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The Woolly Mammoth in the Room: 1L's Cloning Research Leads to Law School

By Jenny Whalen
Dec. 10, 2014

One look at his resume and it's impossible to resist asking Insung Hwang, "Have you seen Jurassic Park?!" Yes, the Michigan Law 1L admits, he has watched the film, but the former cloning scientist draws an important distinction between his work at Sooam Biotech Research Foundation and that of the fictional InGen.

Chiefly, "the timescale is different," he explains. After all, the woolly mammoth went extinct far more recently than any dinosaur. Hwang said this age difference makes cloning the prehistoric pachyderm a real possibility for genetic engineers.

Insung Hwang, 1L, with Buttercup, a 40,000-year-old woolly mammoth.

And as someone who has been up-close-and-personal with a 40,000-year-old woolly mammoth nicknamed Buttercup, Hwang has the expertise to know. Prior to enrolling at Michigan Law, Hwang led the research project featured recently in the Smithsonian Channel special, "How to Clone a Woolly Mammoth​."

Although his fellow researchers have yet to find a complete, cloneable copy of mammoth DNA, Hwang said exceptionally well-preserved specimens uncovered in Siberia have opened other avenues by which scientists can achieve their long-term goals. But, he added, before mammoths again walk the earth, it is essential that the public fully support the science behind their resurrection.

"I had dreamt about becoming a scientist for a very long time," Hwang said. "After a few years work in genetic engineering, I started to get involved in the business and public relations side of things and it dawned upon me that there is a huge gap between what the public knows and what scientists know."

A desire to bridge this disconnect between science and society ultimately led Hwang to leave his work in genetic engineering and pursue law school, where he believes he will learn to communicate and resolve these differences effectively.

"Law school is the place where you learn to communicate policy," Hwang said. "Laws and regulations are based on the direction of the public and in order to set the policies, the public and policymakers have to know where the sciences are. It excites me to be able to interact with people who develop new technologies and be ably to convey that to the public."

His decision to pursue a legal education was also motivated by a desire to more deeply understand the ethical considerations of his genetic work, which included research into the cloning of domestic animals as well as endangered and, in the case of the mammoth, extinct species.

"It's one of the other things that really fueled my desire to come to law school," Hwang said. "Should we be doing these things? Are we allowed to? What aspect of it is not ethical? Different countries in the world have different standards. There are a lot of factors. They are interesting questions that I hope to explore during my time at Michigan."

The answers promise to be at least as interesting as Siberian excavations and a woolly mammoth named Buttercup.

Read more feature stories.​​