I was born in South Gyeongsang Province of South Korea and grew up there until I was 9 years old when the Korean War broke out in 1950. North Korean soldiers were trapped in Mount Jiri after General McArthur landed in Incheon. caused a rebellion They came down to our town every night for their food supplies. There were tremendous gun fights between the North Korean soldiers from the mountain and the South Korean soldiers. In 1951, I was 10 years old and attending the fourth grade of primary school. Some North Korean soldiers wanted to take me to the mountain to use me as their messenger. Thus, I had to flee the town and leave my mother and grandmother at such a young age. I went to Seoul where my uncle (my mother’s younger brother) lived after the United Nations soldiers recovered the capital city. He was a university professor and was willing to educate me.
When I graduated from Kyoungdong High School in Spring of 1959 I was preparing for university education. I was looking for a university where I could get a full scholarship. There were five possible institutions where I could get a free education; these include three different military academies (army, navy and air force), Kyounghee University and College of Animal at Konkuk University. My poor eyesight made it impossible to enter any of military academies. I chose to try to get in the College of Animal Husbandry which provided full scholarships (includes tuition and boarding expenses). Dr. Seokchang Yoo, the founder of Konkuk University, started the College of Animal Husbandry in1959 in order to educate future leaders of Korean agriculture community. It was highly competitive to get in because so many students who could not afford university education had the chance to be educated free of charge. The competition was 42:1 at that time if I recall correctly. I was fortunate to get in.
Korea – Denmark - Canada
In 1959 I entered the College of Animal Husbandry as one of 53 full scholarship students. We were the first class of the program. Two years later, the Korean-Danish Society recruited students to send to Demark for further education. I took the exam and was chosen as one of three students out of a few hundred applicants. I remember, back then, there was only one flight from Korea to Tokyo, Japan each day. When we arrived in Japan we had to take the freight ship from Yokohama with about 40 Japanese students to cross the both Pacific and Atlantic oceans to go to Europe. During the sailing period, the sea was mostly calm, but sometimes very rough, literally riding mountain-like waves. I experienced my first motion sickness on that ship. We lost a Japanese student after 4 days of sailing. The captain of the ship reported to the Japanese government that the student must have been lost overboard during the sail through the rough sea. It took us 40 days from Japan to England. After we arrived in England, we stayed there for three days and then took a plane to Copenhagen, Denmark. I studied veterinary science at the Malling College in Aarhus, Denmark from 1962 to 1966. After I completion of my veterinary science studies in 1966, I came to Canada.
The reason to come to Canada was based on my belief that the future language of science would be English. So, I applied for post-graduate studies in English speaking countries such as the United States, England, and Canada. Canada was proactive in terms of recruiting international students back then, especially from Europe. I found University of Guelph to be the most attractive school for me to continue my graduate study in veterinary science and was the reason for coming to Canada.
What made you decide to specialize in agricultural studies in the beginning and then switch to virology later?
Dr. Kang: When I arrived in Canada in May of 1966, I searched for a job instead of enrolling in a graduate school right away, because, I was not confident about my English. So I decided to polish my English for a couple of years before I start my graduate study. Connaught Medical Research Laboratory at the University of Toronto was looking for a college graduate who can handle infectious material especially viruses; so I applied and got the position.
My responsibility was to identify the contaminated viruses in primary African green monkey kidney cells, which was used for the production of polio virus to make polio vaccine. The analysis required working in a very dangerous environment. Bio-safety level rules were not as strict back then and the university generally assumed that its employees were well educated to handle dangerous viruses. I was working on an open bench in a little cubical by myself with just a lab coat on. Nowadays people wear space suits to handle some of those infectious viruses such as herpes B virus.
I learned a lot during the 2 year period in terms of skills and knowledge involved in virology. It was an excellent training experience. The mid 1960 was the dawn of molecular virology that I major in today. I’m one of the first generation of molecular virologists. I was fortunate to be in the molecular virology field because it was an emerging and proliferating scientific field. That’s how I switched from agricultural studies to veterinary science to take care of animals to virology to take care of people.
I became a virologist because I was fascinated in viruses which are the simplest form of living organisms capable of causing so many different diseases in human, animal, plant and even bacteria. They are the smallest living unit on our planet earth and it only reproduces in living cells. I was searching for a virology department where I could carry out my post-graduate education. McMaster University had the highest number of virology professors at that time. Dr. Yongjin (James) Yang, who was a recent graduate of McMaster University with his Ph.D. in 1968, guided me to join the program and introduced me to an assistant professor, Ludvik Prevec. I was accepted as Dr. Prevec’s first graduate student. Under his supervision, I was able to generate my first paper in just 4 months, which was very unusual and unheard of. It was the starting point of my career. I was so happy that I was putting in 15 hours a day, 7 days a week; I was basically living in the lab. I published 5 papers in 3 years during my post-graduate studies; 4 papers were published in virology journals and one paper in Nature, which really put me in a position to select my post-doctoral program anywhere in the world. I finished my post-graduate studies in 1971, five years after I arrived in Canada.
Post Doctoral Program under a Nobel Laureate
In early 1970, there was a revolutionary discovery in biological science. Dr. Howard Temin discovered an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which can convert the genetic information in RNA to DNA, a reverse flow of the genetic information. His discovery changed the central dogma of biology; information flow from DNA to RNA to protein. I applied for my post-doctoral training in Dr. Temin’s laboratory in early 1971. Fortunately, he accepted me and I became one of his post-doctoral fellows in mid 1971. Later I found out that I was chosen among 52 applicants because of the five papers that I published.
Normally people stay as a post-doctoral fellow for 2 years at that time, but I was there for 3 years. My first task was to look for the reverse transcriptase not only in viruses, but also in normal cells because Dr. Temin believed that the enzyme also exists in normal cells for gene amplification and/or gene differentiation. Basically, I was looking for a needle in a hay stack. I found the enzyme in the normal chick embryos, but the scientific community was very sceptical about our findings at that time. Now it is a well-accepted fact. I published 9 papers with Dr. Temin in virology journals, Proceedings of National Academy of Science and in Nature during my 3 years of post-doctoral training. In the end, our research was recognized and Dr. Temin was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1975, one year after I left his laboratory, for the discovery of the reverse transcriptase in retroviruses and in normal cells.
Academic Administration & Giving Back
At the end of my post-doctoral program, I received many offers to be a professor in the United States, but after careful consideration, I accepted position at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, Texas in 1974 as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology because of their generous commitments. They promised me that they would set up an entire lab just like Dr. Temin’s. I didn’t even ask my salary level because I was only interested in research. I taught medical students and conducted my research at Southwestern Medical School from 1974 to 1982.
When I was taking a year of sabbatical at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland near Washington D.C., the University of Ottawa offered me the Professor and Chairman position in the Department Microbiology and Immunology with many resources including new building with generous laboratory space and equipment. I accepted position in 1982 and moved back to Canada. I served as the Professor and Chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine for 10 years. My main research focus was in the investigation of molecular genetics and molecular biology of Hantaviruses, human parainfluenza viruses, vesicular stomatitis virus and HIV/AIDS. I had about 20 laboratory personnel in my laboratory including post-graduate students, pos-doctoral fellows, and visiting scholars from many parts of the world. We published about 10 papers a year.
In 1992, the University of Western Ontario offered me a position of Dean of Faculty of Science and promised me a new lab and modern equipment. I thought that taking care of 220 faculty members would be a challenge and I knew that I had to sacrifice my time for administration to manage the faculty. However, I took the position mostly because I wanted to give back to the society who paid for all my education. I served a 7 year term until 1999. Thousands of students graduated during my tenure and I am proud that thousands of students have their graduation certificates with my signature on it. I also taught and helped to make thousands of doctors over the years. I think I paid my dues. Now I feel free, but do I stop here? No, I have clear visions and dreams despite the fact that I’m in my late 60s.
What resources can young people use to become a better leader?
Dr. Kang: To be a better leader, first of all, one must have a vision and study what good leaders in history have done so that you can learn from the history and see what kind of decisions they have made. Furthermore, you sh
ould learn how they overcame their mistakes and setbacks when they face it. Having a role model would also be a great idea.
Do you have a role model yourself?
Dr. Kang: I have role models for scientific research and university administrators. In scientific research, I really admire my former mentor Dr. Howard Temin: I admire the way he educated his students and lead the society with curiosity and how to discover. What he had shown is that with perseverance and firm belief in oneself, you can accomplish anything. He proposed the so-called protovirus hypothesis as early as 1963. He predicted that RNA tumour viruses will go through genetic information transfer from RNA to DNA. He suffered 7 years from his peers who said that he was crazy and that such thing does not exist; but he persisted because he believed in himself with one experiment. He almost lost his research grant because of the persistence, but he ended up showing everyone that he was right in the end. That is the kind of persistence you need in order to achieve certain goals.
What efforts do you make in order to continue to be a leader in your organization?
Dr. Kang: I would say that a leader is defined as a leader of a certain group in the society. But another form of leader is what you invent or discover which can enrich human lives. If I can share my experiences with the people of this society and make contributions, then that would satisfy me. I have a dream and I will never give up nor stop working until I achieve that goal. In order to drive that, I must have confidence and perseverance. The confidence building process does not just come from the knowledge, because our knowledge is limited. I believe it comes from your belief. At least it is true in my case. I am a Christian and I believe God lead my life to be meaningful. Although our knowledge is limited if we can make a meaningful contribution to the society, that is significant. For example, Dr. Edward Jenner invented the vaccine for smallpox, which used to kill millions of people every year and now it is completely eradicated with no single case of smallpox on earth. This is one of the most important contributions in medicine. Let’s suppose that I make that kind of contribution. For example, if our experimental HIV/AIDS vaccine can prevent HIV infection and saves millions of lives. The benefits that people can have after my time will be tremendous.
What do you think is the role of scientists in a society?
Dr. Kang: In our discipline of medical science, the ultimate goal of the scientist is to invent and discover new knowledge that can benefit the human kind. To achieve the ultimate goal, one must have perseverance, confidence, and firm belief in oneself.
(Jieun Kim, one of interviewers from AKCSE-YG) Throughout my university education in my science program, I noticed that a lot of my colleagues have a very limited view about what a science degree can do. Most of them are focused on pursuing medical career instead of looking into other options. What is your advice on the younger undergraduate students who are in science?
Dr. Kang: One has to do some critical and serious thinking about that. Do they really want to become a physician? There are hundreds of other opportunities to be good in certain fields of science. If your objective is to go into medicine, five medical schools in Ontario, Toronto, Western Ontario, McMaster, Ottawa, and Queens, accept about 700 students every year. There are over 3,500 highly competitive applicants who wish to get into one of these medical schools in Ontario. As a result, this is a very selective group. A lot of students apply year after year and try to get in as if that is the only option that they have, but I disagree with that mentality. In fact, they can pursue other fields of science, even medical science, without going through medicine. You can go into biomedical field, molecular biology, biochemistry, microbiology, immunology, neurology, physiology, molecular genetics and so on. There are many options to go into the medical field without going through the MD programs. So if they are interested in science, not just taking care of the patients as a physician, then they can choose the other fields of medical sciences. They should not have their mind set only for medicine.
You briefly mentioned that you have a vision and that you want to work continuously as a scientist, what do you hope to achieve as a scientist or as a leader?
Dr. Kang: As a member of the world community, I have a vision and desire. As of May 1st, 2010, we have almost 6.9 billion people in the world. Out of that, the World Health Organization expects that approximately 56 million people will die this year. 14 of 56 million deaths will be due to virus infections, which is a substantial and significant proportion. As a virologist and a medical scientist, I would like to help by finding the causes of those diseases. Therefore, I would like to establish a world institute of virology in my life time. The location or the source of funding does not matter to me.
I need $ 1 Billon, which generates $50M every year with 5% interest. In order to make a critical mass in all fields of virology, I need 40 Principal Investigators in 10 different major fields of virology. I want to sponsor those 40 scientists with $1M a year for 10 years to generate research progress, which costs $40M with operation costs of about $10M per year, totalling the grant total to $50M per year to run the institute. I want to leave them alone for 10 years for them to do their own research. I believe that the intellectual property will be worth multiple billions of dollars later on. Data from the institute will contribute significantly to fighting the viral diseases and making this happen is my dream.
Do you have any final advice to the young people who desire to be leaders?
Dr. Kang: They need to follow what their heart desires. They really need to choose a career that they truly want and love. That is the first step to success. After that, they have to put in their time.
How do you balance between your professional and personal lives?
Dr. Kang: First of all, I have a very supportive wife who understands that my job is not necessarily a 9 to 5 job. On my leisure time, I love listening to music and playing golf. In fact, I am a competitive golfer and have won a number of awards. I also enjoy reading the bible every morning and doing Sudoku for fun. Lastly, travelling is another great joy of mine. These activities all help me endure the minimum 60 hours work weeks. All in all, I really enjoy my life. I thank God for his blessings.
Chil Yong Kang, Ph.D., D.Sc., F.R.S.C., is a molecular virologist and Professor of Virology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario in Canada.
Dr. Kang was born in South Korea, was educated in Korea and Denmark for his undergraduate studies, immigrated to Canada in 1966 and became a Canadian citizen in 1971. He was trained at University of Toronto and carried out his post-graduate studies at McMaster University where he received his Ph.D. in virology under the supervision of Professor Ludvik Prevec in 1971. He took his postdoctoral training under Professor Howard Temin (1975 Nobel Laureate) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison for three years (1971-1974). He served as a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, Texas (1974-1982), Professor and Chairman of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at University of Ottawa, Faculty of Medicine (1982-1992), Director of the University of Ottawa Biotechnology Institute (1987-1992), Dean of Science at the University of Western Ontario (1992-1999), and Professor of Virology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Western Ontario (1992-present).
In addition to his extensive teaching and administrative responsibilities, Dr. Kang has maintained an active research group that continues to bring national and international recognition to Canada. His research in molecular virology includes the development of viral-specific antiviral therapeutic agents and efficacious vaccines against various human viral diseases including AIDS, hepatitis and hemorrhagic fever. He has already developed a second generation vaccine against hepatitis B virus and an experimental vaccine against HIV/AIDS by using state-of-the-art technologies of genetic engineering and biotechnology. He is also investigating the molecular mechanism of homologous viral interference to design viral-specific antiviral therapeutic agents for treatments of human viral diseases. Dr. Kang has published 129 peer reviewed research papers in highly prestigious scientific journals, 138 scientific proceedings and abstracts in fields of virology and molecular biology, and holds eight international biotechnology patents. Fourteen students received their Ph.D. degree and five students received their M.Sc. degree under Dr. Kang’s supervision. Dr. Kang has trained well over 50 post-doctoral fellows and visiting professors from various institutions around the world.
Dr. Kang has received numerous prizes that recognize his achievements in virology, such as the Korean-Canadian Heritage Award (1989), Sahng-Huh Cultural Grand Prize in Academia (1991), Award of Excellence of the University of Ottawa (1991), Gold Medal for Ilchun Lecture (1998), Ho-Am Prize in Medicine (1999), the Order of Korea in Science and Technology (2002), the McMaster University Distinguished Alumni Award for 2007, the Paul Harris Fellow Award from Rotary International (2008) and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Western Ontario (2009). Dr. Kang was elected as a Life-time Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Academy of Science in 1993 and an elected Member of the Korean Academy of Science and Technology in 1997.
He continues to serve as a grant selection committee member for various federal granting agencies in Canada and the USA, including CIHR, NHRDP, NSERC, and NIH and as a member of the Board of Directors of numerous research institutions and foundations. Dr. Kang serves as a reviewer for the Journal of Virology, Journal of Infectious Diseases, Virus Research, Virology, Journal of Biological Chemistry and Canadian Medical Association Journal.