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Arnold School of Public Health

I Am Public Health: Jeonghyeon Ahn

September 1, 2021 | Erin Bluvas,

Growing up in South Korea, Jeonghyeon Ahn became concerned about the air quality in East Asia.

“I was interested in the air pollution and its health impacts,” says Ahn, who decided to study environmental engineering as an undergraduate at Sejong University. “Environmental health sciences not only investigates the environmental issues from the viewpoint of scientific knowledge, but also examines how they have impacts on human health. It is a very attractive field of study.”

Following her 2013 graduation, Ahn completed a Master of Science in Engineering from Hanyang University. She spent the next two years gaining experience as a researcher at her graduate school alma mater’s Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and with the Korea Environment Corporation’s Department of Toxic Chemicals. When she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Environmental Health Sciences (ENHS), Ahn liked the UofSC program’s connection with the Arnold School of Public Health and was impressed by the faculty.

“I wanted to learn more professional knowledge and build my skills based on what I have learned,” she says. “In addition, I wanted to experience working in academia from the faculty members, such as teaching, advising, research and publication.”

During her program, Ahn has developed expertise and the analysis (both quantitative and qualitative) of volatile organic compounds breaking down into airborne particles as well as the prediction of how they travel within the environment and impact health. She found a mentor in assistant professor Eric Vejerano, and together they conduct research at the South Carolina SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk.  

“Dr. Vejerano has influenced me a lot in researching my academic goals,” Ahn says. “He has guided me how to approach and solve the problems with diverse backgrounds. In addition, I have had the opportunity to improve my writing skills, and he encourages me to share my research with others through presentations or publications.” 

Their projects involve examining the mobility and fate of airborne pollutants into multiple environmental compartments while considering various environmental factors (e.g., humidity, temperature). They also make scientific predictions about the environment or health impacts caused by these pollutants.

Ahn’s doctoral research has resulted in seven peer-reviewed publications (three as first author) so far. One of these papers, Temperature dependence of the gas-particle partitioning of selected VOCs, was even featured on the front cover of the journal that published it (Environmental Science: Process and Impacts).

“Ms. Ahn is a dedicated and exemplary student who has substantially contributed to our understanding of environmental contaminants piggy-backing on nanoparticles," Vejerano says. "To advance her knowledge, she has accepted a postdoctoral position at Virginia Tech to work at one of the leading air quality labs in the country.”

After graduating in December and completing her fellowship, Ahn plans to pursue a position as a scientist at a research institute or national laboratory. In the meantime, she already has advice for future students. 

“Our public health graduate program is very systematic and high quality,” Ahn says. “If you are willing to do anything passionately, everyone around you will support you very well to achieve it.”

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