When asked what pointed her to the field of pathology, Grace Choung, M.D. responded with a single profound truth: It explains how human suffering translates into science. “Pathologists are explaining someone’s experience, and that’s why I like it,” she said.
Choung is a renal pathologist who joined the URMC faculty in January 2020. Her sharp skill and insight are rooted in a deep desire to help people – the driving force in a winding path of a career.
Her family moved from South Korea to New Jersey when she was young and in college, she majored in sociology – hoping to one day become a social worker. She used the time before getting her master’s in biomedical science at Rutgers to explore different opportunities in the medical field.
She worked full-time at Cornell Weill Medical College’s Department of Psychiatry where they studied trauma in Sept. 11 attack survivors, interned for a community-based program that made drug and health care services available to low-income residents without health insurance and in 2006, she interned at the medical examiner’s office.
These “real-world” experiences were eye opening, Choung says. While spending the summer working alongside the ME isn’t every young person’s idea of a joy ride, she saw it as an opportunity to learn. “There were a lot of aspects of public health and community life that autopsy explores,” she said. “You see drug overdoses, suicide and mental health issues that are germane to a lot of our experiences.” She was hooked.
The next year, Choung entered Medical School at Tulane, where she was surrounded by the vibrant culture of New Orleans for the next four years. She returned to the Northeast to do her residency back at Yale New Haven followed by a renal pathology fellowship at Columbia in 2018.
But why renal? In her first year of medical school, she emailed the entire pathology faculty at Tulane looking for help with a project, and the renal pathologist was the only person who responded, a fact that still makes Choung laugh.
Her work combines her interest in the link between health and socioeconomic factors by looking at the mechanisms on a cellular level. It means interacting with nephrologists and internists to identify mechanistic reasons for how disease is expressed in a patient’s kidney biopsy.
This “detective work” is a way she is making a real difference. On the research end, she and nephrology fellows are now working on two collaborative research studies on autoimmune related kidney disease.
“My interest in renal is understanding human experience, human suffering and being able to explain it. With anything in pathology, we are truth seekers and speakers and that’s what I want to do in the renal arena,” Choung said.
She lives in Brighton with her mother (who followed her from New Jersey) and her hobbies include Zoom tea parties with her friends – which include decadent scones, sandwiches and tea. Like many during the pandemic, she already has plans to travel when she’s able.“The dream is to go to England someday and get real tea.”
This story appeared in the October 2021 issue of the Pathways to Excellence newsletter.