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NOVA ScienceNOW

Sang-Mook Lee: Expert Q&A

  • Posted 09.09.09
  • NOVA scienceNOW

On September 9, 2009, Sang-Mook Lee answered questions about geophysics, the needs of the disabled, and his ability to thrive despite his accident. 

Sang-Mook Lee

Sang-Mook Lee

Sang-Mook Lee is a marine geophysicist and professor at Seoul National University in South Korea. Full Bio

Photo credit: © WGBH Educational Foundation

Sang-Mook Lee

Sang-Mook Lee is a South Korean marine geophysicist. He is paralyzed from the neck down, but this hasn't stopped him from pursuing a prestigious career as a professor at Seoul National University, where his research focuses on plate tectonics and the formation of the world's oceans. Lee studied oceanography as an undergraduate in Korea, then received a Ph.D. from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Returning to his home country, Lee first joined the Korean Ocean Research and Development Institute, traveling many months a year to remote realms of the Pacific and Indian oceans, and then was offered a professorship at the university, becoming the preeminent marine geologist in the country. Lee was paralyzed in 2006 following an automobile accident in California. By quickly returning to his job, and through his outspoken advocacy work, he is helping to change attitudes in South Korea toward the disabled.

Q: Dr. Lee,
Your story is incredible. I know how strong willed a Korean man can be. (I was a Jip Sa Nim in the Korean Presbyterian Church for 17 years.) How is it that you were able to overcome the depression caused by your difficult condition and continue your work? Would you please share your secret with all those who suffer depression due to setbacks? Thank you. David. David Bieger, San Diego, California

Sang-Mook Lee: I think it was the life that I led and enjoyed before the accident. I always believed that I was lucky and that someone high up there was looking after me. My education and exposure to science also helped. When I look back at my life, I was able to achieve what I had wished for not because I was truly excellent but because somebody was there to help me at important moments. I was simply lucky, and I believe that somehow things will get better and this tragic accident was not the end.

Q: Aloha Dr. Lee,
In recent years, scientists have discovered links between geophysics and life that were not even suspected just a few short decades ago. For example, scientists today hypothesize that the Earth's molten core plays a role in generating our planet's magnetic field, which in turn protects Earth's atmosphere—and in turn, life on Earth—from the sort of atmospheric destruction that Mars may have undergone in the distant past as a result of the solar wind blasting that planet's atmosphere away. Do you think that plate tectonics may have had or continues to have a similar influence on our oceans and perhaps on the evolution of life on our planet? That perhaps life could not evolve or exist on a planet that did not have in place an active system of plate tectonics? Or are plate tectonics merely symptomatic of the molten core necessary to maintain a planet's protective magnetic field?

And a different, but related, question: Do you think that researching and studying such distant epochs in time has helped you to put your own life—and all of our lives—in a sort of perspective that has better enabled you to overcome your reverses during the past three years? Anonymous

Lee: Your first question is a difficult one and a good one, which scientists are trying to answer at the moment, I believe. You are correct that Mars has a very weak magnetic field compared to the Earth. Having a strong magnetic field protects our planet from harmful radiation from the sun and thus has contributed to the protection of life. However, that alone does not explain why we have life on our planet and not on some other planets in our solar system. You are also correct that scientists believe that plate tectonics played an important role on the birth and evolution of life on our planet. But just having plate motions and a magnetic field will not generate life. The formation of life is a complex problem. I think of Steve Hawking's response to the question of whether life exists on other parts of the universe: He replied that there may be some finite probability for primitive forms of life to exist in other places, but the probability would be much lower for advanced and involved life like us to exist elsewhere.

To answer your second question, well, it was my love for science as a whole and the appreciation of human knowledge rather than my specific understanding of geological phenomena that has helped me. Science has allowed me to put things (like those that have happened to me) on a broader perspective beyond personal suffering.

Q: Hi Dr. Lee,
I've heard that plate tectonics regulate the climate by controlling atmospheric CO2, but how is it that the plates do not sequester too much CO2? Kennedy Junior High School, 8th Grade

Lee: I do not know much about the sequestration of carbon dioxide, but I think timescale is an important factor one has to consider in addressing your question. If you consider this matter over a geological timescale (that is, over a long period of time), the motions of plates have controlled the global climate and where plants and animals live as well as how they thrive. Since it is the animals and plants that take up carbon dioxide, by regulating their prosperity and abundance on the globe, plate tectonics has played a role in the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere indirectly, I would say.

Q: I work as a teacher with Atlanta Mil Al Sung Kyo. What are the most important principles for Korean handicapped to know? Ray Wozniak, Lawrenceville, Georgia

Lee: Well, I think with the aid of various assistive devices (including computers and software) that are available these days, handicapped people can get back to work and enjoy a better life. They can also give back to society what they have received and play a meaningful role.

Q: As the manufacturer of a mouth-operated mouse for people with disabilities, I would like to ask if the programs you are involved with have heard of my product, the TetraMouse. It is different because it is much more affordable (US$250) and more functional than the mouse I saw you using on the NOVA program. A complete description may be seen on the website at tetramouse.com. Mark Snyder, Seattle, Washington

Lee: Thank you very much for your information. I will definitely try it.

Q: I am a 34-year-old man with a recent onset of undiagnosed neurological conditions—in other words, disabled. I have seen doctors at Oregon Health and Science University to no avail. I am being referred to the MAYO Clinic. While my challenges may be a lot different than Sang-Mook's, I believe he can identify with them. I am interested in working in some capacity. What I would really like to do is to help people with new disabilities, cope, work, find the right help, etc. I have many ideas but find it hard to network with people of similar interests. Any ideas, comments, concerns, would be greatly appreciated. To be able to talk to or communicate with Sang-Mook would be a great honor. Jay, Ashland, Oregon

Lee: Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts. First of all, I wish your condition will get better. You can write to me via e-mail. My e-mail address can be found at our university faculty page.

Q: During a trip to Seoul to adopt our children, we visited the Holt International Children's Services center for disabled persons in Ilsan. I was saddened to learn how Koreans perceive the disabled. Have you visited Holt Ilsan? I encourage you to witness the unconditional love and assistance the staff has given there to children and adults for decades.

May God bless you in your career, your advocacy for the disabled, and your new life. Thanks for reading this. Gina Doll, Redding, California

Lee: I have not visited Holt Ilsan yet. A week ago, I received an e-mail from a chemistry professor in the United States who adopted two Korean children and one had a severe disability. I was really moved by his story. Thank you for your encouragement.

Q: I don't have a question, but I would like to say to you that your indomitable spirit is a beautiful thing! Keep shining your light, and I have no doubt that attitudes toward disability in South Korea will change for the better. Thank you!! Dawn, U.S.

Lee: Thank you very much.

Q: Watching your triumph touched me so deeply I cried. How do you keep your spirits so high? I have a chronic illness—not even a disability—and I just can't do it lately! Your attitude is an inspiration to everyone. Anonymous

Lee: Well, I had a lot of help from people around me to begin with. And I guess I am just lucky. I often tell people that I benefited twice already from the American social system: My education at MIT opened up many doors of opportunity professionally when I returned back to Korea, and when I fell on the desert floor [from an automobile accident], it was the American emergency medical system that saved my life. And I am not even an American citizen.

Q: Could you please inform me of how you are able to travel on airplanes? My fiancé is a quadriplegic, and we have found no easy way for him to travel by air. Please share your experiences and accommodations. Thank you. Maureen Magee, Miami, Florida

Lee: Long distance air travel is a major problem for me as well. First of all, because of the risk of getting pressure sores, I have to lie down when I travel for long hours. That means I have to get a first class or business ticket even though what I need is just a reclining seat, not the upgraded service. And because I have to bring along two people who can help me, I have to buy their tickets as well. So it has become very expensive for me to travel on airplanes. I don't have any proper solution to this problem.

Q: I was very impressed with your positive attitude/spirit as well as the adaptive equipment that you use. I could not tell how are you drive your electric wheelchair. I also use an electric wheelchair and am encountering decreased functional abilities from a progressive neuromuscular disease. Any information you could share would be very appreciated. David, Natick, Massachusetts

Lee: Since I cannot move my hand or finger at all, I cannot use a joystick to control my wheelchair. I use special device with the back of my head (on the head rest) to control the wheelchair. The one that I am using is made by a company called Adoptive Switch Lab. There are three sensors mounted on my head rest that basically act like the obstacle sensor on the back bumper of a car. I can slightly move my head to touch these sensors, and depending on which one I touch, they act like a steering wheel.

Q: It is clear that adaptive technologies have made a huge difference in your life, but you must still see some needs for additional technologies to be developed. What, in your opinion, are the most pressing needs for new types of technology for the disabled? Anonymous

Lee: You are absolutely right. Disabled people like myself can greatly benefit from the new technologies. However, because the types of disability are so diverse, it is difficult to make a product that fits everyone. There is very little economic incentive for the developers. However, with the continued advancement of computers and other electronics, I think we will see more great products in the coming years. In addition to assistive technology, what I think is most needed, especially in Korea, is to open up new doors of opportunity for disabled people in higher education.

Education is important for everybody, but when you get disabled, you become deprived of the opportunity. Fortunately for me, I was rather well educated before my injury. This made all the difference for me. However, for most disabled people, education becomes a luxury, and then because you are less educated, you are deprived of good jobs. I think it is important to break this vicious cycle, and as a scientist and educator, I feel like this is my mission in Korea.

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