Alumni spotlight: Kwanghun Chung (Ph.D. '09)

Assistant professor at MIT credits ChBE mentor with instilling love of science


Amy Schneider
School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering
(404) 385-2299

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The assistant professor at MIT credits his ChBE mentor, Hang Lu, with instilling his love of science.

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  • Kwanghun Chung Kwanghun Chung

Georgia Tech is 7,114 miles from Seoul National University in South Korea. But when Kwanghun Chung completed his degree in chemical and biological engineering in Seoul in 2005, he made the long trek to Atlanta to earn his Ph.D. and work in Hang Lu’s research group.

“I chose Georgia Tech ChBE because I had deep faith in the breadth and the depth of the program,” said Chung, now an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Moreover, I found Dr. Lu’s research fascinating and really wanted to work with her.”

The appeal of Lu’s research, which involves studying the neurological systems of C. elegans (a tiny transparent roundworm) and developing microfluidic devices to serve as micro biological systems, made it tricky to land a spot in her research group. Fortunately, Chung had a plan.

“To impress her, I gave her a thick folder including my standard operating procedure, all the papers that I read that were relevant to her research, and silly proposals. Luckily, she decided to work with me,” Chung said.

Chung continued to impress throughout his work in Lu’s group. His work included developing a sorting device for the worms, a cell ablator and embryo traps. In 2009, he became the first of Lu’s mentees to earn a Ph.D.

Lu said Chung stands out not only because he was her first student to earn a Ph.D.

“Kwanghun has always struck me as being extremely curious, creative and focused,” she said. “These are great traits for being a scientist.”

Many ChBE graduates go on to successful careers in industry, but Lu believes it is important to encourage students to become the next generation of academic leaders.

Chung is an example of a student who was inspired by a faculty member and took the baton.

“My experience working with [Lu] was absolutely crucial in my career development,” he said. “She helped me fall in love with science. Once you get to love something at such a level, everything else follows naturally. The most important takeaway from her was the pure passion for science. I decided to stay in academia because it’s undoubtedly one of the best places to do real science.”

Chung also patterns his interaction with students after the way he was treated during his years at Georgia Tech — particularly his experience working with Lu.

“She really cares about her students and respects them. She treated me like a friend and a colleague back at Georgia Tech and still does,” he said. “I know from my short experience as a professor that it’s not easy to treat your students in such a way. It requires true passion in educating the next batch of scientists. This is something that I try not to forget every moment in my life these days.”

Chung’s time at ChBE brought many successes. One accomplishment of which he is especially proud is the Ziegler Award for best research paper, on which he collaborated with Jae Kyu Cho of Victor Breedveld’s research group.

But even the setbacks provided opportunities to learn, he said.

“I got scooped twice during my Ph.D. Actually, both of my two main Ph.D. projects were scooped,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most depressing things that can happen to Ph.D. students. However, when it happened to me, I felt surprisingly OK. In fact, it made me realize how much I enjoyed doing research itself and not the reward afterward.

“Also, I learned that if you believe in the value of your science, it doesn’t matter who does it first. As Dr. Lu helped me find the true joy of doing science, I am trying to help my students have fun in the lab to boot.”

He also is teaching his students not to see limitations to chemical engineering. Chemical engineers can bring new perspective to decades-long problems in fields such as biology and medicine, including neuroscience, he said.

“Chemical engineers are exceptionally well-trained for studying complex biological systems because we have expert understanding of core concepts — such as mass/heat transfer, kinetics and chemistry — that govern the biological world,” he said. “I believe chemical engineers can make a big impact in biology and medicine.”

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  • Created By: Amy Schneider
  • Workflow Status: Published
  • Created On: Oct 30, 2014 - 10:53am
  • Last Updated: Oct 7, 2016 - 11:17pm