Featured blog author
by Maya Foster
These days I take long walks at night in my secret oasis, twixt the sounds of nature and industrialization -- it’s peaceful. And it is during this reprieve from the daily stressors of living as an “other” in a largely homogenous society, that I can fully relax.
Living in South Korea for the past 10 months has been a rollercoaster of mostly positives. I’ve come to love the quirks of life here like couples matching, friends, lovers, families holding hands, and the middle-aged women and men who power it out in the public park gyms. There’s also the extreme convenience of cross-country transportation and on-the-go necessities in convenience stores (truly, anything you might need!). I’ve made invaluable friendships with locals here through my job and have experienced many firsts, including renting my first car, ATV riding, a creative visual project, and making ramen at a convenience store to eat by the largest river running through Korea, the Han.
Through the support of a fellowship grant I received called the Luce Scholars Program, I worked at a neuroscience startup located in one of the major hospitals in Korea, the Asan Medical Center. During my tenure there, I was given the resources to apply computational techniques to medical problems focused on the brain. The company itself focuses on developing what they coin “digital therapeutics” for a broad range of brain disorders that range from stroke to eye deficits. My main project involved investigating the clinical feasibility of using machine learning to predict progression of myopia, a huge public health problem in South Korea and East Asia, particularly in younger populations.
Due to its novelty on my end, my project was very intellectually stimulating. However, there were often frustrations at being left to my own devices in limbo with no meaningful guidance. This was particularly unsettling for me as an early-stage researcher attempting to implement a solution that had the potential to impact young lives on a national scale. There was also the language barrier of me being the only native English speaker with a developing Korean lexicon in an office of native Korean speakers who weren’t comfortable speaking in English. Although initially hard to navigate, we made it work. I tried to translate what I could into Korean, spoke slowly, and used several visuals in my scientific proposals at meetings. I also extensively self-educated myself on the eye and the disorders of focus to gain a foundational knowledgebase and read books on machine learning principles I thought would be relevant for the questions we were asking. Part of my job was also working with a team of doctors, which ended up being what I liked the most. From them, I learned about the patient side and what humanistic dimensions to consider for when I designed experiments. These weekly engagements solidified my desire to do similar work in the future.
On a more personal note, I will say it has been quite the transition going from a minority in STEM in the United States to what I term now a “super minority” in Korea. I am the first foreigner and Black female to work for my company. Additionally, I was either one of the youngest or the youngest worker in the office. That for me, as a person who tries to hold myself to high standards, was very intimidating. I found myself unconsciously stressed not only about performing well for myself, but also with consideration of the various identities I embrace being an American, non-male, Black, and a foreigner. There was a salient fear that future discrimination of potential workers who have any of these identities would happen because of my inadequacy or performance. Such internal anxieties were part of my experience in science in the United States too but were heightened in South Korea because of the starker visual and cultural signs of my difference in the spaces I navigated. Moreover, South Korea doesn’t have a pleasant track record with its immigration policies. Put simply, being a foreigner is hard. There are many barriers and obstacles to overcome just for the smallest things like getting a rewards account for a Starbucks card. Through my own share of visa issues, being banned from places for being American, and the looks and harassment I’ve encountered, I experienced the varying ways in which foreigners struggle to find grounding in South Korea. This is not to say that the immigration policies render it severely unwelcoming, rather it still has room to adapt and grow. Additionally, this is my experience.
Before coming to South Korea, I was cognizant that at some point I would encounter some of the aforementioned issues. Despite this, there were particularly pressing days I felt like a pariah. Thankfully my friends, a supportive boss, empathetic coworkers; one of whom actively checked in and gave sage advice with the bonus of impromptu Korean lessons offered doors of reprieve for my heavy, frantic mind.
It is now nearing July, and as such my chapter in Seoul is closing as I prepare for my return to America for graduate school. The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of fun and goodbyes. But these days I’m taking it all in, relishing the good and bad; reflecting on the serendipitous events that made it kismet to be here despite a global pandemic. I now consider South Korea my second home. One that matured me in unexpected ways and gave me a new appreciation for how language can change the lens in which we interpret the world and its future. I’ve confirmed my desire to conduct research at an international scale and intend to continue to experience working as a scientist in other countries. I’ve also gained new perspectives from my coworkers in how to approach problems and explored aspects of myself that my life in the US did not permit me as easily to do.
So, it’s a bittersweet ending -- pivot rather, amidst a tumultuous time in history. But I know I’ll be back.