Hyunok Choi Welcomed to the College of Health

An innovative epidemiologist, Choi examines the environmental origins of asthma.

Story by

Tim Hyland

Headshot of Hyunok Choi

Epidemiologist Hyunok Choi arrived at Lehigh in early January as the latest faculty member to join the College of Health.

Choi, who comes to Lehigh from SUNY Albany, has developed research interests around the environmental origins of asthma, with a particular focus on the long-term impacts of prenatal exposure to air pollution. She has a Ph.D. in environmental health sciences from Columbia University and an M.P.H from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, and before landing at SUNY Albany as an assistant professor in the department of environmental health sciences, served as a postdoctoral research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Choi is widely recognized as a thought leader in her field, and her work has been published in such journals as the Environment International, Environmental Health Perspectives and Science of the Total Environment.

“I am delighted to welcome Professor Hyunok Choi to the university and to the faculty of the College of Health,” said Whitney P. Witt, inaugural dean for the college. “As a scholar, Dr. Choi is a leading international expert on the effects of air pollution on adverse perinatal outcomes and early childhood asthma. Air pollution accounts for significant morbidity and mortality worldwide, accounting for 7 million deaths per year. Dr. Choi’s research stands to have a transformative impact on population health both internationally and locally in reducing the burden of disease related to pollution. I am excited about her leadership in building Lehigh’s research and educational programs in environmental population health.”

Shortly after her arrival, Choi sat down for an interview to talk about how she developed her research interests, how she intends to further expand the impact of her work and her excitement about being a founding faculty member of Lehigh’s innovative new college.

Can you talk a bit about your research interests? How and why did you develop these interests?

My research interests lie in measuring prenatal exposure to air pollution, and clarifying their life-long consequences as the children adapt to the adverse environment in terms of asthma and obesity. Up until recently, we have been investigating largely by making an association between early-life pollution exposure and a set of syndromes. Today, we are able to deeply characterize phenotypes, clarify environmentally induced molecular pathways and offer hope for new therapies based on novel insights of the disease development. Even more amazing is that we are able to suggest for the first time whether obesity is a contributor to, or the consequence of, childhood asthma. Clarifying the extent to which subtypes of asthma are developmentally intertwined with childhood obesity represents my next research goal.

I have had a singular interest in how air pollution—in particular, a class of compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH)—has influenced human health and resilience for the last 17 years. I vaguely intuited as a Ph.D. student what I was addressing was an important problem. I still go to sleep wondering about the questions I would like to answer. My mission for Lehigh students is to help them to be free with their natural instincts for beauty, mystery and openness of their hearts.

What drew you to the opportunity to take a faculty position here at the College of Health?

When my paper on asthma mechanisms was in an interminable process of review at various journals, some people described my research approaches as overly ambitious, naïve, risky and untenable. I too had to ask myself whether I might be an unrealistic dreamer. At the same time, my mother kept telling me, “What has a scientist got, if not the doggedness of her gut? Just follow your heart.” I am deeply excited to be a part of the College of Health, because I feel free to dream, try, fail and try again here. Having been at the College of Health for about two weeks now, I am awed not only by the scope of the vision at the College, but also by the speed with which we are executing such vision. I feel like a molecule in an active incubator.

What do you anticipate the focus of your work will be here at Lehigh?

I expect to continue to pursue environmental origins of asthma. That is, I hope to collaboratively start a study of asthma for children within and around the Lehigh Valley. Until now, understanding such risks has been prevented by prohibitively expensive data collection costs. To date, our team has preliminarily identified an immune system ‘switch’ which predisposes infants and toddlers to non-allergic and severe asthma. We are in the process of replicating such immune switches in another prospective birth cohort. I want to provide a safe and free space for my students to ask crazy questions, work well with one another, try a new approach, fail without fear, and try again.

The College of Health is being launched very specifically with a focus on 'population health.' Why does this field have the potential to be so impactful in the years to come?

If I may use my line of research as an example, within the U.S., there is a great disjoint between the status quo of dealing with asthma sufferers and the true needs of the population. For example, about 50 percent of asthmatics in the U.S. are not helped by current asthma treatments. Yet, we continue to treat all asthmatics as if they suffer from a single disease and give them the same medication. This is at least partly responsible for our annual expense of $56 billion per year on asthma alone. My most immediate research goal is to identify avoidable causes for high-risk infants/toddlers, and alter the trajectory of such children at the most opportune window of their development.

Story by

Tim Hyland

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