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Sang Yup Lee Calls for Creativity and Collaboration to Solve Global Problems

Lee’s visit was a part of McCormick’s Dean Seminar Series on Jan. 21

More than 2 billion people will be age 60 or older by the year 2050, according to a United Nations report. Sang Yup Lee, distinguished professor and dean at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), shared this stunning statistic during his visit to Northwestern University this week.

“This is scary,” said Lee (PhD ’91). “If seniors are not healthy, then society will be in trouble.”

Sang Yup LeeHosted by the McCormick School of Engineering’s Dean Seminar Series, Lee discussed several global problems that KAIST is actively working to solve, including the potential economic and social burden of the aging population, the energy crisis, and climate change. “Bio, Nano, and Beyond: Unlocking New Ideas through Collaborative Research” took place Wednesday, January 21 in the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center.

Lee said KAIST researchers approach big problems by working collaboratively and thinking creatively. To combat age-related issues such as Parkinson’s disease, for example, biologists, physiologists, chemical engineers, and medical doctors are working together to pioneer new solutions. This interdisciplinary angle has led to finding a new way to deliver light therapy to improve the motor function of animal models with Parkinson’s disease.

“It’s a better solution than administering chemical drugs, which can raise a patient’s tolerance and eventually stop working,” Lee said. “And this work cannot be done solely by medical doctors.”

Buildings at KAIST are designed to facilitate collaboration. Many have open floor plans and no walls, encouraging professors to share lab space and interact more often. The KAIST Institute hosts six interdisciplinary research institutes and six research centers that cover fields ranging from biology, nanotechnology, and information technology to complex system design, optical technology, and disaster studies.

In addition to its 1,500 faculty and staff members, KAIST has 11,000 students who participate in a system called Education 3.0, which promotes creative thinking.

“Professors can do anything in the classroom except for one thing: lecture,” Lee said. “The classroom is for discussion, debate, and group work.”

Lee shared several videos showcasing the new work coming out of KAIST, including a new smart e-book interface. The application allows users to interact with electronic books more similarly to how they interact with hardcopies. Users can quickly flip past multiple pages at once, fan through pages, and bend a single page’s corner to peek at the next page. Lee said the product is remarkable because it was the result of an outside suggestion.

“We don’t just create technology; we listen,” he said. “This app was not difficult to make, but the idea came from the KAIST IT Institute and a lady who likes real books. We believe in creation through consilience.”

Lee ended his seminar with a quote from economist and author Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

“Everyone wants to know the future,” Lee said. “We can create the future through collaborative innovations.”