Afternoon 1 PM.
Gathered in the hallway outside the conference hall on the third floor were a group of young men overflowing with tension.
Six individuals selected in fall as temporary hires and the one and only special case individual selected in December who was also the greenest most junior member of the lab, were here to prepare for the Proposal Assessment that was going to take place in an hour.
“Is everyone present?”
Manager of Human Resources Younghak Jun stood before them with the roster.
“I will call out the names in the order of the presentations. Pilho Kim?”
The temps began to form a line in front of the Head in the order they were called.
‘He’s the Head of Training, right?’
Jungwu’s name didn’t come up until even the fourth call. He knew that his position would be towards the end. He was relieved because going later would give him a chance to observe how others did which would be advantageous for him.
“…Sunghwan Jo, Jungwu Han*.”
Then Jungwu realized that there was nothing more to the arrangement than being ordered in alphabetical order (korean letters), and let out a laugh.
Had he ever been more grateful for being born with a last name having an ‘h’ sound?
“There is a 5 minute time limit on the presentation, followed by a 5 minute question and answer period. We will give you 3 minutes as a mic test. We typically don’t do practice beforehand but as everyone knows, the Research Head and the Department Heads…”
The Human Resource Manager Jun trailed off his words as he opened the doors to the conference room. It seemed as though the manager was as nervous as the presenters as the one responsible for the training of the temporary hires.
‘Crap I’m getting nervous because everyone else is so frozen stiff’
He did feel that he was adequately prepared, but Jungwu couldn’t help but feel his mouth going dry. He followed the people in front of him into the room.
The conference room was in a steplike layout, similar to a college lecture hall. There were laptops and mics installed on every desk on the semicircle steps, a large projection screen hung at the front facing the desks, as well as a white dry erase board.
“Ah ha, Mic test one two three. First presenter, please come forward.”
The oldest of the temporary hires, Pilho Kim at thirty-four years of age, stepped up to the podium at Manager Jun’s voice.
Jungwu sat on the chair in the corner and began to watch the practice proposal presentations.
‘Now that I think of it, this is my first time finding out the research topics that others have picked.’
Pilho’s PT’s title was ‘Heat Insulation Coating for Glass’. The presentation on the subject of liquid heat insulation project for exterior Apartment windows or cars filled the meeting room with a completely anxious voice.
“Pilho ssi. Your content was good but you lack confidence. Do you really think that the Fundamental Element Laboratory Researchers will want to work with you? Exert yourself more.”
“Ah, yes understood, manager-nim.”
The Human Resource Manager gestured to the next presenter. After the first practice presentation, Jungwu tilted his head as he suddenly thought.
‘This seems like a rather stale subject…’
He shook his head to convince himself it wasn’t true and turned his attention towards Gitae who was making his way up to the podium.
Gitae’s PT was on a research about Solar power. He seemed to be on good terms with the head of Team 1 Donggil of the Central Research Laboratory and had picked a research topic that simply debated the efficiency of ‘Semiconductor N and P’ used in solar panels.
‘This is rather ordinary as well.’
Even the research topics of Gyumin and Yungshik who gave their presentation afterwards were extremely pedestrian, like ‘Display’ and ‘Green Energies’.
At least the fifth speaker Gaehyung Yi spoke about a brand new type of adhesive that was made of components extracted from Mussels, but this PT’s content was simply poorly done. To Jungwu, it looked like the presentation material prepared by others were nothing more than an announcement intended to show each of their desired departments what research they would like to participate in.
– What could newly hired temp researchers possibly propose that could compete with the professors?
Jungwu recalled an advice from a certain senior researcher during the company outing few days ago.
“…Jungwu Han ssi?”
Jungwu jumped up to his feet when he was woken up by the Manager’s call.
“Yes, on my way!”
“Please try to relax and take it easy. Jungwu Ssi’s preparation period was short and all, so the judges will take that into consideration when scoring you.”
Jungwu didn’t reply and only grinned as a response to the Manager’s considerate words as he waited for his own PT material to appear on the screen. He then moved up to the mic.
“I would like to develop a cheap recyclable plastic material that has at least the 5 times the hardness of steel.”
Human Resource Manager Jun who was checking the sound system turned his head towards the podium when he heard Jungwu’s energetic voice and attitude that was fundamentally different from the other presenters.
“Plastic’s drawback is that it has a lower heat resistance and hardness compared to metals. This is because the majority of the plastic is actually composed of noncrystalline structure…”
The basis of his proposition, steps and procedures, research ideas needed to complete the goal, as well as existing precedents, Jungwu’s practice presentation was over before the 3 minutes were up.
“…That is all.”
Manager Jun’s expression looked rather complicated due to the fact that the presentation was no different from listening to one of the Project Leads presenting a research abstract during one of the company’s official project announcement events.
Jungwu spoke into the mic on getting no instructions from the Manager.
“Sir, I’m finished. May I climb down?”
Manager Jun snapped awake and nodded.
“Ah.. ok. Oh yeah, Jungwu ssi?”
“Were you scouted from another research institution for the topic you just presented? I haven’t received the file for you from the Human Resource department.”
“No, that’s not it. It’s just a topic I’ve had an interest in for a while.”
Once Jungwu sat down, the rest of the temps began to stare at him. Especially Gitae, who had witnessed a similar scene few days ago during the Seminar held in the City Hall.
Once everyone was done, Manager Jun walked to the front of the Podium.
“Please remember your routes. We will begin standing by about 10 minutes before the start time. You have a break until then.”
Gitae caught up to him on his way out. Jungwu bowed his head but Gitae immediately asked,
“There was a rumor floating around that Yujin Chemical was scouting you and even sent an offer… is this true?”
“Something like that did happen that day, but there’s a rumor about it going around?”
“We all watched the interview together on the news.”
Gitae stared at Jungwu’s apparent ambivalence with envy and other complicated feelings.
“Wait for me!”
Sunghwan ran up from behind and placed himself next to Jungwu before asking
“Jungwu ssi, your presentation just now. When were you able to prepare like that?”
“Whenever I had time.”
“I noticed since the last end of the week meeting we had, but man you’re sensational. It was interesting to see Manager Jun’s surprised expression as well. How did you manage to study Polypropylene while pursuing business admi…”
Gitae also began to eagerly express deep interest in Yujin Chemical’s Mobile Research Station and asked questions as to what was inside. They must have determined that he was a rival they simply could not hope to match, as they showed no signs of being wary of him.
“I want coffee. How about you, Jungwu ssi?”
“I’m fine with water.”
Gitae and Sunghwan headed towards the vending machine when they returned to the break room. Jungwu walked over to the water dispenser and held the plastic cup.
He suddenly saw his vision zoom in onto a small point in the break room which revealed a darkish rather raggedy and transparent comet-shaped molecular star floating around in the air.
‘What is it? That color makes it seem like it would smell horrible.’
Jungwu retraced the direction the molecule had traveled until he discovered a lady sitting in the corner of the breakroom with a large straw hat pressed down far into her head.
She was leisurely enjoying her tea when she flinched upon noticing his gaze and lowered her face. But although her face was covered, Jungwu was able to recognize her immediately thanks to the name that was proudly embroiled onto her white gown. Jungwu gulped down a cup of water and calmly walked over and sat right across from her.
“You smell rather savory today, Boyoung Sunbae.”
Boyoung looked away as if she hadn’t heard him. Jungwu slowly observed the comet-shaped molecules floating all around her as he asked her,
“I guess there was too much ammonium in the compost? Bacillus fungus? Is this being cultivated to ensure good level of oxygen supply?”
She would normally talk back or offer her own opinions when he would share his thoughts, but she remained silent. Although she had pretended like it wasn’t so, she must be feeling embarrassed on being covered in ‘the smell of nature’ after working in the microbial laboratory.
“You’re not hurt, right?”
She decided that she could no longer pretend to not hear him and shook her head.
“Well you weren’t speaking, so. You’re okay, right?”
Jungwu noticed that she looked resolute in remaining silent, so he decided to taunt her.
“Strange. I thought Sunbae was someone who was cheery and always ready to give warm words of advice to her Hoobaes, but now that I see…”
“Now that you see what? What do you want to say?”
He heard an automatic response shoot out from under the straw hat.
“I’m usually suuuper calm and silent type you know? I’m always quiet during tea time, I am.”
“I see. I never realized that you were such a quiet and reserved person like this until now.”
Boyoung pushed back her hat in anger and gave an intense glare at Jungwu because of his playful taunt. Jungwu watched the production of the comet slow down and disappear as he said,
“It doesn’t smell that bad. It’s really similar to Cheonggukjang**…”
Boyoung hit the table to prevent Jungwu from finishing his sentence. Jungwu couldn’t help but let out a snort of laughter.
“Don’t laugh. I have to go back in later, it was just that we weren’t done sterilizing. And let’s just call it a day for today.”
“Anyone listening in might misunderstand that we meet every day.”
“Just go already! Stop making fun of me and embarrassing me.”
“I thought I heard someone call herself calm and silent, did I imagine it?”
Boyoung’s cheeks puffed up in response to her nearly uncontainable wrath. Jungwu got up thinking that she might really explode if he were to continue.
“I’m heading out now. It’s almost time for Proposal Assessment.”
Jungwu moved away from the table. Boyoung who let out a short sigh of relief said in the passing.
“I heard that the Head Researcher is coming. He’s as unpredictable as Professor Chun so you should be careful.”
This was rather an ominous advice.
“Jungwu ssi, you really don’t want coffee? Huh? What’s that smell?”
Gitae and Sunghwan was approaching him so Jungwu quickly ran up to them.
“Did I ever explain the work process of Hana Ju the Team leader of Yujin Chemicals?”
“You have not, no.”
Jungwu lured the two of them to sit as far away from Boyoung as possible and spent the rest of the break there.
Once it was 1:55 PM, the inside of the Conference room began to fill with people.
“I see that Team Leader Park of Fundamental Elements Lab is here. I’ve heard that he doesn’t tolerate mistakes.”
“Electronics Center is obviously Team Leader Donggil. I predicted that.”
The Temps who were giving their own assessments of the representatives who arrived on behalf of the various Laboratories became speechless as they stared at the woman who walked through the doors.
“Who is she? I’ve never seen her before.”
“Me too. Was there such a beautiful woman like her at the research center?”
Jungwu who was browsing on his cellphone looked up out of reflex when he heard the temp’s conversations. And he saw a woman he was very well acquainted with.
She sat down in the seat reserved for the representative of the Pharmaceutical Center and gazed coldly and rather self indulgently at Jungwu. Her gaze seemed to ask him this question:
Are you prepared to shut everyone up with your skill.
Jungwu felt like the tension he had loosened up after meeting Boyoung in the breakroom was beginning to wind back up again.
“The Chief is on his way.”
When Manager Younghak who was in charge of the meeting gave the announcement, every researcher stood up from their seat. The door then opened up and executive researchers came filing into the room behind a man half of whose hair was white and who exuded a noble air about him.
Chief, Head of the Laboratory, Head Researcher. He was the central figure around whom KG Chemicals’ Laboratories operated.
The rest of the room seemed to freeze in place until every last one of these men took their seats, further intimidating the presenters.
‘Wow, so much pressure.’
Jungwu trembled as well. Once everyone took their seat, Manager Jun spoke from the podium.
“We will begin with a statement from the Chief.”
Every head in the conference room turned to the man with half white hair. Head Researcher Songu pressed the button on the mic and began to speak.
“I would like to first express my apologies. I have no excuses for why I did not take time to meet the people who are the future of KG Chemicals until now. I know that my sudden participation may feel more intimidating. I hope you can be understanding that I only wished to meet everyone even a little bit sooner as the Chief.”
The man then gave a short bow towards the direction the Temps were gathered. Jungwu was beyond surprised that the Head Researcher had spoken to them like a kind-hearted old man. It was a warm demeanor that contrasted very heavily with the stoic atmosphere of the rest of the heads.
“Our researchers are ‘Specialists’ in Chemistry. They are talented people who are an expert in one subject and are better than anybody else. My hope is that everyone will continue to work their very best as a ‘Specialist’ for the benefit of KG Chemicals.”
Aside from the Chief’s rather accented korean-esque pronunciation of ‘Specialist’, it was a completely flawlessly smooth greeting.
“First presenter, Pilho Kim, please come forward.”
The trembling Pilho took to the podium with a terrified expression. The lights over the seats dimmed down and the PT material was put on the screen.
“Hello. What I’ve prepared is the Heat Insulation coating for glass…”
The presentation continued for about five minutes. In spite of hearing all of it, Jungwu felt that the presentation was not all that different from the practice and the material still lacked impact.
“Did you say your name was Pilho?”
The first person to speak up for the question and answer session was not the Human Resource Manager who was in charge of the meeting but the Head of Fundamental Elements Center, Taesun Jang. Pilho swallowed loudly because the senior personal he wanted to impress most was first.
“You graduated from Postech(Pohang University of Science and Technology).”
“You spent a long time in graduate school. Looking at this, you have quite an extensive experience participating in small individual projects.”
“I was able to finish my masterate with the research grant from KG Chemicals. I was studying in school with the mindset that I was already a part of this company.”
“You had so little confidence in your presentation, but I like the way you think.”
“I only have the deepest apologies about…”
“No, no. I don’t think that it is necessarily a requirement for a researcher to be able to speak well. What’s important is the content.”
Pilho seemed to brighten up when the Head seemed to say something positive.
“But, you know. Insulation, heat shield, and UV protection coating research has reached a sort of a dead end. The market is already saturated.”
“I’m not trying to argue. I’m just letting you know about the topic you picked. There’s nothing left to add, subtract, or ask about it.”
His expression darkened again. Taesun looked to the side at the other heads and added,
“I don’t know about the other centers, but what we demand of our Researchers at the Fundamental Elements lab is good fundamental knowledge and experience. Your knowledge is about average, and your experience is superior to your peers. With this kind of results, I want you to join our center.”
This time the declaration filled Pilho’s expression with confusion.
‘Up and down, that researcher looks like he’s in for a ride.’
Jungwu was trembling just watching, he couldn’t imagine how terrified the man in question must be feeling right now.
The Head of the Electronics Center opened his mic.
“Hey, Professor Jang. How can you just tell him straight out that you liked him? Are the rest of the judging panel irrelevant?”
“The final approval is done by me anyway, what’s the problem with me telling them ahead of time?”
“That’s only if they go to the Fundamental Elements lab. You shouldn’t use the Proposal Assessment to interfere like this.”
“But the presentation material was for our lab.”
“My goodness, how stubborn. Chief, what are your thoughts?”
Songu gave a bright smile at Iljung’s question and answered,
“If the process is simplified then the effectiveness should rise as well. I think this spot is a great opportunity. And I trust the judgement of the professors here.”
Head of Component Sciences Center Jongsun also opened his Mic at the Chief’s lenient answer.
“If that’s how we will do this, I would also like to have him. All of his graduate research projects were on components. We are in desperate need of an experienced Researcher.”
When the Center Heads began to speak as if they were arguing amongst themselves, Pilho who was still standing at the podiums looked like he was about to cry, likely thinking ‘this is not what I was hoping to happen.’
“Are we picking the new recruits on first come first serve basis? Then I’ll reserve him first.”
“What do you mean first come first serve? How ungraceful. Let’s first hear all the presentations before we decide.”
The Center Heads began to speak one after another, murmuring here and there. But even though they were speaking, the Head of the Human Resource department who was supposed to be in charge of the presentation was unable to utter a single word.
‘Just what’s going on?’
Jungwu tried to think about the significance of what Songu had said and then paused. He had seen this kind of atmosphere and this kind of presentation event before. It was like a TV Audition program, where an individual rises to the stage to show his talents and the judges on the panel give their sharp feedback. Pilho did something similar to that, and some of the Center Heads saw potential in him and expressed their interest in him.
‘The Highest ranking members of the Research center are making real-time judgements. And if they like what they see, they immediately decide where the person will be going on the spot.’
If there are presenters that can attract the attention of the Heads, there must also be presenters who are the reverse. And if one were to analyze what the Head of the Fundamental Elements Center had said, then the ability to speak well and give a clean presentation was not the end all be all.
Their first assignment in the lab depended entirely upon the heads. And therefore, the format of this presentation unintentionally became like a survival show. The Temps next to Jungwu arrived to the same conclusion and their expressions withered away.
* The H sound is the last in the korean writing system.
** Fermented soybean soup. Fermented is a fancy word for intentionally rotting. Here he is indicating that she smells like rotting soybeans.