May 11, 2022

Honoring Warner Huh during AAPI Heritage Month

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Huh resizeMay is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month—a time dedicated to celebrating the heritage of the AAPI community as well as paying tribute to the accomplishments of AAPI individuals.

The Heersink School of Medicine, in partnership with the Heersink School of Medicine Office for Diversity and Inclusion, recognizes the important contributions from our AAPI colleagues.

This year’s AAPI Heritage Month theme is “Advancing leaders through collaboration.” To celebrate, we sat down with Warner K. Huh, M.D. FACOG, FACS, chair and professor of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology (OB/GYN), to discuss his heritage and service at UAB.

As a member of the AAPI community himself, Huh reflects on his upbringing, the inclusivity he feels at UAB, and his collaborative efforts to grow the AAPI community at our institution.

Dr. Warner Huh: Chair, professor, leader, advocate

Huh currently serves as chair and professor for the Department of OB/GYN, but has served in numerous areas throughout UAB, including the Departments of Surgery and Epidemiology, as well as the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Dedicated to women’s health with a specific interest in gynecologic cancers, Huh has committed his career to advancing women’s health care and has played a key role in groundbreaking research in preventing cervical cancer.

He originally helped evaluate the four-valent HPV vaccine known as Gardasil in 2006. Huh was the lead author for the nine-valent HPV vaccine study, and he led a group of experts in writing new interim guidance for cervical cancer screening with HPV.

Huh is also a pioneer of robotic surgery for gynecologic cancers and hysterectomies, and has held notable leadership positions, including president of the Society of Gynecologic Oncology (SGO), president of the American Society for Colposcopy and Cervical Pathology (ASCCP), and chair of the NRG Oncology Cancer Prevention and Control Committee. Of particular note, he was the first Asian American President for SGO and ASCCP.

His passion for change and eliminating cervical cancer extends beyond the hospital walls. In fact, his volunteer efforts were recently acknowledged by the American Cancer Society. Huh received the 2021 St. George National Award in recognition of being a speaker, presenter, researcher, and volunteer for the American Cancer Society for more than 23 years, notably serving on the 2019 Cervical Cancer Guideline Review Committee in addition to his contributions to the research and development of the HPV vaccine.

Where it all began: A passion for service

Originally from New York City, Huh considers himself a first-generation Korean American, as he briefly grew up in Korea before returning to the U.S.

His father, a radiation oncologist, came to the U.S. in the 1960s for his training. While he originally planned on returning to South Korea after, he decided to stay and raise his family in America.

“Much of my drive to become a physician was modeled after observations of my father,” says Huh.

Seeing his father’s passion and interactions with staff, partners, and patients resonated with Huh. The concept of service that he saw in his father is what ultimately drew him to medicine at a young age.

Huh received his undergraduate degree from Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. He then attended Georgetown University School of Medicine where he received his medical degree in 1995, followed by a residency at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. In 1999, Huh came to UAB for a fellowship in gynecologic oncology.

Why UAB?

When looking for a fellowship, Huh was not originally interested in UAB, but his friends and colleagues encouraged him to apply. When visiting UAB, he knew within his first hour of interviewing that it was where he wanted to train.

“There was a magical commitment to mentorship, training, and leadership, and a passion for service to patients,” says Huh. “I don’t think it is by accident that I ended up here.”

Aside from the clear dedication to service, the mentorship that UAB and the Division of Gynecologic Oncology offered resonated with Huh.

“I was recruited by real giants in gynecologic oncology, like Drs. Ed Partridge, Max Austin, Ronald Alvarez, and Larry Kilgore,” says Huh. “I matched at UAB and haven’t looked back since.”

After completing his fellowship in gynecologic oncology at UAB, Huh joined the UAB faculty in the Division of Gynecologic Oncology and has remained at UAB since.

Huh says he was drawn to the institution and the Deep South culture. He saw it as an enriching experience and an opportunity to serve women in the state of Alabama.

“There’s a certain richness to the people at UAB and in the state of Alabama; it’s really something to behold,” says Huh. “I felt welcomed and there were no barriers holding me back.”

Much of Huh’s career has been dedicated to public health and cancer prevention and control, specifically for women in Alabama. He saw a need to provide excellent care and raise the bar in the state and knew that being a part of UAB would help him fulfill his calling.

“When I see patients and go to work and operate, I really feel like I’m giving back and providing a genuine service to the patients that I care for – for me that’s the most rewarding aspect of my job,” says Huh. “I still feel that way 20 years later.”

The AAPI community at UAB: Huh’s experience

Huh’s experience as a member of the AAPI community at UAB is one of positivity and inclusivity, and he is passionate about sharing his testimony with others.

“My perception of being an Asian American serving in the state of Alabama is a positive one,” says Huh. “UAB is an incredible place to work and serve, and the AAPI community at UAB is one of the strongest.”

UAB has a large number of AAPI faculty, and their contributions to the institution are significant. Following the violent events targeting Asian Americans in Atlanta in 2021, Huh felt it was an important time to bring AAPI faculty together. Huh, along with Herb Chen, M.D., FACS, chair of the UAB Department of Surgery and surgeon-in-chief of UAB Hospital, decided to co-found the AAPI Faculty Association in partnership with the Heersink School of Medicine Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

“Creating the AAPI Faculty Association was an acknowledgement and understanding that this was the right time to bring everyone together, to increase awareness and to get to know each other,” says Huh. “We share similar successes and concerns, but it was really about consolidating the community.”

Huh felt that a faculty association for the AAPI community at UAB was long overdue, and the increasing anti-Asian sentiments across the country at the time encouraged the formation of the association.

“The reality is, there will always be mean, misinformed people in this world, and their comments or beliefs typically come from a foundation of misunderstanding or an upbringing we don’t know about,” says Huh. “I’m a firm believer that people come into this world with a good heart, and they still have a good heart, but there are events in their lives that shape them and are a collective sum of why some people respond with hateful words or actions. We continue to have a responsibility to proactively increase awareness and educate.”

Huh feels that UAB has a great level of respect for the AAPI community and its contributions, stating that the AAPI community should be very outspoken champions for what they contribute, and he hopes the faculty association encourages this.

Looking ahead: Department goals and championing UAB

As he looks to the future, Huh plans to lead the Department of OB/GYN by setting the standard for women’s health care, training the next generation of leaders, and sharing his unmatched experience as an AAPI faculty member at UAB.

“Our department has a responsibility to set what are quality standards for all aspects of care in the state for women,” says Huh. “Many providers look to us for those standards.”

Huh also has plans to support the next generation of researchers to ensure the continued advancement of women’s care.

“I want our department to continue to contribute to the knowledge and science gap related to women’s health care by making sure we support the next generation of researchers and physicians,” says Huh. “I’m committed to making sure we have the best training programs in our department and to maintaining our department’s inclusive and supportive culture to ensure this.”

Finally, Huh wants to share his story and be a champion for UAB.

He has always felt included and supported and is committed to sharing his experience with hopes of recruiting students, faculty, and staff to both the Department of OB/GYN, and UAB as a whole.

“I want this to be an area where trainees come and feel safe and protected,” says Huh. “I want it to be a place where they learn and have great mentors, and they go out and pay it forward by passing on the lessons they’ve learned. This is how we maintain UAB’s legacy, and to me, that’s the most important aspect of being a chair.”