Leading South Korea’s innovation frontier

Tai Sik Lee
Tai Sik Lee

Tai Sik Lee’s (M.S. ’83, PhD ’90) career is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary expertise and leadership in science and engineering. A foundation in civil engineering from Seoul National University and advanced degrees from the University of Wisconsin–Madison have laid the groundwork for his roles as a professor at Hanyang University and as president of the Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology. Lee’s leadership has been instrumental in shaping Korea’s construction and engineering landscape. As the current president of the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies (KOFST), he continues to influence policy, research, and international cooperation, advancing the nation’s scientific and technological progress.

Leadership and learning in Wisconsin

Lee has fond memories of his time at UW–Madison, which he selected for his graduate studies due to the high quality of the university’s engineering programs. He originally planned to study transportation engineering but found himself drawn to construction management. Lee lauded the opportunity to study under leading professors during his PhD program, including Professor Robert Smith, who Lee described as a “life mentor.”

Even as a graduate student, Lee’s predisposition for leadership saw him taking on several unique roles. Advocacy on behalf of international students saw him elected to the board of directors of the UW Credit Union—the first student to hold this position. He worked as an instructor at UW–Madison and an instructor and supervisor with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. His thesis on bid-rigging and other scholarly expertise drew interest from employers in Wisconsin and D.C.

“I found the University of Wisconsin to be a great school with a wonderful environment for students and families as well,” Lee said. “I made many friends there because of the credit union, the Wisconsin School of Business, and of course the College of Engineering. I may be back when I am born again!”

Following graduation, Lee considered building a career in the U.S., but chose to return to Korea to help care for his aging father. He accepted a position with the Research Institute of Construction Technology before assuming his role with Hanyang University in 1994—a position he has continued to hold for more than 30 years.

While serving as a professor, Lee published more than 70 peer-reviewed papers and published over 20 books on subjects such as construction engineering and management, sustainable development, space engineering, and extreme construction.

Space civil engineer

From 2014–2017, Lee was president of the Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT). During this time, he took on a project most engineers only dream of—designing human habitats fit for deep space exploration. Lee served as team lead for MoonXConstruction, a collaboration between KICT and Hanyang University to compete in NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge. The goal of the challenge was to advance the additive construction technology needed to create sustainable housing for deep space exploration. Habitats and materials are crush-tested to see if they can withstand the extreme conditions of the moon, Mars, or beyond.

Lee’s team created structures using indigenous soil and recycled materials in sizes over double that of their competitors, who hailed from around the world. In the end, Lee’s team took first place in NASA’s Phase 2: Level 3 competition.

“Our team developed a Mars habitat created through 3D printing that won out of the 60 teams from around the world,” Lee said. “So, if you want a house on Mars, let me know!”

MoonXConstruction team from South Korea led by Tai Sik Lee.
MoonXConstruction team from South Korea led by Tai Sik Lee. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies

With such a decorated career as an engineer and scholar, Lee is a natural fit for his current role—president of the Korean Federation of Science and Technology Societies (KOFST). Founded in 1966, KOFST is a major organization dedicated to the advancement of science and technology. KOFST serves as an umbrella organization for numerous scientific societies and associations in the country. The organization, which encompasses almost 800 member societies and organizations, including more than 600,000 scientists, promotes scientific research, fosters collaboration among scientists and engineers, and supports the development of science and technology policies.

KOFST promotes the public understanding of science and technology and contributes to national scientific and technological development through research, planning, analysis, and consultation on policies.

Lee described the increasing importance of advancing science and technology as critical for Korea and its future as a global competitor. At the same time, he described the efforts of KOFST to not only be a driver of progress and collaboration for Korea, but for the world.

KOFST accomplishes this through sharing knowledge in academic journals, hosting an annual international conference, advising government and private organizations, and facilitating collaborations between member societies, which includes engineering, sciences, agriculture and fisheries, and public and private organizations. As leader of KOFST, Lee is also exploring creating a technology transfer that will “benefit both developing countries and also developed countries.”

Under the visionary leadership of Lee, KOFST is poised to build on 60 years of driving science and technology in Korea, responding to societal demands, and bolstering network of innovators spanning countless disciplines. Through his strategic focus on international cooperation, policy development, and public engagement, the federation will continue playing a pivotal role in shaping the future of science and technology in Korea and beyond.”