“80% of Earth’s living creatures live in the ocean. We only know 1% of them.” This phrase can be seen on the website of the National Marine Biodiversity Institute of Korea, a global marine bio research institute that studies marine life resources in Seocheon-gun, Chungcheongnam-do. The National Marine Biodiversity Institute of Korea, which studies the remaining 99% of creatures people do not know about, is conducting various studies on the ocean, such as conducting biodiversity research or operating a marine bio bank for the growth of the marine bio industry. Recently, there have been significant results in the field of marine bio, which finds clues to solving human diseases in marine resources. Hwang Il-sun’s research team at the National Marine Biodiversity Institute of Korea developed a natural antibacterial peptide that can suppress super bacteria using small octopus. This development is very special now that antibiotic-resistant super bacteria exist. Researcher Hwang obtained a master’s degree in biology in the United States and a doctorate in molecular biology from Jeju National University and finally joined the Marine Biodiversity Institute in 2016 to focus on research. She is considered the best in the field of bio-material development and is on the path of research again after 12 years of parenting, so these results are even more special as a female scientific technician. Taking advantage of her past experience, she was selected as the representative mentor of the job search mentoring project for women scientific technicians conducted by the Korea Foundation for Women In Science Engineering and Technology (WISET). In addition to all this, she was responsible for mentoring a new generation of researchers. This CBT reporter interviewed her, and asked her to give advice and encouragement to students at CBNU who are worried about the future.
1. Please introduce yourself.
Hello, I’m Hwang Il-sun, a researcher in charge of researching materials derived from marine life genes at the National Marine Biodiversity Institute of Korea. The resource center is divided into three parts: collecting and classifying marine life, researching it for use in human life applications, and producing educational materials for the general public. I’m in charge of researching marine life so that we can use it in a beneficial way. All the marine life we collect becomes a resource. In the case of clams, for example, we don’t use the clams themselves, we use the genetic information clams have as a marine resource. That’s what I’m doing, and it’s my job to use the samples as resources. We also study the ecology of living things. The sea is maintained in an environment similar to land. All of this is a resource. Humans know very little, so many sea creatures can have different resources depending on their ecology. Therefore, it is also very important to study what environments sea creatures live in and what they eat.
2. How did you come to choose small octopus for your study?
I’m studying mollusks. I chose small octopus after considering many creatures such as octopus and squid. Octopuses are very smart, as you all know. Octopuses have already been studied abroad because they can find their way better than mice and even handle tools because they have a good memory. On the other hand, small octopuses live only in three Southeast Asian countries: China, Japan, and Korea. It is stipulated in international treaties that if you study living things in other countries during biological research, you should report them and share information. I chose small octopus while searching for native creatures in our country because we should not lose our creatures to other countries. Especially, there is not much known about small octopus, such as its diet and bacterial effects. The unique characteristic of small octopus living only on the mudflats and the west coast of Korea is another reason why I chose it. I read the genetic information of the small octopus and searched for the genes with its unique immune system. This is because we can copy the same genes and make natural materials without killing octopus. This study, which has been conducted for about seven years, is the result. Nevertheless, there are still countless resources in the ocean.
3. You said that the research on the development of antibacterial peptides is an extension of the research that you have been working on for more than a decade, what is the final goal of your research?
In this study, I first read the entire genome of a small octopus. What I’m interested in is the small octopus’ immune system, so I tried to find a gene that activates its defense system to survive and synthesize the core part of it. As a result, we created a natural small octopus-derived peptide that can solve the problem of super bacteria that are not effective in antibiotics. After doing this research, my final goal is to create antibiotic substances that can solve the super bacteria that have recently been encountered in global public health.
4. How did you become a researcher?
The term genetic engineering first came into being in the early 80’s. I found it very attractive that genetic engineering can change genetic information such as DNA and RNA, and that it could also be applied to human genes. I think the idea of studying this abroad was the beginning of my becoming a researcher. When I first went to the United States, I applied for a research position in the field of cancer because I was interested in it. At that time, scientists could receive a grant to support their living expenses, but it was not easy to get it because there were many people who applied in the cancer field. Therefore, I entered the field of microorganisms and studied how DNA and RNA are exchanged, and when I came to Korea, I changed the subject to marine resources and got a job.
5. What kind of worries did you have when you were a college student?
When I was a college student, my parents often told me to get married before graduating from college. However, when I became a second grader, I thought, ‘Did I really come to college with the goal of getting married?’, ‘What is the purpose of studying genetic engineering?’, ‘Genetic engineering is a new science, so what should I do to study it?.’ At that time, many professors studied abroad, so I naturally decided to go abroad and study. I had a lot of worries about my career, just like college students today, such as where to go, getting a job or going to graduate school. I came to the conclusion that if you keep thinking about yourself, and keep carefully exploring your options, you can find your own answer.
6. Were there any inconveniences that you felt as a woman during the study?
After completing my master’s degree I had a 12-year career break when my child was born. After that, I got a job at a public institution while doing a doctorate. I think this is a hurdle for female scientists because when they get married while studying, they have children and then they have to juggle the additional responsibilities of studying and raising children. Nevertheless, I’m happy to get back to work and I think I’m more passionate about my research since my children are all grown. Currently, Korea is also concerned about the additional responsibility of birth and childcare that female scientists face. Other than that, I don’t think there was anything uncomfortable about being a woman. These days, especially when applying for a project, there is a preferential score for female scientists, so I think there is an advantage to being a woman in some areas. Therefore, I hope more and more female scientists will appear in the world.
7. What do you think is the most necessary element to become a scientist?
To become a scientist, I think you need the discipline to sit in one place and concentrate for a long time the most. When you are an undergraduate, you can freely explore what field you are interested in. However, once you find your field, you have to think a lot about one topic. You have to study this for a long time and put in a lot of effort to get results. In that regard, I think the public institution I am in has the advantage of allowing for enough free time to rest and for self-development.
8. In what ways are bachelor’s, master’s, and doctor’s degrees differentiated when conducting research?
The bachelor’s degree can be considered as a step of learning basic knowledge in classes and exploring what fields are included in specific majors. If you do a master’s degree, you start looking for your interests by assisting a doctor’s research and narrowing the scope of your study. When you do a doctor’s degree, you study specific topics that you are interested in based on the knowledge you have learned so far. If I take the marine field that I’m working on as an example, you are going to find and dig deep in your favorite species, such as starfish, fish, and mollusks.
9. Please give some advice to CBNU students.
As a college student, I think it’s important to see, hear, and feel various things. In the past, Korea did not have many fields to study, but now Korea’s status as well as Korean scientists has risen significantly in the world. The system for experimenting and researching on topics is very well established. Thanks to this, there are many programs that support students to experience various fields such as career exploration in public institutions. I hope you can broaden your perspective through dynamic activities, explore your career paths, and have time to truly develop.
By Kim Ji-soo