The breadth and depth of Stevens Institute of Technology professor Woo Lee's eclectic 30-year career serves as a unique strength for his upcoming appointment as chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology (CCB). His vision for the department—in many ways similar to his own career—positions CCB as an intellectual nexus "at the intersection of science, engineering, and medicine."
Lee served as chair of the combined Chemical, Biomedical, and Materials Engineering department from 2001 to 2005, during which he launched the undergraduate biomedical engineering program with professor Arthur Ritter. An autodidact in biology and physiology with formal training in chemical engineering and decades of research experience in materials science, Lee's current research focuses on developing human models of cancer.
To distinguish Stevens in chemical and biological sciences, Lee said, "We need to find the intellectual bridge to the engineering and other academic units on our campus through collaboration." By employing his already-established network and what he describes as his own "engineering mindset," he said, "I can make that bridge to enhance the differentiating factors of our chemistry and chemical biology programs."
An intellectual evolution
Lee's career and research interests have taken a number of twists and turns over the years.
While all of his degrees are in chemical engineering, he became interested in materials science while working on his Ph.D. Research staff positions at United Technologies and Oak Ridge National Laboratory soon followed, where he developed novel high-temperature materials for aircraft engines, space systems, and power generation systems. In 2004 he was elected as a Fellow of the American Ceramics Society for these contributions made while still in his 20s and 30s.
Lee joined the then-standalone Materials Science department at Stevens in 1997 and continued his research on high-temperature materials.
But in 2004 Lee's intellectual focus shifted as he began to develop new biomedical research devices using nanotechnology and microfluidics, including highly sensitive wearable biosensors such as smart insoles that detect diabetes-related foot ulcers.
He also began developing patient-specific 3D bone tissue and tumor models in 2010 to study why drugs fail to cure multiple myeloma, prostate, and breast cancers that have metastasized to bone. By recreating these pathophysiological environments in vitro, the models allow Lee to study the mechanisms of drug resistance in collaboration with Dr. Jenny Zilberberg at Hackensack Meridian Health.
"My research interest has changed from when I first started my career," he said. "I progressively started working on more biologically oriented problems, to a point that I crossed a line a couple of years ago where my intellectual interests now match better with my colleagues in the chemistry and chemical biology department."
Despite his newfound passions for biology and physiology, however, Lee credits his engineering training as the constant that runs throughout his career.
"A large portion of my research in a very fundamental way has got to do with chemical reactions and mass transfer," he said. "There are certain chemical engineering principles that are involved in all the research that I have done. Even today, that is still the basis, but now it's in a totally new context."
Lee's appointment as a full tenured professor in the Chemical Engineering and Materials Science department will transfer with him to the CCB department. The next phase of his work will focus on discovering how to mimic the complex behaviors of acquired human immunity in vitro. Potential applications for this kind of research include building a more efficient model to predict the human immune response to a novel virus like SARS-COV-2—a necessary step in developing a vaccine for COVID-19.
"There is currently no good animal model for COVID-19, and it's one of the big challenges right now," he said. "One of the initial priorities for NIH is to improve the animal models that can be used to represent COVID-19 as a human disease. But if we were able to do that in vitro, maybe 10 or twenty or thirty years down the road, it would be a great contribution to the biomedical field."
Embracing the role of scientific translator
The central tenet of Lee's vision for the department is for CCB's students and faculty to recognize and embrace their responsibility as "translators of the transformative advances that are taking place in biomedical sciences," he said.
By harnessing its interdisciplinary expertise, the department is well-poised, Lee says, to intellectually enrich the Stevens community and campus life experiences.
One way in which this emerging role will manifest is in Lee's plans to establish a regular seminar series on current CCB topics of interest.
This coming academic year, CCB will hold a seminar series, tentatively titled The Biology of COVID-19 and Cancer, to introduce university students and faculty to current and emerging research related to understanding the coronavirus pandemic and combating cancer. The seminar series is likely to be disseminated, at least in part, online.
Not only will these events increase the visibility of CCB student and faculty expertise, but Lee hopes they will also instill a sense of excitement in both the department and the Stevens community around the transformative innovations happening in biomedical research today.
Lee stresses the imperative of sharing such critically important knowledge, especially in light of the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
"The magnitude of the COVID-19 problem is so big, but fundamentally, scientifically, the progress that's being made to understand this disease is incredible," he said. "I think it's the duty of our department to communicate that and how is it done."
Lee also plans to launch a CCB newsletter and is looking into ways to improve alumni engagement, such as through digital conferences held via Zoom.
Increasing intellectual vibrancy through faculty development and interdisciplinary research
Another chief aim of Lee's vision is developing CCB's faculty and research endeavors, while retaining its solid foundation in quality pedagogy.
By recruiting and hiring new research-oriented faculty members, Lee hopes to establish a "vibrant academic unit" built around a shared intellectual vision that balances active, cutting-edge research with innovative, inspirational teaching.
He also sees an opportunity for CCB to influence the shape of biomedical research at Stevens by finding and expanding on the "synergistic points" where its current chemistry and biology research intersect.
Building off the department's existing strengths in cancer biology, drug discovery, and regenerative medicine, Lee wants to expand its focus into immunology.
"Drug discovery, cancer biology, and regenerative medicine are a perfect venue to build our interdisciplinary activities around," he said. "I think we need to develop these areas further as a collaborative, synergistic effort."
As part of those efforts, Lee plans to develop stronger relationships with other university departments, as well as local medical schools and clinical groups, to increase research capabilities and educational opportunities through larger-scale interdisciplinary endeavors.
These kinds of collaborations are vital, Lee says, not only to science itself but also to the professional and intellectual growth of the department's students and faculty.
"The changes that took place in my own professional journey were all due to collaborations," Lee said. "Without those collaborations, I could not be where I am today."
Expanding educational programming
Long-term strategic planning for the department includes revitalizing and strengthening CCB's educational resources, program offerings, and teaching labs. A third major focus of Lee's vision for the department is also determining how to leverage technology to diversify and enhance the student learning experience.
Beyond simply increased usage of digital learning tools, however, Lee wants to see the department develop collaborative tools that would enhance the quality of its research and impart students with additional skills that will benefit them after graduation.
Improving internal communication
In addition to increasing CCB's communication outside the department, Lee would like to see improvements in internal communications as well.
One such effort already in the planning stages is to form student advisory committees at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to promote interaction between faculty and students beyond formal assessments. Through this initiative, Lee wants to elicit feedback on educational programs, facilitate student–faculty interactions and internal collaborations, and build departmental trust, respect, and unity.
Facing new challenges
Lee takes neither his appointment as chair nor his departmental transfer lightly and is enthusiastic for the new challenges that lie ahead. "I thought about this in a very serious way for some time," he said. "It's not an easy transition, and I'm very privileged for my colleagues in the new department to accept me as their leader."
The coronavirus pandemic also adds an additional level of complexity to the move.
While disruptions from COVID-19 have impacted university departments worldwide, its challenges are felt especially keenly in units like CCB whose daily operations are fundamentally dependent on onsite, hands-on lab activities. But Lee says the department is already preparing to face those challenges head-on.
"The faculty are already getting ready for the fall semester in spite of uncertainties—[especially considering] all the lab courses associated with the chemistry and biology courses that we cover," he said. "As we expect some kind of hybrid mode of delivery, the faculty in the department have been working very hard to make that transition and to continue to make especially the lab courses as meaningful as possible."
Despite its challenges, the emergence of COVID-19, Lee says, highlights just how important the mission of the chemistry and chemical biology department is to global society.
While he emphasizes that he would not call COVID-19 itself an opportunity in any way, Lee recognizes that it serves as an opening and a reminder, both to CCB and to himself, "not to just look out for our own interests, but to give back to the people around us by sharing our knowledge and experience."
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