The 2018 roster of Highly Cited Researchers from the Web of Science Group includes more than 3,300 scientists. Although each name represents a chronicle of dedication, hard work, and the tenacious pursuit of a dream, some of the stories speak of exceptional and single-minded devotion to attaining a goal.
For South Korean researcher Eun-Jung Park, 50, the journey required perseverance and grit in the face of family tragedy, along with overcoming challenges posed by societal assumptions regarding gender, age, and humble origins. Her story also demonstrates the transformative power of Highly Cited Researcher (HCR) status as designated by the Web of Science Group, documenting the peer esteem and approbation earned by a researcher whose work has risen to the elite level.
For Professor Park, the road to such success was long. Despite her excellent grades in high school, her family’s financial circumstances limited her options to universities that could grant a four-year scholarship. She was accepted to Dongduk Women’s University in Seoul, where she earned her undergraduate degree. Her first post-college position, at the Korea Electric Power Corporation, was cut short after a year when she became pregnant and left the job to devote herself to childcare. The world of research still beckoned, however, and three years later Park was accepted back at Dongduk to pursue a master’s degree in pharmaceutical science.
It was in her last year of graduate school that the succession of trials suddenly descended: Her father-in-law was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, her own child was diagnosed with leukemia, and her mother died of pancreatic cancer. Once again, her career was sidelined by the necessities of caregiving.
And once again, she persevered. In her late 30s, eight years after her mother’s death and 14 years after earning her undergraduate degree, and with her husband’s encouragement, she started her doctoral studies. For subject matter, she drew directly on family experience, choosing to study nanoscale environmental toxins and how they invade the body and give rise to cancer and other diseases. At age 42, Park earned her doctorate. She now studies toxicity in the nanomaterials that go into such products as sunscreen, cosmetics, and electronics.
Even while her prospects for stable post-doctoral employment were hampered by her affiliation with a less-prestigious university, career discontinuity, and her relatively advanced age, Park continued to build on an impressive series of publications. Ultimately, she received a professorship at Ajou University School of Medicine near Seoul. In 2011, her research received a boost in the form of a $135,000, five-year grant awarded by the National Research Foundation of Korea, as part of the foundation’s Presidential Post-Doctoral Fellowship program.
Meanwhile, her papers continued to wield influence and collect citations in her field, with several reports earning the official distinction of Highly Cited Paper, ranking in the top 1% for subject area and year of publication. In the 2016 HCR selection and again in 2017, her tally of top-cited papers met the criteria in the field of Pharmacology & Toxicology, ensuring her inclusion among the citation elite.
According to the Web of Science, Park’s most-cited paper is a 2010 report from Toxicology in Vitro, “Silver nanoparticles induce cytotoxicity by a Trojan-horse type mechanism” (E.J. Park, et al., 24 : 872-8, 2010), now cited more than 300 times.
And Park’s visibility and accomplishment as an HCR did not escape attention in the right places. Recently, she was offered a position as a tenured research professor at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST). Although offered a full-time teaching position, Park declined, telling the Korea Joongang Daily newspaper, “I am scared to stand and teach in front of the brightest minds at the nation’s best university.” Instead, the position would have permitted her to concentrate exclusively on research – the first such post granted by KAIST.
As it turned out, Park chose another path. At a November event held in Seoul by the Web of Science Group, a Clarivate Analytics company, she joined other South Korean HCRs who discussed their research for an audience that included representatives of the National Research Foundation and other institutions – including a vice president of Kyung Hee University, Seo Young Jung – another member of the 2017 roster of HCRs for his work in Pharmacology & Toxicology. After hearing Park’s story, he approached her and proposed that the two work together at Kyung Hee on biomedical research, and on that same day she made up her mind to accept. (Kyung Hee University, incidentally, ranks as one of the most innovative universities in Asia, according to a listing powered by Web of Science analytics data and presented by Reuters.)
As Park told a reporter, “No matter what they say, I’m just so happy to be able to conduct research. Many people scoff at me when I say this, but I’ll just show them by receiving a Nobel Prize.”
Certainly, Professor Park will continue to add to the store of knowledge on environmental toxicants, and will continue to have her influential work tracked in the Web of Science.
[Note: Grateful acknowledgement to Choi Jun-ho at the Korea Joongang Daily, whose story on Professor Park provided details and quotes for this post