Defying the odds – my journey to becoming a Highly Cited Researcher

Park is awarded the title of 2017 Highly Cited Researcher
Park is awarded the title of 2017 Highly Cited Researcher

Professor Eun-Jung Park chronicles her path from a ‘young child from a poor family in South Korea’ to a celebrated scientist and Highly Cited Researcher.

Science, by its very nature, relies upon equality. If experimentations in this field are to be considered successful, and if we want to publish the truth through accurate research, scientists must always be aiming to reduce biases as much as physically possible throughout their work.

It therefore seems ironic that one of the biggest issues that science faces today — despite it being the 21st Century — is the gender equality gap. A recent report from the British Medical Journal found that, out of 3,860 articles published in various scientific journals between the years of 1994 and 2014, only 1,273 (34%) of these were authored by women.

On top of this, it also found that ‘the representation of women among first authors of original research in high impact general medical journals was significantly higher in 2014 than 20 years ago, but it has plateaued in recent years and has declined in some journals’.1

These are statistics that should worry everyone working within the industry, and we must work together effectively as a community if we are to see any significant change. As things stand now, the hard work of many inspirational and deserving women in science is sadly going unnoticed and is underappreciated.

I consider myself eternally lucky to belong to the minority of women that have defied the odds, publishing research that has gone on to shape the scientific landscape and eventually landing myself with the prestigious title of Highly Cited Researcher from Clarivate Analytics. This is given to those who rank within the top 1% by citations for field and publication year in the Web of Science, and in 2017 this accolade was awarded to more than 3,300 scientists, myself included. Each of these individuals represents a chronicle of dedication, hard work and the tenacious pursuit of a dream; an exceptional and single-minded devotion to attaining their goals and furthering the scientific discipline.

A story of success

For myself, the road to success was long, and navigating it required perseverance and grit. As a young child from a poor family in South Korea, I simply wasn’t able to dream of the future I desired — financial constraints meant my choice of universities to attend was very limited — and so initially I resigned myself to growing up and leading a normal life as a young Korean woman.

However, shortly after finishing college I was accepted to Dongduk Women’s University in Seoul, and after completing my undergraduate degree I went on to pursue a master’s degree in pharmaceutical science. This was where my journey to where I am now really gained pace.

But this was also the most difficult time of my life, and I was dealt three strong blows in quick succession. While in my last year of studying, my father-in-law was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, my child was diagnosed with leukaemia, and my mother died of pancreatic cancer. My studies were put on hold while I provided care to my family, and there were many times when I considered calling an end to my studies altogether, but eventually I found myself on the other side with a master’s degree in my hand.

It was my husband who encouraged me to start my doctoral studies while in my late 30s – eight years after my mother died and 14 years after I first earned my undergraduate degree. I decided to draw on personal experience for my subject matter, studying nanoscale environmental toxins and how they invade the body and give rise to cancer, along with other diseases. It was a fascinating time, and at the age of 42 I finally gained my doctorate. I sometimes wonder what the younger version of me, raised in a poor family with no ambitions, would have said if they were told they would grow up to be a qualified doctor.

But a perfect fairy-tale ending this was not. I struggled to find stable postdoctoral employment for a number of reasons: my degree was from a less prestigious university, I had been in and out of various jobs in between my studies, and I had hit the point in my life where I was considered to be of an ‘advanced’ age. So I continued to write, research and experiment by my own accord, and slowly started to build a significant body of work that began being cited by others around the globe. Thanks to a generous grant from the National Research Foundation of Korea, I was able to continue my research work, exploring subject areas that were previously out of my reach and delving even deeper into areas of interest.

Reaping the rewards of research

While I was aware that my research was being cited regularly, it was a huge surprise when an email appeared in my inbox telling me I had been announced as a Highly Cited Researcher for 2017. It’s incredibly hard to describe how this moment felt in one word — I felt touched, elated, consoled and excited all at the same time — but most of all, I felt proud of myself.

Being recognised as a Highly Cited Researcher has triggered what can only be described as a miraculous trail of events for me over the last few months. Before the news, I was preparing to retire as a researcher. I suffer from gastritis, and I was in so much pain towards the end of last year that I was ready to give up for good — a decision I had not taken lightly. But receiving this award has spurred me on to continue with the work I’ve been doing. The enthusiasm I first felt as a researcher has now been reignited, and a whole new future lies ahead of me. With this in mind, I am now studying environmental disease at the Graduate School of East-West Medical Science, Kyung Hee University. Specifically, I am looking into diseases that can be induced by environmental toxicants and their trigger mechanisms.

Research is a career thwarted with frustration and unexpected dead-ends, but that feeling when you reach a breakthrough moment is like nothing else. For example, in 2006, while studying the generation process, distribution and the adverse health effects of ambient particles through sampling in Korea and beyond, I discovered that, when treating the cells with cerium oxide nanomaterials, the ambient particles moved actively within the cells. This was something that had not been observed before, and it was extremely exhilarating.

After that, I experimented day and night to find the cause of such movement and its toxic response. This is an issue that poses a risk to public safety, and so I was keen to publish the results as quickly as possible, which I did. In hindsight, I think delivering research that is of such high public interest is one reason why my work has been cited frequently by others.

This is the kind of groundbreaking research that is being carried out by women every single day, and so it is extremely important that their work is able to see the light of day. We must also encourage the next generation of women to pursue a life in science — if I can persuade just a single young girl that this is the right career for them, then I will be extremely proud.

Hard work and determination

Research can be a hugely rewarding career, but it requires an enormous level of determination and commitment. It involves long hours, lots of sacrifices — and plenty of late nights. This is why my one single piece of advice to anyone looking to get into research is this: research something you are genuinely interested in. You’re going to be spending a significant portion of your life looking into a specific subject, so you’d better make sure it’s something that brings you enjoyment.

Ask yourself: am I choosing the subject purely for the sake of research, or is it something that I am truly passionate about? Once you’ve found a research topic that is right for you, you will be able to go forward with the confidence to overcome any obstacles that you might face — and your passion will be reflected in the quality of your work.

Conclusion

In a world where women are still under-represented — not just in science, but across industries of all kinds — I feel immensely privileged to have defied the odds, and to be able to call myself a professor, scientist and Highly Cited Researcher. I tell my story not in order to seek sympathy or to inflate my own ego, but to inspire other women to persevere in completing their own personal journeys, no matter how difficult they might seem at the time. As I grow older and continue my studies, I look forward to reading the work of many other women who will forge their own paths forward.

References

  1. http://www.bmj.com/content/352/bmj.i847

Professor Eun-Jung Park
Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researcher
https://clarivate.com/hcr/

This article will appear in issue 5 of Health Europa Quarterly, which will be published in May.

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