The Toxpod

Heesun Chung

December 12, 2018 Season 1 Episode 4
The Toxpod
Heesun Chung
Chapters
The Toxpod
Heesun Chung
Dec 12, 2018 Season 1 Episode 4
Tim Scott & Peter Stockham
Heesun Chung joins The Toxpod to discuss the past, present and future of forensic toxicology
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, Tim sits down for a chat with renowned toxicologist Professor Heesun Chung CBE.


Contact us at thetoxpod@sa.gov.au


The Toxpod is a production of Forensic Science SA and the South Australian Attorney General's Department. The opinions expressed by the hosts are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of their employer. 

Tim:
0:11
Hello and welcome to The Toxpod. I'm Tim Scott. And for the next couple of episodes we're going to bring you some interviews we did at the recent ANZFSS conference in Perth. One of the things we like to do on The Toxpod is highlight interesting work that's being done by people working in the field of toxicology and also to glean some wisdom from those who've spent their lives furthering the science behind what we do. Today you're going to hear a conversation between myself and Heesun Chung, who is a professor at Chungnam National University in Korea. She was, until a few years ago, director general of the National Forensic Service in Korea and she's served on a number of international boards relating to forensic science, including being president of The International Association of Forensic Toxicologists, TIAFT, until 2017 and she's still on the board of TIAFT. She's published many papers and won many awards and it was my pleasure to have a chance to sit down and talk with her at the conference. Hope you enjoy the interview.:
Tim:
1:16
So thank you very much for joining me Heesun.:
Heesun:
1:19
Thank you very much for having me.:
Tim:
1:20
You gave an excellent keynote presentation this morning at the conference.:
Heesun:
1:24
Thank you very much.:
Tim:
1:25
And I was really interested to hear about your personal journey in forensic science and going back to when you started, you had some, uh, some issues when you first decided to get into forensic science?:
Heesun:
1:40
It was a long, long time ago. Actually in 1978. I was a student at the university school of pharmacy and I think that was my junior year. At that time the director general of the national forensic service came to my school to give a very special lecture. It was all about the forensic toxicology and while hearing his lecture I was just fascinated all about the science and forensic toxicology and everything. So I decided to pursue my career in forensic science instantly. And so I just applied for the job later after graduation and then I just got the job there at the national forensic service.:
Tim:
2:27
And you've mentioned before that you had some initial pushback from your own family even about going into this field.:
Heesun:
2:34
Actually, at the time, forensic science implied just forensic pathology, so everybody thought about the forensic scientist would be the one dealing with the dead body? So my family when I just mentioned to them I am coming that field, they were scared and they just persuaded me not to go that place because they just mentioned all about dead body and how I can just handle all dead body day every day. At that time, only in Korea, whenever we just mention about forensics, it's equal to the forensic pathology and forensic medicine. So everybody thought only forensic is equal to the forensic pathology, forensic medicine. So that's why my family though that's where I was heading for so they were scared and they persuaded me many, many days. But since I made my mind, I actually instead I just persuaded them, I told them it's the thing I really wanted to go and then later they just said yes. But it took quite a long time.:
Tim:
3:47
Yeah, you sound like a very determined person.:
Heesun:
3:49
Oh yes, just for that because I don't know why I just made the kind of decision, but after 20 years later when I met my friend who just heard the same lecture together, and we just talk about why i just decide to come to this place to NFS, but actually my friend, they didn't remember anything about the lecture. I was the only one to remember the lecture, so I thought that's the thing only sometimes one person can be influenced by some things, not all of them. It was quite interesting.:
Tim:
4:26
Yeah, and that determination's obviously helped you throughout your career. You were the first female director of the National Forensic Service in Korea, the first female president of the International Association of Forensic Science. Were you conscious during that time that you were a role model for other women who were following behind you?:
Heesun:
4:44
I think so. I always think that's why whenever I reach some places, I always thought it might be, actually, uh, sometimes I have to be modest, but since I reached that position, it just gives some kind of reflection to the student or my colleagues. And so I think somebody needed to lead the way up, then the woman, ladies, I mean not just for the woman and ladies, I think everybody in the forensic science could have a kind of aim or goal to reach some places. I think that's very important. Somebody to lead the way up.:
Tim:
5:26
And has the situation in Korea changed now where it's acceptable for young people and young women especially to go into forensic science.:
Heesun:
5:34
Yeah. Actually when I entered the national forensic service, there were only three ladies at the time, I was the third one to get there. But now it is almost 30 percent of female scientists working in the national forensic service. So I think it's a huge, huge influence on, so ladies can work in there and they are doing well. And here, I saw so many female scientists!:
Tim:
6:03
Yeah, yeah.:
Heesun:
6:04
So I think it's a good sign just like here, in Korea also there are so many ladies just pursue their career in forensic science. And actually one thing is the forensic pathology, as I mentioned when I entered the place and my family just always mentioned about dead body. But actually 20 years later, and there was just only one pathologist, a female one, but now they are I think one third of the pathologists are female. So I think it has changed a lot.:
Tim:
6:39
Yeah. A lot of changes since you started in 1978, did you say? And a lot of changes in laboratory techniques as well since you started. What do you think has been the biggest development in laboratory techniques over that time?:
Heesun:
6:53
I think the instruments, especially GC/MS. GC/MS made a lot of difference. Actually in old days when I entered there, the first instrument I used was HPLC. Actually I just used the HPLC, just isolated some carbohydrate and some drugs by the HPLC, but at the time we didn't have any mass spec, it was only in 1980. But when we had the GC, it was just okay, we needed a standard all the time to identify that. But when GC/MS came, things were changing a lot and especially GC/MS with a library, I think it made lots of difference to identify the unknowns. I think that was the turning point for forensic toxicology in Korea. I think any other place the same too. And also immunoassay, I think that's one thing for a good development for us, by immunoassay we can just screen all the urines very easily and then we can just apply GC/MS later for confirmation. So that's the one, I think.:
Tim:
8:09
It's certainly made things a lot more efficient.:
Heesun:
8:12
Efficient, and actually it has made things impossible to the possible. In old days actually it was almost impossible to identify the unknowns. If we just do the unknowns, we couldn't just find, identify it if we don't have any standard. It was almost impossible to identify things, but now we have a library and so it's different.:
Tim:
8:37
You've been involved in a lot of cases in your lab where no common drugs were detected and you had to go searching for some unknown compounds. This is such a difficult thing to do and there's been a bit of talk about it here at the conference this week. What advice would you give to laboratories who are trying to improve their capabilities in detecting unknown poisons and drugs?:
Heesun:
8:58
I think it's very important to just, basic is the most important thing. And when you just extract some unknowns where they use the basic extraction, or acidic extraction, something like. In old days we always use that kind of things, the basic extraction and the acidic extraction, so we just compared those kinds of things, but that's why I think it's really important that you have to know the basic theory, how you can just extract the unknowns from the beginning and then you could just figure out whether it's a basic compound or acidic compound. I think those kind are very important. I think that you have to have some kind of your mind to just think about that all the time, how you can just find out those substances, what they're likely to be. Let me just tell you one example. In Korea, there was a very famous singer died. And so he, after autopsy, the pathologist told me that he had suspected any kind of illegal drugs, and then so I thought it'd be easier for me to find out things, but after a couple of days we couldn't find anything but there was just something in his blood, and his urine, so we could not find what that is. So we just compared all the libraries and so having a library is also very important. So after several different kinds of libraries, and I just tried to find, I found the one which matched with that one, but even though I found something similar, I had to know the chemical structure, otherwise I, actually at the time we couldn't have a standard, so you had to know what would be the one from the basics. So whether it would be a benzodiazepine, or it would be something from acidic compounds, like a pesticide, when you have that kind of basic thing, it'll be much easier for you.:
Tim:
11:08
Yeah. So having that knowledge of the chemistry is really important and the curiosity to keep pursuing it and pursuing it because it's so easy to give up at any stage, isn't it? When you haven't found anything, how long do you spend investigating? You need to be really going for it. And so what do you see as the, the next emerging technology over the next 20 years that's going to change the way that we do toxicology?:
Heesun:
11:32
I think even in toxicology, I think the mobile instrument would be the one that in the future they can use. Just like when we just detect alcohol in the saliva, we can use a small instrument. We can just put it just like that. Actually I'm a bit worried about it, it's not accurate at all, but people would like to have at least just a ballpark figure - not exact, not accurate concentration, but if they just want a ballpark figure, they could use that kind of lab on a chip. The technology to use to just identify some drugs or just measure the concentration of drugs. So I think just in the future maybe it will move that way, just in the crime scene or something in there...:
Tim:
12:25
Taking the laboratory out to the crime scene.:
Heesun:
12:27
Yeah, but for the research field, I think we have to, I think it will be very tough, and we need all the omics in the future, the proteomics and all the omics. We have to study it more so we have to think about how we can just collect all the big data and that we needed to just manipulate all the big data to get our good research.:
Tim:
12:52
Yeah, the data processing now, the data processing that's possible with computers today and who knows what it's gonna look like in 20 years time, it's unbelievable, isn't it?:
Heesun:
13:01
Mmm:
Tim:
13:01
So you've had a lot of interaction over your career with other toxicologists from around the world, all throughout your career you've had a lot of interaction with other toxicologists. How's that, how valuable has that been to your own development and to your lab?:
Heesun:
13:15
I think it helped me a lot. If I didn't know TIAFT, The International Association of Toxicologists, I don't think I could be as I am. So I think it's very important to have a network with people, especially in my field, to just communicate all the time. So when I attended the TIAFT meeting for the first time in 1990 in Denmark, I was just fascinated by all the things what they presented and ever since I just tried to just follow them, I just made the effort what I can do from the beginning and I think that it's very important. And even after that, whenever I attend a meeting I try to present at least one paper so I can just get the peer review opinion from our colleagues, and it helped me a lot to just get in the right direction. So I think it's very important to just join the international meeting and attend the meeting and actively participate.:
Tim:
14:22
Speaking of peer reviewed papers, you, you've written a lot of papers yourself and you've reviewed a lot of other papers for international journals. Do you have any advice for maybe young people who are wanting to start publishing papers and maybe not quite knowing how to do it or what to expect?:
Heesun:
14:40
I think it's really hard to write a paper at the beginning. Even though you have some results, you cannot know how can just make it happen to the papers, so in that case I think it's very important to ask help to the senior, ask help to somebody, and then you need to just communicate with somebody who is your mentor, your senior, so I think that's the best way you can just get your paper done.:
Tim:
15:09
That's good advice. Some aspects of forensic toxicology are the same everywhere in the world, but then every region has their own unique challenges. Can you tell us about some of the challenges in Korea and in that region for forensic toxicologists?:
Heesun:
15:24
Actually in Asia, just in Asia, when you just think about Southeast Asia and actually we belonged to East-North Asia. Even there are 3 countries, Japan, Korea and China, all different, all very much different, and every country has their own problem with substances. In Korea, as I mentioned at the plenary lecture, we have a problem with methamphetamine, its the only problem we just deal with all the time.:
Tim:
15:56
Our countries are a bit similar in that way, we have a big methamphetamine problem in Australia.:
Heesun:
16:00
Yeah, but we don't have any case of cocaine or heroin, so it's very unique. But actually the problem is we don't have a proper educational system for the forensic toxicologist. We just recruit people from the university when they just got from the university. We train them in house, so I think maybe we might need some kind of proper education to be a forensic toxicologist, but when I talk to the people in Southeast Asia, they don't have that kind of system either. So maybe in the region we need some kind of proper educational system, how we can just train the people in the right direction for the forensic toxicology.:
Tim:
16:52
Well you might be in the perfect place to be doing that now because you've just moved in the last few years from the forensic service into academia and at the university. So you're training the next generation of forensic toxicologists. Can you tell us about what, how has that move been? Are you enjoying what you're doing now? Has there been any challenges with that move into academia?:
Heesun:
17:14
Actually it's very different, very different. When I was in government laboratory, I had people who are trained, very talented, people over there, they are all experienced ones, so everything just moved quickly over there, but at the university I have only masters and PhD students. They are learning, but actually I like school very much, university very much, and it's given me a rewarding things because in two years time they developed themselves a lot in two years. Actually they didn't know anything about GC/MS at the beginning, but when they graduate in two years time, they are expert in using GC/MS and they just, actually in our school we have special regulations. They have to publish at least one paper, otherwise they couldn't graduate. That's why they work very hard and when they have their own paper, I think that's the one really I can just teach it to the student. So it's very rewarding.:
Tim:
18:25
You always remember your first paper that you published, don't you?:
Heesun:
18:25
Oh yes, yes. It's my treasure. [laughing]:
Tim:
18:31
So, I was interested to see that your lab's now doing some work with the hospitals and the emergency departments and testing to see what drugs people are on when they come into the emergency departments. That seems to be a real growing area around the world and we're doing a bit of that here in Australia in different states. What are you finding that's interesting from this work?:
Heesun:
18:51
The reason why I started to do it, in Korea there is no place to provide that kind of service to the emergency room, so I thought it'd be very important as you mentioned. Actually somebody needed to give it some service, and for the patient, I think patients need to be treated properly, but it, by the symptom, actually the symptom would be, it's not right all the time. So in Korea, the medical doctors treat their patients by the symptoms all the time, but when I had a talk with them they also express it would be very nice and better for them to have any kind of identification of drugs what they take. Because the patient always just told them something different and sometimes it's not very reliable so it will be better for them to know what kind of drug they just take. So that's the time I decided to have that kind of work. So I started that and actually surprisingly people just commit suicide so much. I just couldn't believe it. There are so many people just want to commit suicide and the zolpidem, they always take it. So it was very interesting for me to see that. And it also just medicines, medical possibly prescribe the drugs. They just use the kinds of things to just, you know, to commit suicide. So that was very interesting. And including, actually my school is located in the south from Seoul, it's an agricultural area. So people also take pesticides, so especially in pesticides, we needed to identify immediately, otherwise they could be killed. So we have to identify what kind of pesticides they take, so when we just provide that kind of information to the hospital, they can treat the patient in a proper way. So it was also very rewarding.:
Tim:
20:56
So are you providing that information back to the hospitals quite quickly then?:
Heesun:
21:00
Oh yes, yeah. Actually we tried, we tried to give them a service, at least six hours and eight hours. But if we don't have, when we don't have any information at all, it takes quite a long time. But when, when the hospitals informed us it might be related to pesticides or something and it'll be much easier for us to give them information, that kind of service immediately.:
Tim:
21:27
It's interesting what you say about the doctors treating them symptomatically because sometime,s as we see with new psychoactive substances especially, when you find fatalities, they are often taking more than one, they might be taking an opioid and a stimulant or something. And so you get these kind of unusual symptoms from different types of drugs. So I think finding the, finding out what people are taking, it's really important.:
Speaker 2:
21:50
It's very important, and I think the doctors always just trust what they told to the doctors, what kind of drug they take, or family members, they just found something and they just give them it. But it wasn't true all the time. So we, at first we tried to just compare what they take and what we can determine in their biological fluid and the medical record, we just compared it, those two things. So it's, I think it's very important for us to identify something in patient to give them a proper treatment.:
Tim:
22:29
So, just as we finish up our interview, is there some advice that you would give to a young scientist who's just starting out in their career in toxicology, as someone who has accomplished a great deal in her career, and still many more accomplishments ahead I'm sure. What advice would you give to someone who's just starting out?:
Heesun:
22:46
I would like tell them to stay longer. I think that's the best thing. Actually, since I stayed at the national forensic service for 30 years, I became the president of that place. If I didn't stay longer, I couldn't be president of that place. So, but if you want to stay longer, you have to like your job, otherwise you cannot stay there longer, but it takes some time for you to like your job, you cannot like your job immediately. It takes always time to like some things. So I always advise younger generation to stay at least three years and after three years you can just think whether you like it or not. So I would like to advise them, stay longer, but I would like to tell you that one thing for the value, I like the creed, Perseverance and Passion, so you have to have that kind of things in your mind and stay long. Then you will reach a certain point and you will just feel very much satisfied in the later. So I think that's very important. To stay long is the best thing.:
Tim:
24:04
That's great advice. Thank you. Thank you so much for joining us for this interview.:
Heesun:
24:09
Thank you very much for having me. Thank you:
Tim:
24:11
And thanks to you the listener. Hope you enjoyed this interview. Conferences are a great way to hear about the excellent work that's being done by colleagues all around the world and let me take a minute to tell you about the FACTA2019 conference. That's the forensic and clinical toxicology association, which is the Australian regional association and we have a conference in June next year, June 16 to 19, three days of solid toxicology. It's going to be fantastic. Mark LeBeau from the FBI lab in the US is going to be there. You can check out all the details at FACTA2019.com.au. And remember, you can contact us at thetoxpod@sa.gov.au. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.:
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