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Science, Innovation, and Evidence

Ensuring a Diverse Pre-Clinical Research Program

While public health is rooted in science and evidence, its enduring achievements—injury prevention, vaccines, clean drinking water, to name just a few—are rooted in human connection. This is a story about how family and friendship led three people to work together to develop and fund a more diversified research program and serve a broader need for people of color. The research focus: treating the skin cancer acral lentiginous melanoma or ALM. 

Faculty and students pose for photo in lab

Gathered in the Rebecca Lab, standing (L-R) E.V. McCollum Chair of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Ashani Weeraratna,  Kathy Koo and her son Nick, Bob Adler, Assistant Professor Vito Rebecca; kneeling in the front row,  advisees Bailey Robertson and Sumaiya Begum.

The story begins with Kathy Koo, whose grandfather, Dr. Ho-Ching Yang, earned his master of public health degree in 1942 at the Bloomberg School. Having endured the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, Dr. Yang realized that remaining in China to practice medicine was no longer feasible, prompting him and his wife, Mrs. Von Sung Yang, to emigrate.

Kathy shares her grandparents’ story—how they first traveled to Shanghai, then England, and finally the U.S., where Dr. Yang found his way to the Bloomberg School. And while he valued applying his professional and medical expertise in the public health field, he found it difficult to support his growing family.

Ever the entrepreneur—and having previously found monetary success in overseas stock markets—Dr. Yang turned to the world of finance. Joining the brokerage firm Dominick and Dominick on Wall Street in the 1950s, he developed his financial acumen into a rewarding and lucrative career.

When Dr. Yang passed away unexpectedly in 1964, he left his family with comfortable financial resources. Given his and Mrs. Yang’s admiration of Johns Hopkins’ leadership in and commitment to scientific inquiry, Mrs. Yang decided to honor her husband by establishing the Ho-Ching Yang Memorial Faculty Fellowship fund to support research in cancer prevention and treatment. In telling her family’s story, Kathy remembers how important it was to her grandmother that the gift advance the family’s belief in the power of education, which is why it also funded classroom space at the Wolfe Street building.

For nearly thirty years the Yangs’ support has been key to numerous faculty members’ research projects, most recently Vito Rebecca, PhD’s work in skin cancer. His story is also tied to family—when he was 17, Vito’s mother died from breast cancer, prompting his eventual decision to work in cancer research. He focused on ALM because it is a stubborn, recurring cancer, much like the breast cancer that took his mother’s life. In fact, ALM is the most lethal subtype of cutaneous melanoma, and it represents the most common type of melanoma in people of color.

Vito Rebecca and two students stand in lab wearing lab coats

Advisees Marie Portuallo (center) and Jeremy Bravo Narula (right) work with Assistant Professor Rebecca in researching acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM) skin cancer.

As Vito became more immersed in ALM research, he realized the database of cell lines he was using did not reflect the population most affected by ALM—he needed a more diverse sample. He decided to obtain samples from more patients of color as well as develop a diverse, high-quality database. However, the work would require more funding. 

And here is where the human connections in this story flourish—and public health thrives.

In 2022, Kathy visited the School for an update on the research her grandfather’s fund was advancing, which led her to visit Vito at the School’s Wolfe Street campus. Inspired by his passion and his ability to translate research into impact, Kathy invited her friend Bob Adler to join her for another visit to the Rebecca Lab because of his interest in medical research. Bob’s wife, Sara, had succumbed a few years earlier to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare, progressive motor neuron disease. While he was aware of medical research and had supported small grants in support of ALS studies, he was curious about public health and its research initiatives. 

Professors Rebecca and Weeraratna chat with Bob Adler in a lab

Bob Adler and Professors Weeraratna and Rebecca spent time discussing Rebecca's skin cancer research during a visit in November 2023.

After touring the Wolfe Street building, the two friends met with Vito, and as he outlined his project and explained the critical need for more diverse cell lines, his enthusiasm was contagious. So much so that Bob was moved to join forces with Kathy and make a gift to the School in support of the scientist’s research and a more diversified database. Rebecca’s work with these new samples will help him unlock the mechanism used by ALM that enables it to escape therapy and cause greater mortality in communities of color. 

The story of public health is fundamentally centered on people working together to help each other live healthier, happier lives. Familial networks held together over generations, old and new friendships, the love for someone struggling with disease—it is these human connections that drive the research and sustain the practice of public health.


Suzanne Flinchbaugh is a writer in the Office of External Affairs at the Bloomberg School. For more information about faculty research funding, the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, or about making a gift, please contact Reggie Jackson, principal and major gifts officer, at