Dr. Samuel Noh

On October 24th 2009, the JoinTheLeaders team had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Samuel Noh for our Follow The Leaders project. Dr. Noh kindly hosted us at his house for the interview where we were welcomed by Dr Noh and his wife.  Despite lacking experience (it was our first interview after all), Dr. Noh made us feel comfortable by showing interest in our organization and initiatives.  Mrs. Noh even offered us some drink to make us feel at home.  We were able to start the interview promptly, which ended up lasting a little less than 2 hours. We would like to share Dr Noh's inspiring perspective by presenting our first interview of many to come in this project, Follow the Leaders.

Why did you decide to be a Social and Cultural Epidemiologist?  

Dr. Noh: Epidemiology is one of the youngest sciences in the graduate-level program.  I was not aware of such discipline during my undergraduate years.  When I worked as a manager of doing data analysis at a health care research centre, which was led by medical sociologists, I was given the opportunity to enroll as a part-time PhD student in epidemiology.  That was how I ended up in this field, by chance.  Social and cultural epidemiology evolved as an interdisciplinary field integrating theoretical perspectives and research methods of social science, medicine, and health science. 

What are some of the most important decisions you made as a leader of your organization?

Dr. Noh:  One of the most important decisions I made was to shift my scientific focus to immigrant health.  It provided me an opportunity to serve scientific, academic, and immigrant communities.  The Identity Conference in the Korean immigrant community in Toronto is a good example of serving real people of immigrants by sharing most up to date knowledge from scientific theories and research based evidence concerning the lived experiences of new immigrant families and their children.  This conference led to the awareness of developmental and psychological challenges and identity crisis faced by young second generation Koreans, my kids included.  Consequently, it led to the formation of KCCREN (Korean-Canadian Community Research and Enhancement Network) led by myself and my colleagues.  Second generation youth of visible minorities are often vulnerable to many identity related issues. Understanding social identity is a central question of human development, and we attempted to tackle this issue through the Identity Conference.

What were some of the challenges you faced when you first started in your industry and how did you deal with those challenges?

Dr. Noh:  A common disadvantage/ barrier for us as Korean Canadians is the lack of social capital.  Social capital is a useful resource that is in other people’s possession and that can be available for us only through personal networks. For example, resources owned by someone’s father such as network, finance, and information are the social capital of his children.  Social capital and personal skills to develop resources become progressively more important in one’s career whereas psychological capital such as IQ and work ethic are more significant at the beginning of one’s career.  For me, I did not have any social capital, particularly in social science during university years.  There were no role models or any renowned Koreans who I knew in sociology.  Also, there was a lack of cultural resources, which would have helped me to understand and adapt to the Canadian society much quicker than I had. Lastly, language was the most difficult challenge to overcome, especially due to the language intense nature of sociology, which requires tons of reading and writing.

To overcome such disadvantages, I formed personal relationships with my professors.  I visited every professor at their offices during the first week of school in my first year to discuss my limitations and motivations.  I was able to maintain the relationships throughout years and thus was able to form my own social capital.  I also participated in different school activities in order to learn more about the Canadian culture though there were practical challenges such as money.  By the time I entered graduate school,  I was fortunate enough to gain a social network among Korean graduate students, mostly in natural science and engineering, at the University of Western Ontario, which the source of emotional support.  This experience led me to realize that the quality of ethnic community is vital in the successful settlement of immigrants.

What are you doing in order to continue developing as a leader of your organization?

Dr. Noh: My primary focus is the promotion of junior faculties and scientists by helping them to establish their career.  One specific goal that I have for the future is to work with colleagues at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the University of Toronto to  develop and promote the Social Aetiology of Mental Illness (SAMI), a unique post-doctoral training in social psychiatry.  This will examine social and cultural factors for mental disorders.  Lastly, I will continue my research programs of health disparities and the mental health of Korean and immigrants.  

What is the biggest obstacle facing younger leaders today?

Dr. Noh: Current generation is the first generation which may do worse than their parents’ generations. That is, current generations will face more difficulties due to crisis in environment, nature, economy and greed consumption of material. There is also the cultural paradigm - capitalism based on individual freedom and enterprise - which can cause psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, divorce, and separation.  Societal freedom and equity programs further cause practical problems.  For example in Ontario, there is no such thing as mandatory retirement; each university faces fiscal nightmares due to professors not retiring.  It also impedes fresh doctors from getting jobs. 

What do you think is one characteristic that every leader should have?

Dr.Noh: I think the number one characteristic is to have a vision.  Each organization has its mandate and its scope. The leader should have a vision through which she or he will define and carry out specific methods of addressing the goals and aims.  People without visions are comfortable with daily maintenance and administrative work; they’re not leaders.  But even with a vision, people need several characteristics that are essential in becoming a leader.  First is competence, the ability to produce.  In addition, leaders should accompany functional accountability as well as moral accountability.  In that sense, I think the worst leaders are the selfish ones, those who are too concerned for their own gains and who use others to get ahead.  Many of them are capable of leading but end up using other people for their own interests and personal accomplishments.  However, I think that many people have the potential to become great leaders.

As a member of Korean-Canadian community, what’s your opinion about our Korean-Canadian society in general?

Dr. Noh: I’ve lived in Canada for nearly 40 years now.  Compared to the communities in the 60s and the 70s, the Korean-Canadian community is of course much larger, but it has also become very diverse and sophisticated.  I mean, 40 years ago, there were only a few thousand Koreans living in Canada.  Now, we have professionals in very diverse occupations such as those involved in cutting edge technologies, in the business world, educational and legal professions, and in global corporate environments such as Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. These people come with experience that many Canadians or earlier immigrants lack and bring something new to the table.  They are very familiar not only with cutting edge technology but also business skills, negotiation skills, etc.  The community is very sophisticated and very diverse compared to many years ago. I think there are many positive things about our Korean-Canadian  community today. 

However, in comparison to other ethnic communities, we are very slow in developing collective competence. Individually in terms of overall socioeconomic achievement, Koreans are doing very well, especially in the area of education.  Even in the States, compared to other residents of Asian origin, Koreans are comparatively better off in many academic professions.  We have a lot more professors and PhDs than, let’s say, Japanese Americans.  Chinese-Americans are coming up very fast as well.   Koreans are also doing very well in Canada in terms of percent of admits at universities (Koreans are the highest along with Taiwanese). 

In terms of socioeconomic standing, if we compare the Korean ethnic group to other groups, Korea’s standing is pretty good. However, let’s get microscopic within each profession and see where Koreans stand.  Among lawyers, medical doctors, professors, and engineers, where are we standing?  The fact is that we are not doing all that well. In fact, many Asians are not doing that well in that sense.  Recently, more South Asians and Chinese people have become quite powerful and have become the focus of attention by the mainstream society.

Do you have any final advice for leaders of tomorrow

Dr. Noh: As a leader, you need vision, compassion, hope, resiliency.

About Dr. Samuel Noh

Dr. Samuel Noh is a Crombie Professor of Cultural Pluralism and Health and Head of Culture Community and Health Program of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.  At the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), the leading mental health care and research institution of Canada, Dr. Noh is a Senior Research Scientist and Co-Head of the Social Equity and Health Research (SEHR) section.  He is also a Principal Investigator and Founding Mentor of the Social Aetiology of Mental Illness (SAMI), a Canadian Institute of Health Research Strategic Research Training Program.

Dr. Noh’s research focuses on structural and psychological determinants of population health and health disparity.  Over the years, Dr. Noh received or participated in projects worth over $10 million in research grants for nearly 50 projects, and generated 300 publications and presentations, many of which have been cited widely in textbooks and other publications.

Born and raised in Korea, Professor Noh attended the Yonsei University in Seoul, before immigrating to Canada in 1971.  During the first two years in Canada, he worked in factories and stores until he enrolled in the University of Western Ontario in 1973, where he completed undergraduate and graduate studies in sociology and a doctoral program in epidemiology.  Dr. Noh has benefitted the Asian communities through both his professional and personal dedication.  On the recognition of his contributions to Canadian communities and scientific achievements, Dr. Noh received the Toronto New Pioneer’s Award.  He also received the Faculty Excellence Award from the University of Western Ontario during his tenure there.

Interview Date : Oct. 24, 2009
Interviewers: Jooseok Lee, Yongsub Eric Shin, Sarah Yoon
Photographer: Gerald Law
Editors: Phil Kim, Hyungbin Kim, Chris Heebum Lee

The views expressed in the interviews are not necessarily reflective of JoinTheLeaders's opinion.