Sweden’s Gothenburg University’s Center for Biomaterials, arguably the most prestigious university for dental implant surgery in the world, accepted one PhD student per year between 1990 and 2010. It is extremely competitive. And, until 2002, not a single East Asian had ever graduated from its hallowed halls. Nor had anyone whose first language was so removed from English written over 70 research papers, created over 20 international patents and published a nearly 200-page-long dissertation on dental implant surfaces.
Then came Dr. Sul Young-taeg.
I want to emphasize who I am, he says with his distinctly Korean-Swedish accent acquired from living there so long. And who he is is more than the accolades and newspaper clippings that hang on the walls of his Haeundae office along with the certificates from Gothenburg and the US Army for his contributions to American research. He’s more than just a doctor in a nautically-themed office with Swedish design flair.
Dr. Sul is a professional. He approaches his craft with the nobility and selflessness of an experienced doctor, as someone who knows what he must do and the smartest way to do it. He prefers, for example, research to clinical work, and doesn’t do aesthetic dental work like teeth whitening.
To understand Dr. Sul’s professionalism, one must first understand Dr. P.I. Brånemark, under whom Dr. Sul studied, and who is often cited as the Grandfather of Dental Implants. Sound obscure? He’s actually a huge deal. He was the first to discover, in the early 1950s, that mammal bones will grow to adhere to titanium implants if they’re close enough; in short, he helped create modern dental implantation.
Dr. Brånemark consequently grew to be a world leader in dental implant surgery and research. And it was during his tenure at Gothenburg University, in 1997, that a young Sul Young-taeg traveled from South Korea to Sweden with only a little English, zero Swedish and a sincere desire to study dentistry.
Aside from a three-month stint Cambridge to work on his English, Dr. Sul spent the next five years at Gothenburg. He fell in love with research, specializing in dental implant surfaces, before his study culminated in a remarkable and dense English-language PhD dissertation in 2002.
After his publication, however, he felt torn. On the one hand, he felt his native land calling him back; his parents were both alive and living in Miryang, his hometown, while he was raising three children with his wife in Scandinavia. But his European prospects were too promising, and so he applied for, and was accepted as, an assistant professor at Gothenburg.
Over the following 10 years, he advanced to associate and adjunct professorship, while his children grew up, two of them moving to study at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father passed away. Suddenly, with his mother alone in Miryang, he and his wife began to feel antsy.
When you get old, you miss your native town, he reflected. I missed a lot of things about Korea.
And so, in November, 2012, he moved back to South Korea. The city didn’t matter; though Dr. Sul had been a practicing clinician for six years prior to Sweden, all of his Korean contacts had dried up. He found an office on the ninth floor of the Centum Imperial Tower in Busan and started his business, and effectively his career, all over again.
It has since not been easy. The differences between Korea and Sweden are enormousâthe politics, the culture, the food, the climate. He’s been speaking English for the past 15 years; now, he must revert back to Korean.
But perhaps the hardest blow to his career has been the fact that so few Koreans understand and respect his accomplishmentsâthat he trained at one of the best schools in the world, or that his knowledge of dental implant surgery is significantly more nuanced than other dentists’. Koreans, he worries, are drawn to save money on cheaper surgeries, regardless of the longevity of the implant. But with no research to prove how long Korean dental implants last, he may as well be shouting off the roof of his office building.
You are a human being, he insists. You are not chairs or desks or cups. How can you put a price on a cavity?
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