Letting curiosity lead the way
American journalist and author Elizabeth Gilbert once said, “If you can let go of passion and follow your curiosity, your curiosity just might lead you to your passion.”
Taehyun Roh, PhD, is an example of just that, having built upon his academic career by letting his curiosity lead him in new directions toward his passion. From pharmacy to toxicology to epidemiology, Roh has never been afraid to dive in to learn more and satisfy his educational inquisitiveness.
“I didn’t realize how my curiosity would guide me in the future, but here I am,” Roh said. “It was more difficult for me to achieve my educational and career goals while managing my disability and being in a wheelchair. But it is my hope that getting where I am today serves as an inspiration to any students or others I encounter along the way.”
Roh, an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, started his higher education by pursuing a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy at Sungkyunkwan University in his homeland of South Korea. While earning that degree, he became interested in the idea of toxicology.
“In pharmacy school you focus on the good effects of medication, but you also learn about the side effects,” Roh said. “In my case I was more interested in the side effects of the medication. I wanted to know more, based on my curiosity, and I wanted to study more about toxicology.”
With his bachelor’s degree in hand, Roh continued his educational journey at Sungkyunkwan University, working on his master’s in pharmacy with the focus on toxicology. Again, curiosity got the best of him and he felt there was more that he could learn to increase his knowledge.
“I felt if I could learn more about the epidemiology, I might understand, comprehensively, all fields in toxicology,” Roh said. “That is why I decided to study epidemiology for my doctoral degree.”
Putting education into practice
Roh joined the Epidemiology and Biostatistics faculty at Texas A&M in the fall of 2019 after obtaining his PhD in Human Toxicology from the University of Iowa and completing a postdoctoral scholar appointment with the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health.
Now, Roh is using his extensive academic background to fuel his research, which has dealt heavily with arsenic exposure from drinking water and the correlation to diseases, particularly in cancers.
“I have worked on research to investigate the chronic health effects of arsenic from drinking water, based on the data analysis,” Roh said. “However, there are still many people who are not protected from arsenic exposure. I thought about how I can help them in the current situation.”
He has received multiple grants for this research, including the Houston Methodist Cancer Center (HMCC) Research Innovation Award, the HMCC Community Outreach and Engagement Grant, and the Texas A&M Center for Environmental Health Research (TiCER) Pilot Grant to promote cancer prevention projects for underserved populations. Based on these grants, Roh recently initiated community-engaged intervention studies to prevent exposure to arsenic and the risk of corresponding health problems in rural Texas.
For this project, he created the collaborative research team that includes scholars from public health, geoscience and veterinary medicine within Texas A&M. Houston Methodist Hospital, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and the Texas Department of State Health Services will also support the study as collaborators. Natalie Johnson, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, will collaborate to explore the biomarkers to assess the health effect at a molecular level.
“Our new project will contribute to improving health disparities as exposure to arsenic disproportionately affects populations relying on private well water in rural area,” Roh said.
Expanding his research
The recent coronavirus pandemic has also broadened his scope, and Roh has been studying the link between water contaminants and COVID-19. Last summer, Roh received a National Institutes of Health P30 grant through TiCER, which aims to nucleate research and translational activities of faculty and trainees around the overarching theme of “Enhancing Public Health by Identifying, Understanding and Reducing Adverse Environmental Health Risks.”
Roh and his co-principal investigator, Daikwon Han, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, are investigating whether exposure to water contaminants such as arsenic is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 deaths.
“There is research studying air pollution and COVID-19, but there is not a lot of research on water contaminants and COVID-19,” Roh said. “The analysis has been finished and now we are preparing the manuscript.”
Once again, his curiosity has led him to branch out and has resulted in Roh receiving another grant, the Center for Health and Nature Innovation Award. Roh will examine the effectiveness of indoor hydroponic gardening systems to improve mental stress and the quality of life in cancer patients and their caregivers with a scholar in Horticultural Sciences and clinicians in the Houston Methodist Cancer Center.
“Patients and their caregivers can be easily engaged with sustainable gardening in any season,” Roh said. “This system can also provide accessible gardening experience to all kinds of people, promoting their mental health.”
Educating future generations
Roh feels that his broad background in environmental health, pharmacy, toxicology and epidemiology is helping provide a more rounded educational experience for his students, while also better preparing them for their next step.
“We have many students who pursue the health professions degree, or they are planning to go to medical school or pharmacy school,” Roh said. “I feel I can understand them much better and know what is important for them. In epidemiology class we talk about many concepts and use lots of examples. If I had only experienced one field, I would have been very limited in selection of topics.”
Roh’s goal to have a broad educational background started as a child growing up in Korea. Raised in a family of public officials and educators, he liked to experience many fields and share his knowledge with others.
“I was always eager to learn new things, and my parents were always very supportive and helped me experience diverse areas such as music, arts and writing, as well as regular class work,” Roh said.