Youngjee Choi: 2011 Outstanding Graduate in Medicine

A bright future looms in academic medicine

Youngjee Choi recalls one of her first “aha moments” as an undergraduate sophomore at Washington University.

“I was in a class about the nervous system for my PNP (Philosophy–Neuroscience–Psychology) major, and we were learning about Parkinson’s disease and new therapies,” she says. “I thought, ‘It’s too bad that I won’t get to be involved in things like that.’ Then I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’m only a sophomore.’ That made me realize that medicine was something I might be interested in.”

That internal nudge was right. Choi will graduate May 20 with a medical degree from Washington University School of Medicine.

Choi’s undergraduate degrees in psychology and philosophy–neuroscience–psychology, both in Arts & Sciences, paired with summer research experiences prepared her well for her interest in academic medicine, which combines clinical care with research. As a first-year medical student, she took a selective class on Alzheimer’s disease that held personal meaning.

“My grandfather had Alzheimer’s disease at the time, and I wanted to learn more about it,” she says.

A lecture by John C. Morris, MD, the Harvey A. and Dorismae Hacker Friedman Professor of Neurology and director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, led her to summer research with him and Monique M. Williams, MD, assistant professor of medicine and instructor in psychiatry.

The selective also led her to become one of the founders of the Geriatrics Outreach Group, through which medical, occupational therapy and St. Louis College of Pharmacy students reach out to older adults in the community. Choi and Williams developed a “senior prom” for older adults in the area. The event still is going strong — the Geriatrics Outreach Group held its fourth senior prom April 9.

Choi has continued her lifelong love of music through medical school. A flutist since fifth grade, Choi was principal flutist and a piccolist in the Washington University Symphony Orchestra as an undergraduate and for a year during medical school. Now, she is an alternate flutist in the Saint Louis Philharmonic Orchestra and continues to take lessons from Jan Smith, teacher of applied music in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL.

During her third year of medical school, Choi met David Clifford, MD, the Melba and Forest Seay Professor of Clinical Neuropharmacology in Neurology, director of Washington University’s AIDS Clinical Trials Unit and an authority on the neurological complications of HIV, at an event sponsored by the school’s Forum for International Health and Tropical Medicine. She asked Clifford if he had any work overseas.

Choi was in luck — Clifford needed someone to collect data in the West African country of Guinea-Bissau.

At the time, Choi was dating classmate Anthony (Todd) Fojo, who had received a Fogarty Fellowship to spend the year in Kenya doing tuberculosis research. Before they departed for their trips, they got engaged.

Choi spent three months in Guinea-Bissau working with patients with HIV2, a less-common strain of HIV that occurs primarily in West Africa. Choi worked in a rural area taking patient histories and performing neurological and psychological assessments.

“My time in Guinea-Bissau helped me see the degree to which physicians are needed in global health and how research can be a great way to bring resources to areas in need,” Choi says.

Clifford praised Choi’s work in West Africa.

“Youngjee embodies the ideals I hold high for a physician — she is very bright, she cares deeply about people, she is willing to work hard and sacrifice for others, and she finds joy and fun in the process of life,” Clifford says.

Choi and Fojo married in August 2010. Both will begin residencies in internal medicine at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in June. Choi hopes her residency helps her decide in which area of medicine she’d like to focus.

“I see myself staying in academics, probably doing research, but I also want to continue doing clinical medicine and seeing patients,” she says.