By Sara Bondell - May 15, 2023
Decades later, Dr. Christine Chung can still hear her mother’s words.
“You have to be the best, no matter what you do.”
The advice carried Chung through some of her most difficult times as a 16-year-old who moved from South Korea to California with her mother and siblings. She couldn’t speak English, and many mistook her silence for unintelligence. So, she focused on being the best, setting her on a path for an extraordinary career in research and medicine.
After graduating from University of California, Los Angeles, Chung decided to leave the comfort of her adopted city, which was heavily populated by Korean immigrants. To better assimilate, she needed to improve her English and socialize with non-Asians. She moved to Maryland and became a research assistant at the National Cancer Institute. She met a Dutchman, who helped her with her communication skills. He would eventually become her husband.
After schooling and training took Chung to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Vanderbilt University and Johns Hopkins University, she took a job at Moffitt Cancer Center as the chair of the Department of Head and Neck-Endocrine Oncology in 2015. It was her first major leadership position, and one her 16-year-old self would have never thought possible.
“Asian women are not considered to be strong, independent leaders. We are viewed as cleaning ladies, massage therapists and nail salon owners,” said Chung. “To be honest, when I was a junior faculty member, I never thought I would take a leadership position because I speak with an accent, I am an immigrant, and I simply didn’t know any Asians in a leadership position.”
"Asian women are not considered to be strong, independent leaders. We are viewed as cleaning ladies, massage therapists and nail salon owners."- Dr. Christine Chung, chair, Head and Neck-Endocrine Oncology
That all changed when Chung attended the American Association for Cancer Research meeting and met Dr. Waun Ki Hong, one of the association’s past presidents.
“That was the first time in my career and living in the U.S. meeting someone like Dr. Hong,” said Chung. “When I saw him up in the podium, I thought, wow, there is an Asian person who is an immigrant and who doesn’t speak flawless English, yet taking a leadership position.”
Now a leader herself, Chung would like to see more Asians — specifically Asian women — in these roles. About 26% of Moffitt team members are Asian, and she hopes one day for that number to be reflected in the cancer center’s leadership.
“Being in the spotlight is uncomfortable for me, but I am going to do it because someone like me speaking up is important,” said Chung. “I have decided to leverage my position and experience because there is a young Christine Chung out there who may see me and say, hey, Asian women can have a leadership position and contribute to greater things in life.”
Chung also uses her upbringing and culture to better care for her patients. She knows firsthand what it’s like to be thrown into a different culture and appreciates everyone’s differences. “When I take care of my patients, I am always aware that they may have a different culture, different language, different frame of mind when it comes to making decisions,” she said. “I try to recognize these differences and be sensitive about it.”
There’s no doubt Chung has fulfilled her mother’s wishes and now imparts that same wisdom to her children, daughter Maryke and son Hendrik. They find it stressful to have such a successful mother, but also appreciate having the safety net their mother didn’t have. And no matter where their careers take them, they know the rule: Do your best, always.