Have you ever seen the Netflix original drama <Suriname>? The drama is about narcotics and is based on reality. As it became popular, people have become concerned about the drug crime that can happen in real life. Drug crimes are constantly in the news these days, and the problem is getting worse. There is one woman trying to prevent drug crimes from happening. She is forensic scientist who works on drug arrests. SMT met Chung Heesun, a forensic scientist, and listened to her story.
Before we start the interview, please introduce yourself.
Hello, I'm Chung Heesun. I graduated from Sookmyung Women's University's Department of Pharmacy in 1978 and went on to work for the National Forensic Service (NFS). I became the 11th director in 2008 and the first president in 2010. Since then, I have worked at Chungnam National University's Graduate School of Analytical Science and Technology and am currently a professor in the Department of Forensic Science at Sungkyunkwan University.
Could you explain what a 'forensic scientist' does?
I think many people will find the job of a 'forensic scientist' unfamiliar. The meaning of 'forensic' is slightly different from the general meaning of 'law.' Simply put, a forensic scientist uses science to decipher clues in the process of finding a criminal when a crime occurs. Also, it can be said that this job plays a role in the discovery of criminal facts scientifically for use in the trial process.
You entered the NFS right after graduating from college. Did you have any special reason for deciding to join the NFS?
In my third year of college, I attended a lecture by the director of the NFS who came to the school at the time, which led me to decide on my career. The lecture was so impressive that I made up my mind to join the NFS at that time, and I ended up working in this field for a long time. My colleagues who attended the lecture together with me at that time don't remember it. However, through it, I found my way in life.
You introduced the drug detection method using urine for the first time. Please tell me more about the process of introducing this detection method.
In Korea, before the method was introduced, drug crimes were examined by investigating drug owners or drug makers. But while I was in the United States, I saw a way of investigating drug users directly. I and senior researchers at the time began to experiment together to introduce this method of investigation in Korea. We administered drugs to mice, and we checked every hour to see how long it took for them to pee. We studied the method over a long period because we had to show the same results no matter what the variable was. After a year of experimentation, we completed the development of this system. Since then, the number of people who take drugs has increased, mainly in Itaewon, and this method is used for investigation.
Are there any memorable studies other than the development of this drug detection method?
The drug detection method using hair is more memorable than the urine test detection method. The drug detection method through urine is no longer detected after three to four days of taking the drug. However, unlike urine, unless the hair is removed, traces of drugs remain on the strand. In other words, if I analyze a drug user's hair, I can also specify when the person took the drug. There is also an anecdote that after the introduction of the hair test method, all the people who took drugs showed up with their heads shaved. Therefore leg hair had to be used instead.
You were awarded a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2014. This is the result of your efforts in the exchange and development of forensic science academia between Korea and the United Kingdom. What was the situation back then, and how did you feel when you received the award?
First of all, it was a great honor. I was more impressed because I was the first female scientist in Korea to receive a CBE. I got the award thanks to a program between the United Kingdom and Korea. I had always thought that if there is a program in which Britain and Korea could interact with each other, Korea would learn good technology from Britain, and Britain would in turn be able to change its perception of Korea by looking at the development of our country. Therefore, the British Embassy and the NFS traveled between Britain and Korea every year to host the Korea-British Forensic Science Symposium, which is considered a very successful program.
Gaining the modifier of "first woman," you have been evaluated as breaking the thick glass ceiling of the scientific community. In the process of obtaining such a label, please tell us what was difficult and how you overcame it.
About half of the people who do forensic science research are women. But if you look at many forensic science researchers around the world, most of the senior positions are held by men. When I was working at the NFS, I failed to get promoted several times because I was a woman, even when people around me said I was good at my job. At this time, I had such a hard time that I wrote my resignation several times and erased it. Nevertheless, I did what I had to do, which was allocated every day, and I was able to become the director of the NFS even though it was a little late. It wasn't easy, but I think I made more efforts to improve people's perceptions to overcome my difficulties as a woman. For example, when I applied for the presidency of the International Association of Forensic Sciences, I once said, "Half of the world's population is women, but why is it only men who hold the presidency?" I pointed out the prejudice. Eventually, my speech touched people's hearts and helped me become president of the association.
Recently, the issue of the distribution of new drugs and the increase in illegal drug use has drawn attention in Korea. What system or policy do you think is most necessary at this time to solve this drug problem?
The policy to solve the drug problem is divided into two categories: a policy to curb the manufacture of drugs and a policy to curb the supply of drugs. This is because the demand for drugs leads to needing people who manufacture and supply them. Therefore, to reduce drug crime, policies that fundamentally reduce drug demand are most necessary. It is also important to properly establish drug addiction treatment and follow-up management systems according to the characteristics of drug crimes with a high recidivism rate. As these systems are not well prepared currently, I think the government should invest more in reinforcing this part.
Is there any research field or activity that you are most interested in except for Forensic Toxicology?
I'm thinking of doing more research on drugs. It is difficult to achieve the best results due to a decrease in expertise if I expand my research range. I think I should work harder in this field because I've always worked in the field of drugs. Now I'm trying to figure out how to easily identify the drugs in a drink before drinking it. I recently developed this method, so I'm going to study it in more depth. In addition, I would like to study more about the cannabis regulation policy. This seems to be an important point to be addressed as each country has different policies on it, and these different policies can cause confusion.
Quality rest is also important to continue busy research activities. We want to know how you relax.
Recently, I've been taking a rest by walking without thinking. Due to the nature of my job, I have to sit down and study, but once I sit down and start working, I don't get up for hours. So, I started walking outside to clear my head. Also, I have been swimming steadily for more than 10 years. I think physical strength is also an important part of doing well in research activities, and if I didn't swim steadily, I wouldn't have been able to keep doing my research until now.
Do you have any more dreams or plans that you want to achieve? We wonder about your steps going forward.
My research will continue, but I am also dreaming of creating a science investigation museum. By creating various experience centers in the museum, I can help people who find science investigation difficult to access it more easily. For example, it can show people that even ballpoint pens of the same color have different ingredients, or how to make it possible to see your fingerprints when you touch an object. In addition, I want to help young students to have fun in science.
Lastly, please say something to Sookmyungians.
I want to tell you to study hard and participate in club activities. In terms of study, show that you are great by doing your best in your chosen major. In addition, if you have time, I recommend you go to club activities. There, you naturally learn how to get along in one group. You can develop the power to relate to people and create a human network centered around yourself. Finally, the most important thing is to do your best at the moment in any field. The past has passed, and the future has not yet come, so it is the present that you have to worry about and do your best. I want to say that you can make a future only if you live hard in the present. I hope Sookmyungians who read this article will do that.
-Sookmyung Women's Univ., (B.S.) Pharmacy
-Sookmyung Women's Univ., (M.S.) Pharmacy
-Sookmyung Women's Univ., (Ph.D.) Pharmacy
-The First President of the National Forensic Service (NFS) (2008~2012)
-Awarded a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) (2014)
-The 13th president of the International Association of Forensic Toxicologists (TIAFT) (2014~2017)
-Advisory Committee of UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) (2019~)
Park Sung Iyoung / Editor-in-Chief
Kim Jang Yunsun / Reporter