[FORUM]Stem cell scientist holds hope

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[FORUM]Stem cell scientist holds hope

In early summer last year, I attended a meeting supporting Hwang Woo-suk, professor emeritus at Seoul National University. I decided to join the meeting not only because my acquaintances had invited me, but also because I was quite impressed with his efforts and passion he had shown before he gained an international reputation.
His tenacity was beyond my imagination: Shuttling back and forth between farms in the countryside and his laboratory from dawn to dusk for decades, he had lived and breathed together with cows and pigs. All kinds of episodes about his preoccupation with transplanting fertilized eggs, running between cowsheds and pigpens whenever calves and piglets were born, were more impressive to me than a movie. Such episodes had great power to draw even ordinary people to attend the meeting.
“My Story on Life,” which he has published recently, says that to make up for his scholastic ability that had fallen behind in his high school days, he organized a “No Sleeping on your Back” club. He did not lie down on his back however sleepy he was, preferring instead to catnap face down on the desk.
If we look back on his process of becoming internationally famous through studies on the extraction of stem cells from cloned human embryos, we can figure out what touched people’s hearts and gave them hope.
Expectations and praises that Professor Hwang would be the creator of a new national asset and become nominated for a Nobel Prize have not been absent. As we say goodbye to the old year and welcome a new one, our hope in Mr. Hwang ― who is kept guarded as closely as VIPs at the national level ― has grown to be as big as a mountain. With rumors that a special security guard has been deployed around his laboratory corresponding to secret national facilities as well as government support and donations for his research, our hope in him has snowballed.
Now the people have begun to feel concerned about places where Professor Hwang should be or should not be. Whenever he attends a ceremony to celebrate the publication of a book by a politician or a businessman, or appears at big or small ceremonies and various events, including a wedding reception hosted by a famous figure, a lecture at a police station or a meeting at the National Assembly Members’ Hall, the people begin to show mixed responses.
This is no usual thing. Even patients with incurable diseases who pinned their last hopes on him have become anxious. Other supporters are voicing their concerns on Mr. Hwang’s Web site: “Cheer up! ‘Cause we are here with you. Go straight, looking ahead only.” “Devote yourself to research, please.” “I’d like to donate more money even if I have to moonlight.”
Driven by the public opinion, Professor Hwang came to ride on a tiger’s back. Expectations will increase as the government and the people put priority on building a support system for him. All people are keeping an eye on his every movement and opening their mouths to talk about it. Professor Hwang is in a very difficult and tough position. If he turns up in a meeting unrelated to his research, their responses would change even more.
Talks continue that some well-known politicians and business people put pressure on him to attend all kinds of events. People who take away his time for research will have to put up with severe criticism that they are “pubic enemies.” The problem is who will protect Professor Hwang from such pressure. The government is not hiding its concern either.
Regrettable memories still remain with us that as computer experts and cultural artists, who had been known to be of great help in creating national wealth, were called in for politics, the people’s simple wish disappeared.
We should not distract Professor Hwang from devoting himself to research, but encourage him to fight the solitude he may have to suffer. Another message posted on his home page says, “I hope this droplet of support will give strength to you, Professor Hwang. I wanted to let you know that someone is supporting you. All the people stand beside you.”

* The writer is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Choi Chul-joo
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