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The Joy of Volunteering Is the Driving Force of My LifeSpecial Life of Dong-hyun Nam
Sung Hoon KIM | 승인 2018.10.05 10:30

Recently, when you see the stock news, most of the high rankers are pharmaceutical and biosimilar businesses. This trend is seen as a normal result at the point before the 100 years lifespan era. And related to this, antibody engineering has been getting the spotlight, lately. It is broadly applied from basic science to industrial fields and this study has a great potential to develop that there was a young doctor that bet his life on it. He is Dong-hyun Nam that researches antibody engineering at an American pharmaceutical company.

I’m curious what your job is. Could you explain it to me?

At the pharmaceutical company, my job is to develop antibody that eliminates antigens that cause cancers or allergies. Antibody development is receiving spotlight as new medicine because it is different from the regular medicine that is taken. Lately, an antibody’s performance can be improved by manipulating the DNA because DNA data of an antibody can be easily obtained. This is called “antibody engineering.” The main purpose for antibody is to treat diseases directly, but it can also be used for biosensors for early diagnosis of a disease, which makes this a very promising field for the near future.

 

I heard that it has been a year since you received your doctorate and jumped into the workforce, but what was most difficult in your life of studying abroad?

Xencor, Inc., where I work at, is a pharmaceutical company, which is located in a city called Monrovia, California in the United States. After receiving my doctorate at the University of California Riverside Campus, I attended the same school for two more years for a post-doctoral course and then joined the company. In the laboratory, viruses are used to develop antibodies, but we mostly concentrate on antibody development targeted on tumors that cause cancer. After I graduated college in Korea, I came to America to study for a master’s and doctoral degree. The greatest difficulty for me during this time was language. When I was in Korea, there were times I studied books for my major in English, but in America, not only did I have to study books for my major but all lectures and conversations were done in English. My listening skills were especially low compared to other Koreans. It seemed that other students understood, but there were many parts during classes that I did not understand, so there were many times I had to read books over again and study repetitively on my own to keep up. Of course, I needed more time than other people. What made matters worse was making time to study independently when time was already too short, so I could not miss any spare time I had. I studied in the bathroom and I read books while waiting. I had to use my time as efficiently as possible.

 

How did you manage yourself and study during the times you lacked sleep?

I realized that I had been wasting a lot of time in daily life when I came to a point where I absolutely lacked time to study. If I am a little mindful, there is a lot of time given to me, but I had been wasting my time on unnecessary things. To do research, I need to read many research papers by other people, but I needed to read them at least two times to over 10 times to understand what Americans would understand by just reading once. But while I was doing this, unconsciously, my thinking skills improved and I was able to see the details that others could not.

Group photo taken with the audience after a Mind Lecture recording at the GBS Broadcasting Station in Kenya.

Especially, giving presentations on research content within a given short amount of time was very challenging. There is a program where senior graduate school students must give a 10 minute or less presentation on research content in front of new students. I could not even present 10 slides within 10 minutes no matter how much I talked, whereas Americans run through 20 slides as they talk naturally. After I think deeply of how I could accurately present the research content to the audience within 10 minutes, I wrote down ahead of time what I wanted to say about the slides I prepared and then, I practiced it until I basically memorized it. I must have run through it more than 50 times. I presented what I knew and memorized, so I was able to speak confidently in front of people. As a result of practicing like this, there was even a time that I beat natives and received a first place award in a Thesis Presentation Competition. My lack of ability was not a bad thing at all, but rather, I learned the fact that my lack actually made me stronger.

 

I heard that you take vacations to volunteer abroad. Time-wise and economically-wise you may not have much sufficiency as the head of a family that is raising three children in America, which you may not be so familiar with and as a researcher in a company. Why do you continue to volunteer?

Actually, in America, it is difficult to make a living if both husband and wife are not working. So, people say that American life is a “payment life.” It is because at the beginning of each month, starting from rent, to insurance, car payments, electricity bills, water bills and etc. a large amount of money leaves your bank account even before you can get your hands on it. That is why a job is like a lifeline. I am no different from anyone else.

But, during my time as a volunteer overseas when I was in college, I learned that money is not everything in life. It is right that we need money, but I cannot say that it is everything. It is really important to do something rewarding.

I visited Mexico six years ago for English education volunteering and I saw that many of the students lived without a dream.

Their educational conditions and overall societal environment were weaker than that of the U.S. and Korea. If they draw the conclusion that there is no chance in this situation, then their lives will just crumble. On the other hand, if they have hope, that hope will hold on to their wrong heart and lead them to live an upright life. There were some students that changed their heart after discovering their dream during the English Camp and live a changed life. When I see something like this, the life of volunteering brings great meaning to my life.

Last year, our whole family visited the First Nations community in Canada. We drove for 48 hours and had a camp for three days at the community we arrived at. It was the first time in my life that I have seen people live like them. The Natives lived isolated, without contact with the outside world. There were students that had committed suicide after living a dark life being exposed to drugs and promiscuous sex life from a young age. This is where we mixed with the natives and held the camp. They changed when the camp was over by the third day. My body is tired when volunteering but my heart feels worthwhile. That is why I continue to volunteer whenever I have the chance.

Together with his wife, Nam volunteers to teach science or origami at the Kids Camp or the First Nations Camp, etc.

You said that you volunteered abroad when you were in college. Could you tell us if there was a special occasion?

There isn’t enough time for engineering students even when studying only for the major. But, one time, I thought about this. “It would be impossible for me to volunteer abroad for a year because after I graduate, I will enter graduate school and I would need to pour my whole heart in earning my degree. And if I rest for a year, it’ll be hard to catch up. I’m sure I will get busier when I go to graduate school. It’ll be impossible for me to purposely devote a year to go abroad if I have a job or if I’m married, right?”

That is why I wanted to live for others for a year without being bound to anything during my undergraduate studies. I looked for a country that did not use English and people around me told me that it would be good to learn Spanish, so I decided to go to Costa Rica. The Spanish that I learned then is still very helpful when I talk to those from South America as I live in the U.S.

 

I’m curious about what was most memorable as you volunteered in Costa Rica and what you have learned.

I remember vividly when I took part in constructing the Costa Rica IYF Center. I barely had done any physical labor before, but rather sat in front of a desk and studied. The construction site in Costa Rica was inadequate, so it did not have much machinery and equipment. Several strong young men needed to carry the heavy H-beams. It was difficult as I worked hard physically with the natives, but we got really close. My Spanish skills improved a lot as we talked with each other. By the time we almost finished construction, my volunteer service had ended and I returned. If I get the chance, I want to visit Costa Rica again. I want to see the center we worked hard to build. We worked so hard to build it that I remember it the most.

The IYF Costa Rica Center building.
A photo taken with his friend one day before he leaves for Korea after one-year-long volunteering in Costa Rica.

Like most students, I, also lived self-centered and I thought from a position that would benefit myself. But the Good News Corps Program was not a service I could do by living self-centered. It is not easy to spend a year there being self-centered. During my time as a volunteer, the attitude to consider others started to form before I knew it, as I put aside the life of “I” and as I lived as a “member” of the Good News Corps. I had to stand in front of people I did not know and give lectures but if my self-centered heart was greater, then I would have avoided such burdensome things. When such work was given to me, I did it because I had to, but I felt my heart getting stronger through it. Also, it was not something that I did on my own, but because I had to work with other colleagues, I had to train to think from another person’s position rather than asserting only my own opinion. This life naturally became a habit and later, it became great help in my school life and in my relationship with coworkers and superiors in social life.

 

I would like to know in detail about how it helped your work life.

One of the things that I learned in the Good News Corps is “If you don’t know, ask the person who gave the directions and work after knowing their heart instead of acting according to your thoughts.”

In my company, there are many people who have their doctorates like me. They know a lot of things and they have their own way of research. I, also, have a good method that I know well and have my own work pattern. The difficulty that most people in this research area have is that they have the heart that they know because they know well and want to do what they want to do. So, there are times where people quit their job because they feel insulted when their methods are not acknowledged because they have to follow their superior’s directions and their pride gets hurt. As I entered the company, I went in with the attitude “There are things that I know and learned but I’m going to turn all of that into a blank slate and learn from the beginning.” Even if I had a method that I thought was good, I did not just follow my thoughts but I would always tell my superior my suggestions, we mediated and continued working. If my superior gave other suggestions, I followed those directions exactly. I was able to gain the trust of my superior as I worked adjusting to his intentions rather than asserting my opinion.

A commemorative photo taken with his mother, who came from Korea, and his family after successfully giving his doctorate thesis presentation.

Different from young couples today, you have three children. Is there a special reason?

I had three children before while I was still studying for my doctorate degree. My wife mostly takes care of our children but I also help out with housework at home and spend time with our kids. The good thing about having a lot of children is that a little society is formed in the family. It is easy for a child who grows up by oneself to become high-hearted when they receive all the love of the family. But because we have three children, it is good educationally because sometimes they fight and there are many times they have to bend their hearts many times. There is no special children’s education method. But more than anything else, I want them to develop self-control. When I was young, I would go to the mountains or fields with my friends to spend time but in America, I cannot let my kids play freely outdoors by themselves. On top of that, we are in an environment where it is hard to stop kids from playing games because lately, as they are born, they are exposed to cell phones, tablet PCs and so on. So, we educate our kids to build self-control by letting them use these electronics for only a set time.

Dong-hyun Nam taught Mexican students at the English Camp in Mexico.

I would like to hear about your future vision and plans.

At my current job, I get a good annual salary and bonuses and the research environment is very nice. But, it is not so positive in the area of self-development when you do the same work repetitively. Although it might be a little insecure, I think that if I live challenging to do new things, then I could be much happier. And so, if I get the chance, I want to be a professor in a college.

A professor gets paid less than a researcher at a pharmaceutical company, but you can meet many students and can open up a research you had been considering a bit more freely. It is not easy to acquire a research project but I do not think that you can compare the joy from the materialistic world to seeing the students you taught grow. Not only that, but I want to introduce to students what I had learned through my overseas volunteer experience. I can say that it is my vision for my future life to raise students with right minds as a teacher and not only as a researcher.

 

Is there anything you want to say to college students?

Whatever you do, it is important to work hard. But, it is not enough with only that. I think that it is also important to have the mind to fulfill that work. If that mind is not clearly formed, you will easily fall and give up when you meet difficulties. But, there is something more important than that. Our hearts are weak, so even if you have a plan and you have determination, it can waver any time. So, if there is someone that can hold your heart when you waver and have setbacks, there is nothing more reassuring than that.

When I look back at my life, when my heart was wavering in front of a difficult project during my doctorate studies, my academic advisor would give me some advice and that led me to see with a different point of view than before. A few months before graduation, the project that I was working on had no fruition so I just wanted to give up on everything. At that time, my Good News Corps Volunteer manager encouraged me saying, “Don’t just be disappointed, but challenge again.” Then, I gained hope and was able to step forward again.

I’m sure you, college students, have experienced the determination in your heart wavering. In those times, I hope you can meet a life mentor that truly cares for you, gives you advice and listens to you.

 

Dong-hyun Nam

In 2004, when he was in college, he had gone to Costa Rica as a Good News Corps Overseas Volunteer. In 2010, he received his master’s degree and in 2015, he received his doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of California, Riverside Campus.

At home, he is a warm-hearted husband and a father of three children and at work, he is a busy researcher, pouring his passion into disease elimination research. He works at Xencor, Inc., which is a bioceutical company that specializes in clinical testing and is located in Monrovia, California.

Sung Hoon KIM  kimkija@itomorrow.kr

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