5 questions for … Dr. Jennifer Ku

An infectious disease epidemiologist, Jennifer Ku, PhD, MPH, is in the first year of her postdoctoral program at the Department of Research & Evaluation. Her research includes vaccine safety and effectiveness projects on shingles and COVID-19 vaccines. Dr. Ku is also involved in other infectious diseases studies on influenza, SARS-CoV-2, and other respiratory viruses.

Please tell us a little about your background and why you became a research scientist.

I was born in South Korea and grew up in Portland, Oregon. I think that, from childhood, I always knew that I wanted to do something in science but didn’t know exactly what. I worked in a neuroendocrinology lab during college conducting animal research at the University of Michigan. I realized that I was more interested in population-level data and human subject research. I also missed the West Coast, so I moved back home to Oregon and earned my master’s in public health at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU). I worked in a variety of research roles including clinical research coordinator, project manager, biostatistician, and research administrator. Then I  pursued a doctoral degree in epidemiology at OHSU and absolutely fell even more in love with epidemiology! I love designing and conducting studies that answer meaningful scientific questions to improve the people’s health.

What is it like to be a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Research & Evaluation?

I love, love, love it! It is amazing to be a postdoc in such a rigorous and rich research and training environment. I’m exposed to epidemiology experts in many different research areas, rigorous epidemiologic methods, and numerous types of projects including both federally and non-federally funded studies. My mentors encourage me to be independent and let me explore my research interests while they are also attentive and provide invaluable mentoring when needed. My mentors and the department are also very supportive and provide so many resources – administrative and grant writing support, training materials, and much more. It’s important for me to work in a friendly, collaborative environment, and I absolutely love the people that I work with! I came to the right place and I am grateful to be working in such an amazing place to do important research.

You conducted recent research into COVID-19 outcomes among people with Down syndrome. What inspired that research and what were the most important findings?

Down syndrome is listed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention among the conditions associated with severe COVID-19. While recent evidence suggested that Down syndrome may be a risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes, there was a lack of large, population-based studies evaluating the risk of COVID-19 infection and severe outcomes. With our large, stable, diverse patient population that includes many patients with Down syndrome, we felt this would be an area in which we could contribute important knowledge.

What projects are you currently working on and what are you most excited about?

I am currently studying effectiveness of COVID-19, influenza, and herpes zoster (shingles) vaccines; multi-drug resistance for urinary tract infection; treatment patterns and outcomes of antibiotic therapy for non-tuberculous mycobacterial lung infection; and testing and treatment for latent tuberculosis infection. I am excited about all these studies but writing my first-ever National Institutes of Health grant application – on patterns of prescribing practice and outcomes of antibiotic therapy for non-tuberculous mycobacterial infection – has really been personally meaningful.

When you are not at work, how do you like to spend your spare time?

I like to do a lot of things and will need to list just a few. First, I love running! Nothing fancy, but I try to run at least 4 times a week, usually 5 to 6 miles at a time. These runs are amazing to get endorphins going, relieve stress, and to either start or wrap up my day. My husband Jason Lee and I are both foodies and love trying new restaurants. So far, I really like Koreatown where we can enjoy a large variety of authentic Korean food. We love planning our weekends with different activities. Sometimes it’s a longer trip out of town. Sometimes it’s just a short walk with an ice cream in our hand, or just sitting at the beach. Recently, we watched the new Jurassic Park movie, and then hiked at Griffith Park. I’m new to LA. LA has so many great museums and live performances and we love those. I also travel home to Portland frequently to spend time with my family, hang out with friends, and play with my 3 nieces.

Image: Jennifer Ku and her husband Jason Lee, who works in bank management, after a recent ride on the Angels Flight Railway in downtown Los Angeles.