SCIENCE FACTORY (SF@Y) is a research program conducted by the Institute of Basic Science for Nanomedicine (IBS CNM) for undergraduate students at Yonsei University. As part of South Korea’s “Nobel Prize project,” IBS CNM dedicates itself to developing cutting-edge nanomaterials and nanodevices to monitor various biological phenomena. The center established SF@Y last year as a way to foster promising young researchers who are passionate about science. Undergraduates from any major are eligible to apply, making it a unique opportunity for students to develop and carry out a full-fledged research project even with minimal prior experience. The Yonsei Annals explored the inspiration behind the program and why it is worthwhile to get involved.
For the sake of undergraduates
SF@Y was established in September, 2019 with the goal of providing research opportunities to undergraduate students. In explaining the program’s origins, Professor Lee Jae-hyun (Prof., Dept. of Nano Biomedical Engineering) of IBS CNM pointed to the poor research environment of our university: “Undergraduates at Yonsei University severely lack genuine research experience. 2 to 3 hours of laboratory experiments during class is just not sufficient to develop the necessary skills to become a promising researcher.” He added that there is a clear difference between an experiment and research and emphasized the importance of the latter. “Conducting an experiment simply means following previously established protocols and yielding the expected results, just like baking with a recipe. This is what most undergraduate students may be used to. However, what college students really have to learn is how to do research. That is, they must come up with an engaging scientific question that no one has ever explored before and test their hypothesis with a carefully designed experiment of their own,” said Professor Lee. At the undergraduate level, most students must get an internship to even have a rough idea of what actual research looks like, let alone the opportunity to conduct research by themselves. Professor Lee added that “even getting an intern job is competitive as students have to individually contact the professors they want to work with.”
Play with the SF@Y Program
The best feature of SF@Y is that students can conduct the entirety of the research project on their own from laying out a research schedule, to designing experiments, and finally, giving a scientific presentation. The program is held during the summer and winter breaks, and students are divided into 2 or 3 member teams. The center then chooses three themes such as gene editing, Nano Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and Quantum Dot Science, all of which are major areas of research in the field. Students can choose one of the available themes and come up with any relevant research questions. Lee Soo-min (Sr., ISE, Nano Science & Engin.) who was intrigued by quantum dot nanoscale semiconductors—used for making colors on a TV screen—did not hesitate to apply. SF@Y provided her the unique opportunity to actually develop the quantum dots which she had previously only learned about in class.
In order to sign up for the program, every student must fill out an application form that can be found on the IBS CNM website and take part in student interviews. “The aim of the student interview is to see how passionate students are about the topic of their interest and check if they can devote their entire vacation to the program,” said Professor Lee. Having prior experiences with intern jobs or similar research projects is unnecessary as the goal of the program is to provide opportunities to inexperienced undergraduates.
SF@Y is still a relatively new program. IBS CNM is only preparing for its third session which will be held this summer and hopes to continue attracting new applicants. The first and second sessions included 10 and 8 students respectively from different majors. However, the center is still unsure whether they will be recruiting more students this upcoming season due to the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
Do something you’ve always wanted to do
The most unique characteristic of this loosely structured program is precisely the sense of freedom that it provides. Though the research itself is fully funded and all of the necessary equipment is provided, there are no rigid criteria or rules to follow. At SF@Y, students are provided only rough guidelines such as the length of the program and the potential themes. Even designing the research schedule is entirely up to the students. During the first week of the program, students must hand in a meticulous research schedule to the professors for review. The schedule will include everything from mundane duties like renting meeting rooms and experiment facilities to more important decisions such as when and where to purchase necessary chemical reagents. “Students will often find that their research schedule is very tight. [For instance], one of the last season’s topics was gene-editing, and that topic requires at least a semester of studying even for graduate students,” added Professor Lee.
Despite the intensity of the program, students have taken to the program with a great deal of enthusiasm. Many were willing to work well past the minimum requirement of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and their passion seemed to prove that IBS CNM has succeeded in motivating students. Lee Jun-suk (Sr., UIC, Life Science & Biotech.) said his team members not only came to the center every day, but also often stayed very late to really delve into the project. Both Jun-suk and Soo-min emphasized that the precious opportunity to use high-end facilities like MRI and Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) microscopes and having professors of outstanding research performance like Professor Lee as advisors are major advantages of the program. For his part, Professor Lee discovered that students were really enjoying the freedom they were given, and it even made some of them return after the program for further internship opportunities.
As a further incentive, SF@Y also provides a scholarship of sorts to the best performing teams. Towards the end of the program, the professors rank the three most outstanding teams and provide rewards of ₩2.5 million, ₩2 million, and ₩1.5 million respectively. Recently, Professor Lee has floated the idea of providing the best team of the season a chance to dine with Professor Randy Schekman, the 2013 Nobel Prize Winner of Physiology and Medicine, as well as a guaranteed invitation to participate in a science conference of a renowned foreign institution, but he has not yet been able to implement this plan due to the ongoing pandemic.
Overcoming difficulties through the promotion of team science
If students ever find themselves stuck in the middle of their research, they can receive advice from graduate student mentors enrolled in the Nano BME program— IBS CNM’s own graduate program. Although the mentors do not provide answers outright, they give advice on where to get necessary information and help students evaluate whether their research schedule is feasible. Soo-min was able to successfully synthesize very sensitive halide materials, thanks to the help of the student mentors. According to Professor Lee, these mentors have all volunteered to help undergraduates over the break and gained a great deal of satisfaction from their experience of “learning through teaching.”
Professors at IBS CNM are also very willing to help students make progress. During the interim evaluation, they ask detailed questions that sometimes go as far as to refute the very basis of the students’ research proposal. Jun-suk recalled his experience of having to start all over again as the most difficult situation he encountered over the course of the program. However, he was able to realize that the control variable his team tested was fundamentally wrong thanks to the criticisms he received during the interim meeting.
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SF@Y has created a platform through which students can expand on their theoretical knowledge about research and really delve into the specific subject matter that interests them. Whereas most professional research positions require at least a bachelor’s degree in Korea, SF@Y is committed to fostering the research capabilities of promising new researchers. More information about the third SF@Y session “Create Nano” can be found at https://ibs.yonsei.ac.kr/factory/, and the application period starts on May 28 and ends on June 5.
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