Peter Verwilst in Seoul – Belgian scientist living abroad

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For two and a half years now, Peter Verwilst has been working and living in one of the largest, most vibrant cities in the world, the South Korean capital Seoul. The working pressure is huge in this progress-driven city where everything is aimed at progress, with 12-hour work days as the general standard in academia. Despite this, Peter was pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the locals and the beautiful mountainous countryside of Korea.

After earning a master’s degree in chemistry at the KU Leuven, Peter decided to continue his academic career with a PhD on the synthesis of targeted drugs and MRI contrast agents. For his postdoc, Peter felt it was time for a change and moved to Bordeaux to study the synthesis of photoactive molecules and fluorescent materials for the detection of ions, with applications in photo-driven molecular reporting. After two years in la douce France, Peter came across an opportunity he just couldn’t refuse.
Peter Verwilst: “Near the end of my stay in France, I was looking for a way to integrate both fields of study from my work in Leuven and Bordeaux. Due to the great experience I had while working in Beijing for a couple of months during my PhD, my instinct was to look to the East in the quest to find the next step on my career path. Furthermore, countries in East Asia tend to spend a relatively high amount of money on scientific research in the form of research grants. That was definitely an important contributing factor to my final decision. When I was given the opportunity to work on the combination of drug targeting and imaging at Korea University in Seoul, I leaped at the offer.”

What is the topic of your research?

“My work here is currently focused on the design and synthesis of small-molecule drug delivery systems, with a built-in reporting system that would allow us to study the efficiency and precise localization of the delivery. The aim of these systems is to help ensure that highly potent drugs are delivered only where they are needed. In this way, we can optimize therapy and significantly reduce side effects. For instance, I have been designing a variety of theranostic (therapy + diagnostic) small-molecule drug delivery systems that are equipped with a mechanism that allows delivery only under a specific set of circumstances. In cancer, for example, we use the malfunctioning of mitochondria in cancer tissues as a weakness we can exploit for therapy.

A second line of my research involves the design of small fluorophores to study certain (sub)cellular events. We have been working on tools to study endoplasmic reticulum stress, an important cellular process implicated in diseases as varied as cancer, neurodegeneration and liver disease. All these disease fields benefit from improved ER stress imaging, and we hope that some of the molecules we are currently designing can contribute to those research activities.

While my initial research was focused on imaging and drug delivery in cancer, I became more and more interested in the design of imaging tools to study neurodegenerative diseases after being confronted with Alzheimer’s disease in my family. Imaging tools are hugely important in neurodegeneration, as they aid research to uncover disease mechanisms and are crucial for correct diagnosis. In the future, at least part of my research efforts will be dedicated to this.”

How do you like the atmosphere of Seoul and South Korea?

“What struck me when I first came here was that Koreans are genuinely very friendly and helpful toward foreign visitors. They are quite curious about foreigners, yet very discrete and polite. Sometimes it takes a few visits to a shop before I’m asked where I’m from and how life is treating me in Seoul/Korea. Sadly, the language barrier gets in the way of having longer conversations; however, I am trying to conquer the Korean language!

The major difference between Seoul and any of the cities I lived in before, like Leuven and Bordeaux, is that Seoul is a megalopolis. Over 10 million people live within the city limits, and 25 million within the greater metropolitan area! Despite being this densely populated, it’s a very nice place to live: There are rustic historic districts, but also areas with buildings by renowned modern architects, as well as green corridors, large parks and river banks.

What I like about this city is that even though it’s a huge place, there is almost a small-town feel to certain neighborhoods. The supermarket on my street places a large amount of their items for sale on the terrace in front of the shop. At closing time, they simply cover their goods with a plastic tarp. These things just remain outside during the night, and seemingly nothing gets stolen. I never imagined such a thing to be possible in a city with over 10 million inhabitants. One of the biggest characteristics of Seoul—and the whole of South Korea—is that it’s such a safe place. Petty theft and pickpocketing are virtually absent.

Another thing that attracted me here is the convenience of life. South Korea has an almost 24/7 culture, with most shopping outlets open from early morning until midnight and convenience stores literally operating around the clock. The area surrounding the university is dotted with countless small restaurants where a decent meal costs around 3–8 euro, and, of those, a handful is open 24/7. Needless to say, I haven’t really cooked any food myself recently. I have no idea who would need coffee or a hot meal at 4 am, but you sure could if you wanted to!”

What is the difference between working there and working in Belgium?

“Koreans take great pride in being one of the hardest working people on Earth. As a result, the work-life balance is significantly tilted toward work. In academia, especially, a minimum 12-hour work day is the norm rather than the exception. This does not mean an enormous surplus of work gets achieved every day as compared to Belgium—I don’t think it is possible to fully focus on the job for 12 hours straight every single day—but in my opinion, at least a bit more can be accomplished. Also, as a result of the work culture, most people share all lunches and dinners with colleagues, which is definitely a bonus as far as creating bonds goes. Because everybody is in it together, these extended working hours are not very hard to adapt to.”

Sounds intense! Do you have any spare time left?

“Due to the long work days, it’s virtually impossible to make real plans during the weekdays, but the weekends make up for that. During the weekends, I go out and have dinner, go for drinks with friends, or go visit a town or landmark across the South Korean peninsula. I’m also an avid hiker. Korea consists of around 70% mountainous regions, which is of course a bonus. Hiking is a nice way for me to charge the batteries on the weekend. The Korean way of taking walks, where a hike is finished off with spicy seafood pancakes and makgeolli, a milky alcoholic drink made from rice, at little roadside stalls near the end of the trail, is definitely a great cultural habit.”

Would you consider returning to Belgium in the future?

“That’s a question I get a lot. The future is quite foggy: At this moment, I would definitely not rule out returning back home at some point, but I might just as likely put down roots here, or I might even move to a third country. At this stage of my career, I really feel that I’m where I am supposed to be. I’m quite happy in my current position, and after two and a half years it’s very satisfactory to see more and more projects enter into the final stages. However, if the opportunity arose to start my own research group as a fully independent scientist, I would certainly consider it.”