Professor Choi Fuses Chemistry and Humanity

by Polly Johnson

Choi Lab 2004
At first glance, Professor of Chemistry Sunhee Choi does not fit one's image of a chemistry professor. Forget the white lab coat - her colorful wardrobe is as fashionable as her friendly and funny demeanor is endearing. Known for her rigorous chemistry courses, she is also teaching a first-year seminar, "Color in Science and Culture," combining her two loves, color and chemistry.

Choi's interest in chemistry began when she was 10 years old and living in Korea. At the time she was sure that she wanted to be a doctor. Inspired by Woodrow Wilson, Choi decided that in her pursuit of becoming a doctor she wanted to "make the world a better place."

Math and science never came easily to her, however, and throughout her schooling, and even now, she works extremely hard to understand it all. "In Korea, it was a hard life, and I needed something to enrich my spirit." Claiming she was a "total idealist" in high school, an avid reader and a lover of classical music, she turned to music, books and art to fulfill her creative and cultural needs. "Biographies of the Imaginative," a Winter Term class she taught in 1998, brought it full circle when she taught the works of her three role models - Beethoven, Chagall and Marie Curie.

While attending the Seoul National University of Korea, she was the only woman in the chemistry department. "Nobody ever encouraged me," she says, but she studied ardently in the library every weekend. In 1982, her hard work paid off when she received her Ph.D. from Princeton University. Afterwards, she worked as a research scientist at the Colgate-Palmolive Company, where she studied the developments of detergents for use in cold water - "Life was nice, but not very challenging," she says.

All this changed when Choi became a professor at the University of Vermont and her husband, Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry James Larrabee, came to Middlebury College in 1986. Life became more challenging - she had to commute every day, she had a one-and-a-half-year old daughter and she was pregnant with her second child. She applied for a job as a visiting professor at Middlebury and continued teaching at UVM "until the day before [her] baby was born." Middlebury offered her a place as a professor, and she has continued to impress and inspire her students and colleagues ever since.

One of her primary focuses is her research, which she loves to share with undergraduate students. They "study how platinum anti-cancer drugs interact with DNA." Cyclist Lance Armstrong was cured of cancer with such drugs. In 1999, with a group of her students in tow, she went to Oxford University where they were awarded and internationally recognized for their research. Eighteen of her papers have been published, and many of them have included student collaboration.

Choi maintains a positive balance between her professional and her personal life. She learned to cook from her brother and her uncle while living in Seoul. She cooks not "just for the sake of eating, but for the sake of having good times with friends" as well. This even includes cooking for students, but only after establishing her excellent teaching ability does she invite them over for dinner, so not to become the "lousy teacher with a masters in culinary arts." She also keeps in great shape by running, hiking and gardening.

She cherishes both her roles in life, and especially loves to explore the connection between mother, teacher and learner. In a speech to her daughter's high school cum laude class, she said, "At school, my students say I am like their mother. Sometimes in a good sense, and sometimes in a not so good sense. At home, my children complain that I am like their teacher - not like a tender, loving mother."

Choi continued to inspire the crowd when she stated, "To me, beauty is imagination and creativity, another form of human character. All human beings want to know, want to create and want to be good. If you have a strong desire to know, you become a scholar. If you have strong desire to create or discover, you become an artist or a scientist. Whether you are a scholar, an artist or a scientist, the ultimate goal should be the improvement of humanity."

Choi's passion for her work and students make her an inspirational role model, and as she would say, a "pHun" person to know.

The Middlebury Campus - Features
Issue: 03/11/04

Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry

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