Jun Yong Kang, an associate professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry, admits to reading more picture books than research papers — perhaps because they often illustrate the importance of experimentation. While experimentation often results in failure, he said, it sometimes leads to unexpected and important successes.
I grew up in Youngdong, a central part of South Korea. I moved to the United States in 2002 to study biochemistry at San Francisco State University. I then went on to receive master’s and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry from Texas A&M University.
I came to UNLV in August 2013, attracted by the potential of UNLV’s fast-growing opportunities as the only Ph.D.-granting institution for chemistry in the Las Vegas metropolitan area.
The inspiration to get into your field
When I was younger, I had dreamt of becoming a scientist, an industrial designer, or an architect. It was in my early 20s that I decided to learn about my mother’s health issues, and since then I have devoted my career to improving human life.
Your research interests
My research interests range from new reaction developments (synthetic methodology) to the synthesis of biologically active compounds (pharmaceuticals). The development of new synthetic methods is a fundamental and key research in chemistry fields such as medicinal chemistry and materials chemistry. Currently, I explore efficient synthetic methods of phosphorus-containing compounds for the application to potential active pharmaceutical ingredients, anti-bacterial agents, and anti-cancer compounds.
Biggest misconception about your field
Synthetic organic chemistry is an art itself as it requires the deliberate design of reaction conditions. For the development of new chemical reactions, many people may think mixing chemicals A and B automatically synthesize C. However, in real-world chemistry experiments, a small variation of reaction conditions in the discovery of new reactions often results in very different outcomes in which multiple hundreds of experiments — a painstaking number of experiments — are unavoidable to find optimized reaction conditions. We design experiments with the best ideas but those ideas often fail at the beginning; we learn from the failures and eventually fix the problems most of the time.
Most interesting aspect of your field
Unlimited imagination of molecular designs and potentially infinite failures of well-thought ideas! Sometimes accidental experiments lead to the discovery of new compounds that exist nowhere else in the universe and cure diseases.
A lesson you learned from a student
There are many lessons I have learned from my students over the years. One important thing I learned was that decrypting students’ thinking habits plays a key role in science teaching.
Favorite spot on campus
My favorite spot on campus is the “chemistry backyard” between the Chemistry Building and the Physics Building, where tall palm trees and old pine trees are growing nearby. I pass by this area twice a day, feeling refreshed when I walk by early in the morning and relaxed in the late afternoon.
Your research that deserved more attention
Since the discovery of the phosphorus element (31P) in the 17th century, organophosphorus compounds have found a wide spectrum of applications including agrochemicals, materials science, and pharmaceuticals. I believe the development of mild and efficient synthetic methods of phosphorus-containing bioactive compounds, which is a crossover with my current research interests, particularly deserves more attention owing to their potential applications to anti-bacterial agents, anti-cancer compounds, enzyme inhibitors, and prodrugs.
Outside of work
When I imagine myself running on a treadmill, my adrenal glands produce adrenaline. When my stress levels rise, I go to the gym and run until I am nearly exhausted.
People would be surprised to know
I am a big fan of children’s picture books. I was influenced by my 5-year-old son, who loves reading nonfiction books. I spend more than $100 every month buying picture books. We have 50-plus Caldecott books, including the first award book, Animals of the Bible (1938), and the most recent award book, Hello Lighthouse (2019). It is not a secret that some days I spend more time reading picture books than research papers. However, these books inspire me to think outside the box. My favorite picture book authors are David Wiesner, Brian Floca, and Virginia Lee Burton.