South Korean Biomedical Engineer Hopes to Continue Cancer Research in U.S.

Back in South Korea after earning a PhD from Purdue University and pursuing groundbreaking research in biomedical devices for cancer treatment, Seung Hyun Song wonders if he will be able to return to the United States after completing his compulsory military service in South Korea.

As a young child growing up in South Korea, Seung Hyun Song never imagined that he would someday be treating cancer in the United States. Many years later and back home in South Korea, Seung now wonders if he will ever be able to return to the U.S. to conduct post-doctoral research or continue the groundbreaking work he started in the biomedical industry.

Seung first traveled to the United States to attend college and then remained in the country to pursue a PhD at Purdue University, one of America’s most prestigious research institutions. While there, Seung was part of a team conducting groundbreaking biomedical research on the treatment of cancerous tumors.

In just a short time, Seung and his team developed a tiny device that boosts oxygen levels in malignant tumors. This, he explains, makes tumors more responsive to chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The device could be crucial in the fight against pancreatic cancer, which is often fatal due to the lack of oxygen found in pancreatic tumors.

The team’s oxygen-boosting device has not yet been tested on human subjects but has received a patent, and one of the team’s leading professors, Babak Ziaie, has founded the company NanoSense based on the device’s technology. NanoSense is working on other medical devices that Seung and his team had developed, including glucose sensors for diabetic patients and implantable pressure sensors, which are injected into cancerous tumors so that doctors can monitor and optimize treatment.

Compared to South Korea, Seung says, “There is more opportunity to get a higher education quality for engineering” in the United States. Seung had moved to this country because he wanted to work on “exciting projects” in engineering, a goal that has clearly been realized.

After completing his doctorate, Seung acknowledged that he would have “liked to stay in the United States because it presents better opportunities.” Ideally, he was hoping to continue designing biomedical devices for a U.S.-based company, but he realized that he would have needed a company that was “willing to stick with me through the process of obtaining a green card.” Seung recognizes that, for many employers, this is a tall order to fill.

Seung has therefore returned to South Korea to fulfill his three-year military service obligation. With his doctoral degree, he is able to complete his service through work at a government-sponsored research institute. Seung describes his current job as “an exciting opportunity—albeit a challenging one,” where he is able to expand his knowledge and skills because of the institute’s focus on nano-materials.

Looking back, Seung reflects, “There were, perhaps, alternatives that I could have pursued, but the thought of being unable to return home for several years*, combined with the difficulties of getting an offer within the timeframe permitted through OPT** made me choose to go back [to South Korea].”

Seung still imagines a return to the United States to continue the research he started, however. “I love my country, but whether I choose to be in the [biomedical] industry or academia, the chances of bettering my career are much more abundant in the States.”

*South Korea’s Conscription Law applies to males between the ages of 18 and 35. Had Seung not completed his service in his twenties, he would not have been permitted to return to South Korea until he reached the age of 35.

**OPT refers to Optional Practical Training, which grants F-1 status undergraduate and graduate students a time period (typically 12 months) to pursue additional practical training through work complementary to their field of study.



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