University of Hartford alumna Hyun Soon Lillehoj ‘74 had some reservations after her first interview to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The interview took place at a farm, where she was given a tour to see chickens and pigs, then she was taken to where her lab would be it was basically an empty building. She told the interviewer that she would need 30 days to decide and hoped that something else would come along.
The interview was on a Friday. The following Monday, the interviewer called and asked if she had made up her mind. Thinking that she could take the job while continuing to look for other opportunities, she accepted.
That was in 1984. Now, more than 30 years later, she is still with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and was presented with a Career Achievement Medal at the 14th annual Service to America gala put on by the Partnership for Public Service, in October of 2015. The event has become known as the “Oscars of Government Service.”
Watch this video about Lillehoj’s award winning research.
She was honored for pioneering scientific discoveries on developing novel prevention strategies for commercial poultry that lessen the use of antibiotics and makes the chickens that we eat healthier and safer.
For Lillehoj, the foundation for her career began in Hartford. She arrived in the city in 1969, after graduating from high school in South Korea. She was determined to become a doctor because her father died of liver cancer when she was young. She got a job at Hartford Hospital, which had a one-year certificate program for employees who wanted to learn the basics of medical practices. After completing that program, she enrolled part-time at UHart — working at night and taking classes during the day. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University in 1974.
“I have lots of wonderful memories of my time there,” she said. “The teachers were so nice and very encouraging. They always had extra time to answer questions and offer support. They gave me the confidence to keep moving on to the next level,” Lillehoj said.
She went on to earn a master’s degree in microbiology from the University of Connecticut, and PhD. in immunology from Wayne State University School of Medicine. After graduation, she was a National Institutes of Health (NIH) post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Wayne State University, conducting research on the immunology of prostate cancer and immunogenetics of autoimmune diseases. In 1981, she was hired as a staff fellow in the Laboratory of Immunology, NIAID, NIH where she studied T-cell immunity. It was this work that drew the attention of the USDA. Click here to learn more about her career.
“The Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals recognize and celebrate the many exceptional federal employees who have quietly, proudly and passionately dedicated their lives to making a difference for our country — and our world,” said Max Stier, the Partnership for Public Service’s president and chief executive, when presenting this year’s awards.
Lillehoj said that receiving the Service to America award is very rewarding because it recognizes the importance of the work going in her USDA laboratory, “Nowhere else in the world is anyone doing the kind of research we are doing on poultry immunology. No other lab is doing what we do,” she said proudly.
She added that when she started doing this work more than 20 years ago to lessen the poultry industry’s reliance on the use of antibiotics to keep chickens healthy, there was not a great deal of widespread support. But the results of her research, done in the public sector, pushed the private poultry industry to begin to understand the value of chickens having fewer chemicals in their systems. And that is better for all of us.
See her interviewed about her research and Service to America award.