Interview with Professor Zee Hwan Kim, recipient of the 2020 Excellence in Teaching Award

Professor Zee Hwan Kim (Department of Chemistry) has radically changed the way general chemistry is taught to SNU freshmen. Back-to-back recipient of the College of Natural Sciences Teaching Award for 2015 and 2016, Professor Kim has created a ‘modularized’ syllabus with both fundamental and fresh content that is taught in a way that suits the unique needs of each major that has general chemistry set as a required course. In addition, Professor Kim has participated in a variety of projects with the aim of sharing the joys of chemistry to the general public, such as through talks hosted by the nonprofit organization Kaos, and his book, The Molecule Instruction Manual

Below is a translation of his interview with the English Editor team following his receipt of the 2020 Excellence in Teaching Award.

Professor Zee Hwan Kim(Department of Chemistry, SNU)
Professor Zee Hwan Kim(Department of Chemistry, SNU)
At what point did you realize that chemistry was your calling?

I have come to devote my life to chemistry not because of any specific event but through a combination of experience, drive, and curiosity. I believe that many scientists feel the same. When I was young, I enjoyed playing with toys and gadgets and as I grew older I wanted to build some on my own. My desire to create turned into a tentative but lasting curiosity about the fundamental building blocks of all objects and the principles that govern their interactions, and this was how I made my foray into the world of science.

I conduct research in experimental physical chemistry in which I apply physical principles to solve the most fundamental questions that are as yet unanswered in the field of chemistry. How the structure of molecules governs their reactivity is a problem that pervades all aspects of modern chemistry. In experimental physical chemistry, we delve into the quantum mechanical structure of molecules such that their properties can be analyzed by applying principles of physics.

What does it mean to be a Professor at SNU?

It means that I am blessed with the opportunity to conduct research that I consider meaningful, but it also comes with the immense responsibility to transmit my knowledge to my students. To me, there is no profession more liberating than being a professor. Complete academic freedom as well as the opportunity to pass on my experiences and what I have learned as both scientist and human being to future generations are more than just a job for me. It is hard to put into words how much this profession means to me.

Could you tell us more about the unorthodox syllabus that you have created as well as your new book?

General Chemistry is mandatory for the majority of STEM majors. What I have come to realize over the years is that with so many students from such diverse educational backgrounds required to take this class, a one-size-fits-all approach is no longer appropriate. However, it is also impossible to perfectly tailor a textbook to each individual student. Therefore, with the help of a number of professors from the chemistry department, I stripped away the nonessentials and created a new module-based syllabus, containing fundamental aspects of chemistry that would be of value for most, if not all, STEM majors. General Chemistry classes have to cover all modules, but now we are able to go into more depth in those modules that are relevant to students’ particular specializations. For example, biology majors would spend more time on the biochemistry module, while material engineering majors would spend more time on the nanomaterials module. Although there is still room for improvement, the general idea is that learning can be like eating at a buffet, where one can choose according to one’s taste.

The Molecule Instruction Manual is a book based on my lectures to the general public hosted by Kaos, a nonprofit organization and subsidiary of Interpark. A scientist’s understanding of chemistry is very different from that which is described in a chemistry textbook, or in the eye of the general public. I wrote this book because I wanted people to know what it really means to conduct research in the field of chemistry. In my book, I explain how atoms serve as the building blocks of all matter and how this sort of basic scientific knowledge can be validated through experimentation. I also cover how the formation and interaction between molecules can be measured and predicted through experimental methods, and how the knowledge of chemistry is intertwined with the knowledge of physics. This book is less of an introduction to chemistry than an explanation of why it is important to study chemistry.

You are renowned for being both a great teacher as well as a role model. What principles do you live by that you believe have earned you such a reputation?

I don’t have any special philosophy. In fact, I cannot even be sure if my students have been particularly impressed with me. If they have, however, taken kindly to me, perhaps it is for these reasons:

First, I try not to single out the genius in a large class. In other words, my goal is that everybody who attends my class can take something away from it, not just the one percent. I consider my classes and exams to be relatively straightforward, and grades to be predictable.

Second, I believe lecture notes are a reflection of the instructor, and should be prepared with careful thought and consideration. If not, one cannot seriously expect students to understand and to follow the curriculum.

Third, SNU students are fully capable of learning whatever subject by studying on their own. With the abundance of educational resources online, especially on YouTube, it would be foolish of me to think that people cannot find comparable information elsewhere. What I hope to do instead is to help students understand which things are worth remembering, to find proper context for them amid the myriad of facts they must study, and to understand why it is worthwhile to learn.