The nanoparticle pioneer on the importance of reading, exercise and nurturing excellent young scientists

Taeghwan Hyeon is a distinguished professor at Seoul National University, Republic of Korea, and serves as the director of the Center for Nanoparticle Research at the university’s Institute for Basic Science. His research spans the synthesis, assembly and applications of nanoparticles. In 2020, the impact of this work led to his selection as a Clarivate Citation laureate, marking him out as a potential future Nobel prizewinner.

I grew up in the countryside near Taegu, which is the third largest city in Korea. My dad was a farmer, but he graduated high school, which is a high level of education in terms of in a countryside farm. When I was 11 years old, I represented my elementary school in the province science competition. The exam material was about acid–base titration. It seems like I did pretty well, and I received the silver medal. And then I thought, why don’t I become a scientist? So, I picked my career very early.

When you become an independent researcher, you don’t want to repeat or continue whatever you have done for your PhD. When I became a new professor in 1997, nanoscience was emerging, it was a completely new research area. I thought, ‘this is going to be a lot of fun, let me try this’. Actually, in the beginning it was not easy at all, because it was completely different from what I did in my PhD and postdoctoral research. But it’s one of the best decisions I ever made. That’s really what made me what I am now.

I’m really happy that our heat-up process has become almost the standard method to make uniform sized nanoparticles of different kinds of materials in large quantities. That’s my most important achievement. That’s why last year, I was selected as a Citation laureate, along with Moungi Bawendi and Chris Murray. The problem is, people only recognise me for my two papers about the heat-up process, not my many other papers about different topics. But I mean, I cannot complain.

I always emphasise to my students, you’ve got to try to get new research ideas. The best way is reading recent articles in top journals. I still do it now. Whenever I have new ideas I send a message to my students. I’m always sharing my ideas with them.

The Institute for Basic Science [IBS] programme is an absolutely fantastic programme. All of my friends in the United States really envy me. Now I’m the director of the Center for Nanoparticle Research I don’t have to write proposals anymore. The Institute is modelled after the MPI system in Germany and the RIKEN system in Japan. Funding is quite generous, over $6 million per year. I have all the authority, I can choose whatever research topic I want to do, I can pick whichever young scientists I want to work with, I can choose everything. And we have excellent graduate students around, that’s even better.

You have to be good at human relationships

When I look back at my research career pathway, support from the IBS allowed me to make a really big jump in the breadth and depth of my research, in performance and also collaborations. And I have been able to recruit several excellent young scientists, including Dae-Hyeong Kim and Jungwon Park. I’m really happy that I was able to help them and then they can grow. That’s so exciting.

My students only spend three or four years with me and then they switch research topic. I convinced five of them who were interested to switch to Dae-Hyeong Kim’s group and Jungwon Park’s group when the groups were first set up. That’s how we help new professors to start easily – right from the beginning, they already have well trained graduate students and postdocs, and they also share our IBS research funding.

To get a PhD in my group, you have to do two things. You’ve got to post two papers in top journals. That means you have to work hard. But more importantly, you have to be good at human relationships. You have to know how to get along with other researchers. Because all of our papers published for the last 10 years in top-tier journals are through collaboration. Oftentimes we have more than 15 authors on a paper. Multidisciplinary collaboration is not optional, it’s a must.

My life is really simple. I either read a paper or write a paper, and then the rest of the time, play tennis or sometimes practise golf. My favourite is playing tennis. As a professor, as a scientist, and also an IBS director – I was also a JACS’s associate editor until last year – there’s a lot of stress. If you do some really good exercise, that’s really helpful. I play a lot, at least three times a week, oftentimes four times a week. In Korea, we don’t have many tennis courts available. That’s why we always play doubles. And that’s how you get to know other people. It’s a lot of fun.