said.
By Wohn Dong-hee Staff Writer [email@example.com]