Profile: Sang-Mook Lee

  • Posted 09.01.09
  • NOVA scienceNOW

(This video is no longer available for streaming.) Sang-Mook Lee, a professor of marine geology and geophysics at Seoul National University, is paralyzed from the neck down. But that hasn't stopped him: He continues to teach and pursue his research on tectonic plates and the formation of the world's oceans. Outside his academic work, he also has launched a new career teaching others with disabilities and advocating for the rights of disabled people.

Running Time: 10:54


Profile: Sang-Mook Lee

PBS Airdate: September 1, 2009

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Scientific research is filled with challenges like will your experiment work or won't it? People can invest years of their lives, not knowing if they'll get the payoff of a big discovery.

In this episode's profile, we meet a man who met all the ordinary challenges to become a successful researcher, and then one day, quite suddenly, was handed a whole new set of overwhelming obstacles that his passion for science empowered him to overcome.

Meet Sang-Mook Lee. Where he's from, he's known as the "Stephen Hawking of South Korea."

SANG-MOOK LEE: "Sang-Mook Lee, professor of Seoul National University, also known as Stephen Hawking of Korea." That's like a fixed quote. Every time I'm cited, they cite like that.

He looks into the universe; I look into the bottom of the sea.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Sang-Mook is an esteemed professor at South Korea's top university, and one of the foremost geophysicists in his country. He studies underwater volcanoes and tectonic plates deep beneath the ocean.

Yet, just three years ago, he was in a near-fatal car accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Many thought he would never work again.

MIKE GURNIS (California Institute of Technology): He was heavily sedated; he couldn't move; the machines were keeping his lungs going, but you could just see a light in his eye and that there was a future out there.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: He made an impossible comeback.

He has since emerged as a national hero.

KUNWOO LEE (Seoul National University): By showing his attitude, will become a hope for every handicapped people.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: He credits his return to his passion for science.

SANG-MOOK LEE: I just love science. I knew I had to get back because it was something I really wanted to do.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Sang-Mook's love for science began as a child, when he dreamt of exploring the world.

SANG-MOOK LEE: That's when I dreamt about being a globetrotter and going around the world at very exotic places.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: He went after this dream. Getting a Ph.D. in geophysics from M.I.T., he began a life on the sea.

SANG-MOOK LEE: When I returned back to Korea, I became the marine geophysicist in Korea, and we had the ship. That was when my science got really, really exciting, because I was the only one in charge of this big ship. You're being like pirate.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: His research involves studying the submarine activity of tectonic plates, those massive slabs of rock that make up Earth's crust.

SANG-MOOK LEE: We use indirect ways to image what is below the seafloor, because all the records are preserved in the ocean.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Shooting seismic waves through the ocean floor creates a picture of what lies inside the earth. These pictures allow him to monitor underwater earthquakes and volcanoes, and learn more about how Earth's crust was formed.

SANG-MOOK LEE: What I do is I study the past 200-million years of Earth's history, to understand how Earth has behaved in the past four and a half billion years.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Sang-Mook hopes that by studying the tectonic activity in uncharted regions, we might someday be able to forecast geological disasters, like tsunamis and earthquakes.

SANG-MOOK LEE: I looked at the map of the western Pacific, and I tried to choose targets where nobody has gone before. I think that is the real essence of science, discovery, like, climbing up the peak of a mountain that nobody has gone before.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: But everything changed on July 2, 2006, on a field trip to California, with a group of students.

SANG-MOOK LEE: It was toward the end of our trip, and we were working toward Death Valley.

I don't remember anything, that day, nothing at all. People will tell me, "This is what happened. This is what happened."

"Oh, is that so?" I don't recall anything. My van flipped, and I was crushed in the seat.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Sang-Mook's fourth cervical vertebrae had been fractured, and he was in a coma.

SANG-MOOK LEE: When I was still in coma, I knew that I was injured. And I said, "Oh, Sang-Mook, you're in trouble." And then, I said, "But Sang-Mook, you have been in difficult situations before, so you can come out of this trap. Figure out what to do."

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: He awoke from his coma after three days, paralyzed from the neck down.

SANG-MOOK LEE: Immediately after the injury, I worried that I wouldn't be able to work.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: And he worried about the challenges that South Koreans with disabilities commonly face, challenges like economic hardship and family problems. Married with three children, Sang-Mook Lee and his family would ultimately separate, and although financially able to provide for his own care, he knew he would have to contend with the stigma that so often accompanies disability, especially in South Korea.

DAN SHIM (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): People with disabilities are not well accepted in this society. And they tend to hide in a shadow and, you know, they don't want to expose themselves. Even taxi drivers will refuse to, to get you on, if you have disability.

SANG-MOOK LEE: In Korea, people with my level of injury would stay in the hospital, or would shun from the society, but I was not embarrassed to come back to my work and to try to do what I used to do.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Using all the technologies available, he was out of bed within a month of his accident.

SANG-MOOK LEE: Science played a very, very important part for me to come back after the injury. Because of my interest in science, I just thought, "I must go back to work."

MIKE GURNIS: Suddenly—and it was, it seemed like it was suddenly—now he was in motion again. He had this chair, and he had all of the gizmos. And he could literally move the wheelchair around, turn it, and then also use computer devices, almost immediately, by breathing into a straw. He also could move his head back and press a button by moving his head. I mean it was extraordinary to see this happen so quickly.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Just six months later, Sang-Mook returned to teaching.

SANG-MOOK LEE: One day, a reporter noticed me. This reporter was from one of the major newspapers in Korea. He heard about me, but when he saw me, it shocked him,

and he knew from reporter's instinct that this could be a big story. And the next day, on March 5th, this very big newspaper in Korea ran my story on the front page.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: The attention made him immediately recognizable throughout his country.

MIKE GURNIS: As time went on, he then assumed this greater and greater role to become a spokesperson for disabled people within Korea.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: He now hosts his own radio show, writes a column on disability in South Korea's biggest newspaper, and he's written a popular book about his work in the sciences.

WOMAN: I was incredibly moved by your book.

SANG-MOOK LEE: I feel very fortunate that I had an opportunity to reevaluate myself at that moment in my life. I asked myself, "What can I do to give back? What can I do actively to give back?"

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: Sang-Mook's biggest project is a multimillion dollar undertaking, funded by the South Korean government, and it's finding ways to help other handicapped South Koreans get back in the workplace.

SANG-MOOK LEE: Why do so many disabled students only take the civil service exam? We need to lead more of these students to go into computers and science.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: As part of this program, he's working to discover and develop technologies for the handicapped, including Korean voice recognition software and robotic limbs.

SANG-MOOK LEE: You and I may run a shop.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: In a city where Sang-Mook often has to bring his own ramp just to get around, there's still lots of work to do.

SANG-MOOK LEE: It is very difficult, you know? Basically, we have to remodel Seoul.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: But this hasn't stopped him. His love for science has him globetrotting once again. He recently made his first overseas trip since his accident, to an international science conference in San Francisco.

MIKE GURNIS: That he can come to an international meeting, fly across the Pacific, interact with his colleagues, present his scientific work, it does symbolize he is now part of the community of scientists, once again.

NEIL DeGRASSE TYSON: In fact, Sang-Mook has major research trips planned to explore underwater volcanoes in Tonga and mid-ocean ridges in the Pacific Antarctic. And although he no longer sails the seas himself, Sang-Mook can still be the captain of his crew.

SANG-MOOK LEE: Now that I'm confined to wheelchair, I cannot go directly to those places. But nowadays with the development of Internet, satellite communication, I'm able to participate in many of the cruises, without going directly to sea. I can enjoy science without getting seasick.

Many people heard of my story, that I was severely injured, and they doubted that I would ever come back. But with the new programs that are opening up, they will see a lot more of me.


Profile: Sang-Mook Lee

Edited by
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This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0638931. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Image credit: (Sang-Mook Lee) © WGBH Educational Foundation


Mike Gurnis
Kun Woo Lee
Seoul National University
Sang-Mook Lee
Seoul National University
Dan Shim
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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