University of Pittsburgh

Seung Wook Lee (GSPH ’79, ’82) & Hyun Kyung Moon (GSPH ’86)

Seung Wook Lee (GSPH ’79, ’82)
Biostatistics pioneer

At Pitt: He earned a public health doctorate in biostatistics from the Graduate School of Public Health.

In South Korea: Lee served as dean of the public health department at Seoul National University; shaped national health policy by amassing pioneering vital statistics on health, education, and public welfare; was awarded a National Medal, one of the South Korean government’s highest honors; and, in 2017, was named an “outstanding figure in public health” by the Korea Public Health Association.

Hyun Kyung Moon (GSPH ’86)
Trailblazing researcher

At Pitt: Moon earned a PhD in public health with a focus on nutrition from the Graduate School of Public Health.

In South Korea: She forged a trailblazing career as a researcher, professor, author, and women’s leadership advocate; served as president of the Korean Dietetic Association; wrote one of South Korea’s first nutritional policy papers, helping to drive government policies about food and nutrition; and was awarded a National Medal, one of the South Korean government’s highest honors.

 

Portrait of Seung Wook Lee & Hyun Kyung Moon

Photo credit: Jeong Yi

Today, husband and wife Seung Wook Lee and Hyun Kyung Moon are each independently valuable contributors to South Korea’s public health sphere. Their paths toward success intertwined as young graduate students and began to blossom when each made a stop at the University of Pittsburgh.

Though Hyun Kyung Moon was born in the middle of the Korean War, she says her early years were not especially shadowed by her country’s strife. Her father, a war correspondent and later a professor, never talked to her about the war. She grew up with her family in Seoul enjoying summer vacations to the beach, small cakes for her birthday, and quiet time amid the lilies, golden bell, and wild roses in her grandmother’s garden.

Reading was a favorite pastime. “I was curious about life and I liked everything,” she recalls. Books, perhaps, gave her the appetite to reach beyond the traditional life of being a housewife. She dreamed of being a physician, a journalist, and a teacher.

After she graduated from one of the top high schools in Seoul, she attended Seoul National University (SNU). Moon’s family could not afford to send her to medical school to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor, so the young woman, undeterred, set her sights on a career in food and nutrition.

As a graduate student at SNU studying public health nutrition and working as a high school teacher, she met a shy young man, a fellow student, several years her senior. His name, she learned, was Seung Wook Lee, and by the time he met Moon, he had already re-made himself.

Lee was born in 1948 in Daejon, the nation’s fifth largest city. Lee’s father worked for one of the emerging electrical companies and was often transferred to serve as an accountant at the developing branches, so Lee grew up in several small cities. By 1961, when Lee was 13, the family was settled in Seoul.

He was a good, but introverted student who harbored a drive to better himself. By the time he reached SNU, for example, he had resolved to change his fear of public speaking. He became a reporter with his university magazine, an activity that forced him to talk with others and helped to open him up to the world.

He finished college with an advanced degree in veterinary medicine, but he soon wanted to do more than tend to animals. He became inspired by humanitarian philosophies and began to ask how he could help other people. Once again, he pushed himself forward.

Ultimately, Lee decided to study public health at SNU, a move that led him not only toward a career he felt passionate about, but also to the woman who would become his wife.

Portrait of Seung Wook Lee

Seung Wook Lee circa 1983

Lee and Moon married the same year he finished the public health graduate program.

Together, the couple embarked on their first big adventure: a journey to the U.S. city of Pittsburgh, where Lee had been admitted to a doctorate program in biostatistics at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health.

“It was like a second life,” he says, “because we virtually started from nothing.”

The couple had little money and Lee still had much to learn about the English language and biostatistics. As he studied, his education funded through scholarships, Moon worked in minimum-wage positions to support the family. The experience was difficult, but they faced the challenges with tenacity. Lee, for example, would tape-record his classes so that he could listen over and over again to the professors’ lectures over and over again.

He finished a doctorate in public health with a focus on biostatistics in 1982, and for a year afterward, he conducted post-doctoral study in epidemiology at Pitt. When his work was done, he returned home to South Korea alone.

With Lee’s degrees secured, it was now Moon’s time to study. As her husband flew thousands of miles away, she remained in Pittsburgh to earn a Pitt PhD in public health with focuses on epidemiology and nutrition. Pregnant when she started the degree, she returned home to Korea to give birth to a daughter, but did not stay for long. The dedicated scholar soon returned to Pitt and full-time doctoral study.

For a young woman who grew up wanting to shatter glass ceilings, graduate school at Pitt was one of her first cracks at it. She cocooned herself in her studies.

“Now, I had a chance to get a degree from an American university,” she recalls. “To study hard was my choice. I was highly motivated. The new knowledge, the opening of my mind, was exciting.”

Moon remembers being quiet in classes but questioning her teachers afterward, and relying on kindhearted classmates to help with translations. When not studying, she worked as a research assistant and teaching fellow. She graduated in June 1986, and one month later she was home.

Portrait of Hyun Kyung Moon

Hyun Kyung Moon circa 1983

The woman with the freshly minted Pitt PhD stepped back into a rapidly developing South Korea. New opportunities were becoming available to women. In a modernizing Seoul, Moon began her work life as head researcher at the government’s prestigious Korea Food Research Institute.

As her career blossomed, she presided over key professional nutritional societies, authored books on nutrition, and guided government-based projects to educate rural physicians on nutrition, which included surveys that focused on women, the elderly, and children. She continued much of that work until she retired recently as a full professor from Dankook University.

Moon’s work in nutritional epidemiology was a breakthrough. In an era when illnesses like diabetes and hypertension were on the rise, Moon’s studies linked diet to disease and helped to drive government policies that regulate food additives and safety. She was also responsible for building one of the nation’s first nutrition charts, a data system to help Koreans understand what to eat.

Her career’s ascension, coupled with her advocacy, helped pave the road for other women in her field.

“Everything I’ve done is possible because of Pitt,” she says. “It gave me the credentials to be in the room. To have a voice. It got me invited to the table. If they don’t invite you to the table, you can’t say what you have to say. Going to Pitt made it easier for me to start to do something.”

After Lee left Pitt, he built a successful career cross-cutting teaching and public service, helping Korea as it emerged into a more modern age.

He served as a college professor of public health in South Korea and eventually became dean of the Graduate School of Public Health at SNU. From there, he launched collaborations with schools of public health in Beijing and Tokyo that created visiting scholar partnerships to address “rising industrialization and smog as regional public health issues.” The collaborative work, Lee says, helped to influence policy regarding South Korea’s health care systems, health promotions, and environmental health measures.

But perhaps his most significant contributions came in the area of biostatistics. In the mid-1980s, he was one of only a few biostatisticians in South Korea and soon went to work with Statistics Korea, a government agency dedicated to the development and improvement of the collection of vital statistics.

There, Lee contributed to developing national indexes on how to gather data on birth and death rates. His work was particularly relevant in rural communities, where it proved necessary for tracking and understanding high infant mortality. He would go on to strengthen the government’s biostatistics on health, social affairs, environment, education, and children’s health. His research gave the government the reliable information needed to shape better policy on health and human wellness.

He says Pitt helped to “open the doors” for him to have a distinguished career. He served as a visiting scientist with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development with the National Institutes of Health. He was a visiting professor of public health at the Curtin University of Technology in Australia. At SNU, he served as dean, director of community health research, director of the institute of health and environment, and chair of the department of health services and sciences—all at the Graduate School of Public Health.

Lee and Moon were each awarded a National Medal, one of the South Korean government’s highest recognitions, for their excellent work and contributions to society.

In a span of 40 years, and through the aid of idea-expanding education, the bookish girl who looked beyond the horizon and the shy boy who dreamed of helping people had transformed not only their own lives, but also many of the lives of their fellow countrymen.