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How Korean-Americans Transformed the History of Science and Technology


By Rose Kwak

In 2005, the U.S Senate and House of Representatives passed a historic resolution to acknowledge and to honor Korean-American contributions to the United States, officially setting the date to January 13th for the day of commemoration. Since the first wave of Korean immigrants in the early 20th century, Korean-Americans have not only increased in numbers, but have also made significant cultural and economic contributions to the American society.

Among a myriad of achievements, Korean-Americans have made pioneering achievements in scientific and technological innovations, ranging from automotive design to space missions. Korean-Americans continue to pave a road of limitless possibilities in future prospects of scientific progress in the U.S and around the globe.  As KEI honors Korean-Americans on January 13 that have made important contributions to science and technology, the Korean Americans listed below are representative of the many significant Korean-American figures in scientific and technological fields:

Dennis Hong: Hong has revolutionized the field of robotics by combining his passion for robotics with biochemistry. Frequently at the forefront of robotics, he was not only named as one of “Popular Science’s Brilliant 10,” but was also the recipient of the prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Program award. His company RoMeLa (Robotics and Mechanism Laboratory) continues to produce some of the most creative and useful robots in the world, such as chemically powered snakes, walking tripods, and autonomous humanoids to name a few.

Jefferson Y. “Jeff” Han: Han is one of the main developers for multi-touch sensing, which allows recognition of more than two points of contact with the surface of a television or computer. To put it simply, a multi-touch screen allows users to interact with a screen with more than one finger at a time and it also accommodates to multiple users, increasing both efficiency and usability. Han presented his innovations in a Ted Talk in which he demonstrated how the mechanisms behind multi-touch screens could potentially lead to the end of “point-and-click” era.

Larry Kwak: As an internationally-acclaimed physician and scientist, Kwak was the recipient of the 2016 Ho-Am Prize in Medicine (equivalent to the Nobel Prize in Korea) for his cutting-edge research in the fields of immunology and cancer vaccinations. He is well-known for his innovation in the world’s first “cancer vaccine,” the lymphoma vaccine.  He is gained prominence in the world of medicine through his 12-plus years of research in the field, and in 2010 Time Magazine named him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

John Chun: Chun was a Korean-American car designer, notably known for his design of the Shelby Mustang GT 350 and GT500, which started distribution nationwide in 1967. He also designed the Shelby AC Cobra. His re-design of the Cobra logo is still used by the Shelby line today. In the Star Tribune magazine he has been described as a legend that “reshaped automotive history with his design for a legendary 1960s sports cars.”

Mark “Roman” Polansky: Polansky was an American aerospace engineer and a NASA astronaut of Korean-descent (his mother is from Hawaii but of Korean descent). He was in charge of three space shuttle missions including the STS-98 mission, in which he was the main pilot, and the ST-116 and ST-127 missions, in which he served as the mission commander. In these missions, his crew helped to build and to enhance the capabilities of the International Space Station.

Sung-Mo “Steve” Kang: Kang is an electrical engineer and the 15th President of KAIST University. Through his research in integrated circuits and systems (VLSI), he has led the development of the first 32-bit microprocessor chips used in computers. He also designed satellite-based private communication networks.

Peter S. Kim: Kim is a scientist who served as the president of Merck Research Laboratories, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Kim specializes in HIV/AIDS research and he created compounds that prevent AIDS virus from infecting cells, using the principle of membrane fusion.  As one of the most influential scientists in the field of HIV/AIDS studies, Kim continues to lead pioneering research in developing a possible AIDS vaccine.

Rose Kwak is an intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America and a graduate of Davidson College in North Carolina. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Image created by Juni Kim, the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America, from images on flickr’s Creative Commons by GabboT, NASA HQ, Candy Scwartz, Johannes Wienke, Sanofi Pasteur, NIAID in clockwise order from top left.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.