2017 Review

2017 was a year mostly taken up by wedding planning, and arranging for mine and Meg’s families to visit us in Korea during the Chuseok vacation. It was a successful year professionally, in which I added 10 scientific publications to my CV, including a whole book. It was also the year that I discovered – despite the public nudity –  I love Korean Spas.

January. On year’s day, we went to Ox and Bone, an American style BBQ restaurant.  The year started well, professionally, with the previous year’s research work being accepted for publication. Meg and I also found somewhere to live in Pohang.

20170101_183157

In February, Meg and Muga moved Pohang so we spent a lot of this month slowly moving them from Ulsan to Pohang. The move went mostly ok, although we were confronted with a cockroach problem from a pre-owned fridge. By the end of the month, we had settled in though.

March started with Holi Hai, an event hosted by Indians in Korea.  My birthday is also in March, we went for a bbq beef platter and had planned to go to a shooting range in Daegu. It turned out, though, that it was closed on the 4th Saturday of the month we ended up going to downtown Daegu and experienced a Raccoon café and a great little Thai restaurant. March also saw the beginning of my side project for this year, the Pohang Restaurant guide. Since starting it, we have reviewed 54 restaurants.

 

 

 

 

In work related news, a commentary article that I co-authored was released as part of Accounts of Chemical Research’s issue on Holy grails in Chemistry. After many Sunday afternoons driving around the Gyeongju area looking for a pension to host our wedding, we finally came across Pension Haemil; a lovely little pension up in the mountains. Unlike many pensions in Korea, it was quite secluded and offered some privacy.

In April, the cherry blossoms bloomed once again, the weather was not as glorious as last year, but we did at least get to visit Yeongildae even though if it was a little overcast. We also decided to visit Pohang’s premier tourist attraction, Homigot sunrise plaza, which has a claim to being the Eastern-most point of the Korean peninsula. The main attraction is a statue of a hand coming out of the sea. After seeing it, it became apparent why the promotional pictures only show at sunrise: it hides the fact that the statue is not that impressive and covered in bird poop.

 

 

 

 

A review article that I co-authored appeared in a special issue of Chem Soc Reviews. I was quite pleased with this one, not only for the content but also because I prepared the artwork that would appear on the backcover of the issue.

On May 4th, Meg and I were legally married the date should be easy enough to remember, especially given that she is a Star Wars fan. The weekend after, we had our engagement photos taken by Roz Cruz photography at the scenic Ulsan Taehwagang park.

MJ Engagement S-48

In June, Meg and I kept our yearly commitment to see at least one play a year. This year went to see Busan Theatre group’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Busan’s outdoor theatre. Our peak millennial couple moment of the year was getting our dog’s DNA tested. We found out for sure that Muga is a Jindo-mix, but the rest is Korean mystery meat.

 

 

 

 

July saw us visit Centum City in Busan, the world’s largest department. It houses many high-end shops, restaurants, an ice rink, a cinema and Spa Land. The reason we went there was to visit Spa Land. The spa has two parts, there’s the bathhouse where you can bath in different temperature baths and steam rooms. The second part is a large relaxation area with various rooms set to different temperatures and humidity, massage chairs, games room and a restaurant. Despite the initial awkwardness of the public nudity in the bathhouse,  I really enjoyed it.

In August we both crossed off visiting Jeju island from our Korea bucket lists.

September was all about wedding ceremony preparation. Although the month started with Muga hurting her back and us having to put her on crate rest for a couple of weeks. On September 30th the wedding day finally arrived. The previous day, we picked our families up from Incheon airport and then moved them down to Gyeongju on the high-speed train line.   The wedding ceremony itself, we were really happy with; Meg did a great job of organising it. For our after party, we had a Korean BBQ and drinks at the pension and many of our guests stayed the night there with us. Again Roy Cruz did a great job on the photography.

received_10103531413961889

With the wedding over, October allowed us to have some vacation time with our families First in Pohang, then in Seoul. In Pohang, we took our families to some of our favorite restaurants, a meerkat café, and for a walk along yeongildae beach.In Seoul, we took them to Dragon Hill Spa, Lotte World Tower, to try the street food in Myeongdong and on a daytrip to gapyeong, where we rode a zipline and had authentic Chuncheon Dakgalbi (spicy fried chicken).

20171004_123205

In November, the book we have been working on for most of this year was finally submitted and is now in production with the publisher. November also saw a 5.4 earthquake hit Pohang– the 2nd strongest recorded earthquake in Korea; the strongest being the 5.8 that struck nearby Gyeongju last September. We came out of it unscathed in South Pohang, but some of the older buildings in North Pohang were badly damaged.

In December, we returned to Centum city for a Christmas visit to Spa Land and to watch.  Star Wars on the Starium theatre – supposedly one of the biggest screens in Asia. Saying nothing about the movie itself, the experience of a watching a movie on such a large screen was very impressive. It wasn’t quite as good as the Imax in London that we watched a Force Awakens on, but it was much cheaper. I wouldn’t go and see everything on that screen, but the large screen certainly enhances the space battles in a Star Wars movie. At work, the CSC had its end of year celebration at an all you can eat buffet in downtown Pohang. For the first time during an Ashes series, I was in a timezone that didn’t require me to lose a lot of sleep to follow it; unfortunately, England surrendered the urn at the first opportunity.

 

 

Three Days in Jeju

This summer we went to Jeju. Jeju is kind of like the Risa of Korea.

We started in Jeju city where the airport is. With a rental car, we drove to Manjanggul caves.  These are a volcanically formed network of tubes that you can walk through, it takes about 20-30 minutes to walk the whole route there and back. It was pretty cool, and only 2000 W entry, although it was quite chilly down there.

Next, we drove towards our hotel (Co-op city hotel) which was close to the foot of Seongsan Ilchulbong., the bowl-shaped mountain formed by a volcanic eruption. The roof of the hotel has a rooftop bar and some jacuzzis which you can rent for 30 mins, but most impressively it has a beautiful view of the mountain.

In the morning we walked up Seongsang ilchulbong. It is quite an easy walk but takes about two hours especially if you stop for photo ops. The summit has an impressive view of the interior of the bowl, and on your way back down you get some lovely views of Jeju.

For the rest of the day, we drove around the coast of Jeju and made stops at a couple of waterfalls. The first was Jeonbang falls, its claim to fame is that it is the only waterfall in Asia that falls directly into the ocean. It is really impressive, you walk around the bottom of it and paddle in the water where the waterfall mixes with the ocean water.  The second was cheonjiyeon falls, which has a very nice walk leading up to it. The waterfall itself is quite impressive and scenic, but not as dramatic as the Jeonbang falls. After that, we went to our hotel near sanbangsan mountain.

On the last morning, we went to a neat little spa, Sanbangsan hot springs. It is quite similar to most Koren spas but it also has some baths which are heated by a volcanic hot spring and is filled with carbonated water. They also have outdoor swimming pools and baths with the carbonated water. On our way back to Jeju city we stopped by a beach for lunch and a walk; the beach was beautiful with white sands and black volcanic rock.

20170826_143910

We didn’t have time to go to see the lava columns. We also didn’t hike up  Mt. Hallasan mainly because that will probably take up most of a day and it was the height of summer too.

Jeju is definitely worth a visit at least once if you are staying in Korea for a reasonable amount of time. Although it has a lot of tourist attractions/museums (such as a teddy bear museum, a sex museum, and mysterious road), it is the areas of outstanding natural beauty that make it special. Three days is probably enough to see everything if you plan your time well; if you want to see Mt Hallasan, then add an extra day. Renting a car is also a good idea, so you don’t have to rely on the buses.

 

 

 

Cherry Blossom Season 2017

The start of the warm weather and springtime brings Cherry Blossom season in Korea. We went to Yeongildae Park near Postech to walk around see the Cherry Blossoms. It wasn’t quite that dramatic this year, the colder weather meant that the trees bloomed at different rates. Last year they all seemed to bloom at once.

It was a little bit past peak bloom when we went but we still got some pretty pictures of the cherry blossoms and the pond.

20170409_151714

New Paper: Enrichment of Specifically Labeled Protein Using an Immobilized Host Molecule

A paper detailing some of the work that I have been doing in Korea has recently been published in Angewandte Chemie.

The paper describes how high affinity host-guest complexes can be used in proteomic studies to enrich target proteins. The synthetic host-guest complexes have similar affinity to high affinity complexes typically used in the life sciences (Biotin-streptavidin). Unlike the protein based complexes, the synthetic system can be dissociated under mild conditions simply by adding a higher affinity guest.

toc-recudced

Link: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/anie.201611894/abstract

Review 2016

2016 was a year where everything changed, mostly for the better, for me both personally and professionally. I rolled the dice by moving 5000 miles to start a job as a postdoc in Korea to be with someone I’d only known from the internet, and a short vacation together in South Korea last summer. Looking back, it seems a little foolhardy, but a year later I’m engaged to that person and my career has developed here much faster than it was doing in the UK 2015. There’s probably a decent Toastmasters speech to be made from this year somewhere down the line. Here’s a short reviewer of other things that have happened this year.

January started at Chris’ new year’s murder mystery party and recovery steak the next day. On January 2, Meg arrived for her vacation in the UK. It had been 5 months since we had last seen each other in Korea. Together, we visited London, Edinburgh, Leeds, Newcastle, and Carlisle. On January 20 we left for Korea.

2016-01-13-21-42-59 leaving 2016-01-19-18-15-11

Meg at Kings Cross; Leaving party in Leeds (photo credit: Chris); and my last supper in the UK.

In February, I started my new job as a postdoc at the Institute for Basic Science (the unintentionally chuckle-worthy, IBS). Meg and I took a trip to Busan.

2016-02-14-12-50-22

Gwangali Beach, Busan

In March, we took a trip to Seoul. We went up Namsan Tower and ate Alabama BBQ in Itaewon.

2016-03-20-12-12-392016-03-20-14-27-57

Alabama BBQ in Seoul, Namsan Tower view.

In April, is the cherry blossom season in Korea, My lab went on a picnic at to a local park.

2016-04-02-08-40-36csc

POSTECH campus in the Cherry Blossom Season; The center for Self-assembly and Complexity group picnic.

Nothing interesting happened in May or June!

In July, I returned to Seoul for the Supramolecular and Materials Chemistry Conference, which included a trip to Gyeongbokgung Palace. The weekend before we tried out an escape room in Seoul.

4

Part of Gyeongbokgung Palace

In August, I visited the United States. After a layover in San Francisco, I moved on to Tennessee to visit Meg’s family.  In Tennessee, we visited the Jack Daniels distillery. We also had a 3 day trip to Washington DC, via Knoxville. During my time in the US, I got a few things off my bucket list: I went skydiving and got to experience the US constitution’s 2nd amendment.

received_10104082252899355 20160817_050755 received_10104098017312345

Me with an AK-47; the view from the Lincoln Memorial; Meg and I at the Whitehouse

In September, we went to Eonyang for the Eonyang Bulgogi festival. Korea experienced its 1st and 4th strongest recorded earthquakes within an hour of each other.

20161002_151335

Raw beef (left) and Eonyang bulgogi (right)

In October, southern South Korea was hit by a typhoon.  We visited a beach near Ulsan. I went to Busan for the Korean Chemical Society Fall Meeting.

20161009_134033

In November, we visited the Eonyang amethyst caves. I went to my first Thanksgiving dinner with friends.

In December, we had we visited Ganjelgot cape, famous for being the place where the sun rises the earliest on the Korean Peninsula and the home of Korea’s largest postbox. On Christmas day we went to Busan for the Christmas tree festival. Meg and I got engaged.

20161218_1625372016-04-02-19-29-06

The largest postbox in Korea; Meg and I (back in April, but it’s the best picture of us)

Korean Food Part 1

 

One of the best things about living in Korea is the food. Like many Asian cultures, food is traditionally shared in Korea. Often the main will be cooked in the center of the table  There are many side dishes (Banchan, 반찬) with most Korean meals. Kimchi 김치 is ubiquitous, often with many other types of fermented vegetable too.

banchan

sidedishes from a Korean restaurant.

Here are a few of the foods that I like:

Korean BBQ

One of the distinctive things about Korean food compared to western is that in some restaurants your meat is brought to your table raw and you barbecue it yourself. You can get many different cuts of meat, from belly pork at the cheaper end to Wagyu steaks at the more expensive.  The cooked meat is normally eaten by wrapping in a salad leaf with some other vegetables and sauce .

three different cuts of bbq meat (left), and Wagyu steaks (right).

Gamjatang  감자탕

Literally means potato soup, although there is often potato in it, is not the main component.  Gamjatang is pork backbone stew. It is very similar to rib meat, but it’s from the spine. Like many Korean dishes its supposed to be shared so there’s often served as a stew in the center of the table.

gamjatang

Gamjatang

Dakgalbi 닭갈비

Literally means ‘chicken rib’ it’s actually chicken breast meat cooked in a spicy sauce, which often has noodles, rice cakes (ddeok, 떡), mushrooms and vegetables added. It is from a place a called Chooncheon the northern part of south Korea.  After you finish, normally the remaining sauce is cleared up with a portion of rice which is stir-fried into the remaining sauce. It’s delicious and filling. If there is one meal I think would do very well in the west, it would be dakgalbi. I doubt, though, you would be allowed to serve uncooked chicken in the UK. In Korea, it’s a popular meal and there some western fusion varieties where there it served with cheese fondue or cheese-filled rice cakes.

Traditional dakgalbi (left) and cheese ring version (right).

The Cost of Living in Korea as a Postdoc

Korea is much, much cheaper. Things just cost less out here. From public transport, eating out, health care. The quality might not be quite as high as some places in the West, but it is still good. Korea is certainly a little ‘rougher around the edges’, but in my opinion, the cost of living to quality of life is far better value out here. I can save around 2/3 of my paycheck most months, even when I eat out and travel.

Let’s look at some examples of where Korea’s cost of living is much cheaper than the in the West: Source for the numbers (I think these are quite Seoul-centric) and my personal experience. Numbers are in Korean Won, or USD (rule of thumb W 1000 = $1)

 Housing and utilities:  

Apartment rent is quite cheap, a single bedroom apartment in a city it can be around W 600,000 / month, less in smaller cities. In my experience, it’s a little cheaper than that, closer to W 300,000. On campus housing is cheaper still.

Utilities are quite cheap around W150, 000 per month according to the figures from Numbeo. I think that’s pretty reasonable compared the West. In my experience campus housing, usually bills you for rent and utilities together, I pay less than W 300 000 /month.

The one thing that is a little different is the deposit (Key money) which can be several thousand dollars, but like a deposit you get it back at the end of the tenancy.

Eating out

Korean food is usually less than 10, 000 per serving for most restaurants, Western food and more upmarket restaurants will set you back a bit more. If you eat mostly Korean, you will eat much cheaper. Beer is at most W 5000 for 0.5L bottle.

Public transport

The local buses are very cheap, you pay a single fare no matter how far you travel and it’s only $1-$1.50 depending on the city.

Subway. Some of the larger cities have a subway and the cost is comparable to the buses.

Taxis are a little bit more expensive, but they are still cheaper than other parts of the world.

Slow trains are the cheapest way to get between cities, although it is quite slow and the schedule can be quite sparse.

Buses. There are two classes, the intercity and the express buses. The intercity buses are the easiest way to get around. They are cheap and regular (every 10 mins between some cities). The express buses are good for getting to and from Seoul (or Incheon airport), they can take a bit of time (up to 6 hours to get across the country but are reasonably priced).

KTX The fastest way to get around is the high-speed train, the KTX. It is expensive for Korea but is still reasonable compared to western countries (you can traverse the country for around $60, in three hours). There’s complimentary wi-fi, too.

If you prefer to use a car, that’s possible too. Gas is very cheap and you can often pick up used car for ~1-3 million won from another expat who’s leaving. Another thing to note is compacts qualify for discounted parking, tolls and gas.

Healthcare

Healthcare costs are subsided by your insurance (either national or employer). A simple doctor’s visit is around W 10, 000. The cost is not the major difference between healthcare here and the UK for example. Hospitals operate on a walk-in basis, and you’ll normally get seen by a doctor quickly. If not, another hospital is probably not too far away.

Taxes

At the postdoc paygrade, income tax is 17% on everything after your first 10 million won. Other withholdings include pension contributions and health insurance. In total, withholdings are ~10% of the paycheck.

There are some things that are more expensive. These are mostly the imported or the seasonal goods. The cost of living is higher in Seoul, too.

Being a science PhD, your skill-set travels. Doing science is more or a less the same wherever you go in the world. So you can absolutely take into account economic considerations when deciding where you want to do a postdoc. The prestige of postdoc-ing in the US or some top labs in Europe means that there’s always going to be many more people trying to get in than there are jobs, which drives down your value. It’s a basic law of economics: Supply and demand.  There’s not much point in fighting against this, if you want to make maximum economic benefit from your skills, then you need to go look for where demand is high and or supply is low.

You can reach out to me if you have any questions about living and working in Korea as a scientist.

Eonyang Amethyst Caves

This weekend we went up to the so-called Yeognam Alps near Eonyang to see the amethyst caverns. It was once an amethyst mine that his since been converted into a tourist attraction. It shares a mountain with a Buddhist temple (see below) which was very scenic, we could hear monks singing too. The view of the mountains is quite impressive, especially in the autumn.

First, we went on a boat ride through the caves, it was quite short and there wasn’t a lot to see. Then we explored the rest of caverns on foot. Once you’re inside the caverns you follow a route around and there were various exhibits, including some samples of amethysts and mannequins dressed like miners. There were some strange exhibits too, such as the ancient Egypt exhibit and the Dokdo hall (Dodko is disputed group of small islands between Korea and Japan). There are some impressive decorations and photo opportunities to be found while you walk around (see below). The highlight of the trip was the performance area in the middle of the cave. We saw two shows, one guy playing the drums, while his partner cut up taffy in time with drumming. The other was a show by some gymnasts and a contortion artist. Overall, I’d say the cavern and the surrounding area are worth seeing but don’t get your hopes up too high about the cavern itself.

Since we were in Eonyang, we stopped off at a restaurant for some Eonyang bulgogi. Eonyang Bulgogi is ground beef that has been seasoned with garlic and sesame and then grilled, the key requirement is that it should be served within 24 hours of the meat being butchered. We also got some ‘beef sushi’ as service; the meat was very tender, but there was too much wasabi which overpowered everything else. It was a very enjoyable meal nonetheless.Beef sushi

How to get a job as a postdoc in South Korea

Traveling from the West to the Asia is not the typical postdoc route, but there are opportunities to be found in the far east.

Travelling from the west to the far east is not the typical postdoc experience so there aren’t that many established routes. You don’t often see Korean universities posting on job boards for example.

Despite the high level of education in South Korea, they have a manpower shortage for PhD level chemists. This is beneficial for two reasons: Firstly, it’s likely that a prospective PI has money to hire you, particularly if they are established. Secondly, the financial compensation is much better than it would be in most cases in the US or Europe. There will be a later post on the cost of living in Korea and how that compares to the West.

Here is a step-by-step guide to how I got a job in Korea.

Application

The Institute for Basic Science is a Korean government-funded research institute centered in Daejeon but has campuses all over Korea. It currently has 26 centers, each with a specialization, these centers are given an annual budget (so they don’t have to worry about applying for external funding) and are headed by a world leader in the field. There are several ways in which one can join the IBS. They have a job board, a young scientist scheme, and a talent pool where you can upload your CV. Indeed, this is the route I went down. If you have a group in mind it may well be worth an email and see what they say. There are several other research funding sources in Korea, so even if they are not an IBS center they may well still be able to support you.  When selecting a group, one thing I would recommend is looking at how many international students or postdocs there are, or have recently been, in the group. Many groups conduct their business in English, but it’s not always the case. You’ll probably have more luck and, ultimately, a better experience if it’s a group that is experienced in hosting international researchers.

Interview.

Soon after uploading my CV I was contacted by the IBS center I now work at, and we arranged a Skype interview. The interview process was much like a western one, i.e. there was a presentation of previous research and questions associated with that, career aspirations etc. Don’t be surprised if you get asked more personal questions, such as age and marital status. After the interview, they asked for a letter of recommendation and after they collected those I was offered a position soon after.

Visa process.

Researchers are granted an E3 (research) visa, these are very straightforward to acquire once you have a job offer from an institution in Korea. The research institute will likely handle most of it for you. It is certainly the case with the IBS. The only thing that you need to supply is copies of your qualification certificates; there is no background or criminal record checks for the E3 visa. Your employer will apply for your visa issuance number which you then put on your visa application form and apply at an embassy, usually in your home country. Another consideration is that, unless you are married to a Korean, spouses can’t work on a spouse visa; they will need their own.

Housing

I can only speak for the university I work at it but it seems to be quite normal for the university to offer on-campus housing. If this is the case, then your host university will take care of that.

That’s the process that I went through if you have any questions about it, feel free to reach out!