[포항공대에 바란다] Systems Engineering and the New Biology
[포항공대에 바란다] Systems Engineering and the New Biology
  • Sangtae Kim / Eli Lilly and Company V.P. Members
  • 승인 2002.01.01 00:00
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▲ Sangtae Kim / Eli Lilly and Company V.P. Members of National Academy of Engineering
Exactly a decade ago, I had the pleasant experience of teaching at Postech as a visiting professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering. As the semester of fall 1991 was winding down to its waning days, I was presenting the final set of lectures in the advanced graduate course on microhydrodynamics (now more commonly known as microfluidics). The lectures featured algorithms designed to match the increasing role of emerging, high performance computers and the role of information technology as a foundational element of all new technologies. Little did I realize then, that only six years later, I would have the opportunity to put my ideas into practice and thus shift from abstract theories and ivory towers of academia to “real problems” in a leadership position in information technology in the world of pharmaceutical R&D. Two years after my move to industry, the completion of the first draft of the human genome in the year 2000 and ready access to its compilation via the world wide web reaffirmed the convergence of the biological sciences and information technology. This then brings me to the central thesis of this article: an optimistic view of the role Postech and Korea can play in the next wave of innovation in the post-genomic era.

Postech was founded thanks to resources that were generated by the most dramatic economic growth of any nation in the modern era. After three decades of impressive growth, we see today that many elements of the Korean economy are indistinguishable from those of the G7 nations. Indeed, in the foundational elements of the information economy, namely percentage of households with high-speed access to the internet and the penetration of wireless technologies, Korea leads the world. It is thus not inconceivable that Korea can play a more important role (than it has historically) in the development of innovative information technologies that deliver the fruits of genomics.

The first wave of research in genomics mapped the human genome as a sequence of nucleic acids. Although the genomic sequence is often referred to as the blueprint of life, a more accurate analogy would be a “catalog of parts” - and at that a catalog that lacks the associated manual for assembly. As we embark on the great adventure of integrating the parts into the whole, the spotlight shifts to a systems approach to the new biology. With each passing month, the landmark research outcomes at the leading edge of biology become ever more reminiscent of systems engineering - with electronic circuits replaced by biochemical pathways.

As an energetic and innovative institute for research, Postech has the opportunity to build upon its successes to date in cross-disciplinary and inter-departmental research. The compact campus and the separation from the distractions of Seoul further serves to instill a sense of community. Postech can draw upon excellence in three disciplines: biologi cal sciences, engineering and computer science, to play the leading role in building the foundatio n for Korea’s participati on in the next economic revolution and a place among the economic superpowers.

Today, we live in a global economy that is driven by the productivity of knowledge workers. In the “gloomy” scenario, global economic growth stalls in the coming decades as dictated by the laws of demographics. But an alternative and contrarian optimistic scenario exists. In this scenario, we see the possibilities of a positive feedback loop; knowledge workers discovering breakthrough medicines that enable all knowledge workers to maintain excellent health and mental accuity… and thus lengthen their productive years and thus create even more useful knowledge in all fields of endeavor. The new economic powers will be those nations that best drive this virtuous feedback loop.

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