As Superstorm Sandy chased tens of thousands of New Yorkers from Lower Manhattan in October, Joseph Lee ’08 played a role in an altogether different human drama less than two miles from surging floodwaters.
At the Midtown offices of Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York (RMA), where Lee is research project manager, live incubated embryos awaiting uterine implantation suddenly were at risk when much of the island lost power. So were the childbearing hopes of as many as 10 women scheduled for fertility treatments that had to be performed within a 48-hour window. In the end, the power held, even as stress levels spiked.
“There was a lot of confusion and nerves were high. The phones were ringing off the hook,” says Lee, who was unable to return to his Queens home because of the storm. “We tried to answer everyone’s questions, and we were on 24/7 alert to make sure everything was OK.”
There was good reason for vigilance. Sixty blocks south, NYU Fertility Center not only lost power, but its basement flooded and generators failed, forcing frenzied staff to safeguard embryos in liquid nitrogen. No embryos were lost at either center, and RMA of New York was able to provide transportation and lodging to patients with scheduled appointments.
Bowing to the storm was never an option for Lee, a biology major who graduated cum laude from Wheaton. Resiliency and perseverance are traits he’s embodied since growing up in blue-collar Lewiston, Maine, where he lacked a father figure but found fulfillment marveling over the human condition, albeit through a scientific lens. A high school science class viewing of the 1997 film “Gattaca,” which considered the role of genetics on in vitro fertilization technology, particularly stoked his scientific ardor.
“I’ve always been intrigued by how humans work from a cellular basis,” Lee says. “We’re the most complex machines in the world, and trying to understand our mechanics is fascinating to me.”
He landed at RMA of New York in 2011, after spending two years as a research assistant at Boston Children’s Hospital, within Harvard Medical School’s stem cell research program. There he studied cancer biology in zebrafish. In 2007, Lee was a research intern at the Medical College of Georgia, where he worked in the vascular biology department.
Lee opted against enrolling in medical school and instead applied for the fertility center job because he felt he could have a more immediate impact on patients. “I wanted to get involved with what is called translational research, which goes right to the bedside of the patient,” he says. “I had a real hunger for this. We’re seeing how families are created, and it’s exciting to be a part of that. I’m a big family person, and being in a research field like this enhances that.”
Lee was to the point when he applied for the job. At 25, there was nothing to lose.
“I basically said to them, ‘I know I probably have the least amount of experience among applicants, but I’ll work for a low salary. Give me a chance and we’ll see what happens,’” he recalls. “They liked that. It’s a rarity to find someone who can be very vocal and confident within the science field, and be able to connect with people quickly. They gave me a chance and it’s worked out.”
Lee’s approach resonated with Dr. Alan Copperman, the clinic’s CEO and vice chairman of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Lee has turned out to be a “key component in our scientific mission,” he says.
“It’s important that we continue to be inquisitive, that we innovate, that we critically analyze our own data and data from peer-reviewed journals, and that we effectively partner with industry and academia,” Copperman says.
“I like how Joe is not afraid to learn,” he adds. “And he can even sing and dance.” (Lee was hired shortly before the company’s holiday party.)
RMA is one of the nation’s largest in vitro fertilization centers. As part of its research team, Lee is working to develop a technique that will allow doctors to implant not just the best embryo, but a genetically “perfect” embryo, with the strongest odds of being carried to full term. Implanting a single embryo also cuts down on potential health risks to the mother inherent to multiple births.
Researchers around the country are racing to reach the same goal, a hypercompetitive contest punctuated by hope and frustration alike. Reasons for infertility vary, making a magic solution elusive.
In vitro research has exploded in the past five years, as researchers unravel the human genome, Lee says. Researchers are all on the hunt for telltale biomarkers—proteins and genes—that could tip off an embryo’s viability.
“Clinical research is the most exciting and most dreadful thing to be part of, exciting because of the possibility of finding something that can be advantageous to people,” Lee says. “But it’s frustrating when you work on a project for months and months and nothing comes out of it. That’s always a letdown. You have to try not to get distracted by that and go from there.”
Lee brings one particularly important quality to research, says Edmund Tong, emeritus professor of biology at Wheaton: he’s open-minded.
“That’s very important in research,” Tong says. “If you’re stubborn and have a one-track mind, you might expect your results and discard the outcomes. If you accept different outcomes, you might make the best out of accidental discoveries.”
Lee calls Tong a father figure, someone who “would stay late and go over and over a concept until you understood it. He really respected people who showed ambition, and he listened and really cared about his students. He took me under his wing starting my freshman year.” Lee’s favorite classes at the college included anatomy, physiology and alternative medicine, all taught by Tong, who retired last June.
Tong’s first impressions of his budding protégé were distinct: “I thought he was from California. He looked like a valley boy, and he had this very relaxed, low-key demeanor.” Lee’s fashion sensibilities veer to the preppy, a look he’s cultivated with academic-like zeal.
“It’s New England prep with a twist of modern Englishman,” Lee says. “It’s very much a prep style, but a little more formfitting. The pants are narrow, the ties are narrow.” (Until recently, he maintained a men’s fashion blog at Preplee.com.)
There is a bit of California influence to Lee’s character. He’s surfed since he was 10, learning the sport with his cousin in, of all places, the mild waters of Old Orchard Beach, Maine. He’s since surfed six- to 10-foot waves in locales as varied as Australia’s east coast, and even in Peru (“the best surfing I ever had”), where he took part in a surf “voluntourism” program called WAVES for Development International. The nonprofit effort teams surfers with impoverished Peruvian youths, teaching them the sport while engaging them in community service and educational opportunities.
Lee’s assertiveness was hard to ignore that first year at Wheaton. He wanted to do lab work as a freshman so badly that he wouldn’t heed Tong’s suggestion that he wait a semester for a space to open.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’ll just show up and work alongside people and learn,’” Lee says with a chuckle. “Once you’re there, sometimes they’re stuck with you.”
Says Tong: “I finally decided he is aggressive in getting what he wants in a very subtle, relaxed way.” Tong’s teaching style worked well with Lee’s work habits. “I trust students,” Tong says. “Once they’ve learned the basic concepts and methods, then they’re on their own and can take their own approach.”
Lee’s research focused on angiogenesis in zebrafish—or the development of blood vessels from preexisting blood vessels. Although the research doesn’t have a direct bearing on his current fertility research, Lee credits Tong’s lab with giving him critical research instincts.
“If you don’t have experience going into the scientific world, things can be very confusing and people typically won’t hold your hand,” Lee says. “Wheaton gave me the skills to interact clearly and confidently with other researchers and scientists.
“The college also challenged me to engage with people who maybe don’t have the same mind-set, which is instrumental once you leave Wheaton,” he adds. “You’re not just going to work with people in science. The college geared me to be ambitious, and made me strive to be better. It made me focus on my goals, and it definitely matured me very quickly. When you talk to people who went to large universities, they don’t get it the way we get it.”
Recruited by several New England colleges to play basketball, he opted instead to bank his future on Norton because he liked the Wheaton ethos after visiting the campus, “and I heard the science program was good, so I just went for it.” But there was one problem. The basketball team wasn’t looking for a 5-foot-10-inch shooting guard.
“I talked to the coaches and they said I’d have to walk on,” Lee says. Not only did he make the varsity squad as a freshman, but he found a way to offset his height disadvantage. Lee took his game to the perimeter, proving to be one of the Lyons’ leading three-point throwers during his freshman year.
But academic rigors and his devotion to scientific research pushed basketball to the sidelines. (“I actually did away with talking to former teammates for the most part, and I didn’t go to games. It was a big part of my identity, so it was tough to give it up.”) Lee did, however, keep his shooting form by competing in intramural basketball.
The lab became his new proving ground. Lee and friend Kyle Judkins ’08, also a biology major from Maine, spent long hours in Tong’s lab, working on angiogenesis research. The pair used computer software to map blood flow in zebrafish, an effort that could lead to better care for a number of diseases. Their research was published in the Zebrafish scientific journal.
The relationship was competitive but healthy, says Judkins. The pair met at a new-student gathering at the Kennebunkport, Maine, home of a Wheaton alumna. Lee was dressed with his typical style sensibilities.
“He was wearing two polos, one on top of the other with both of the collars popped up,” Judkins says. “I think one of them was pink and the other was yellow. We made fun of him for four years straight. He dresses so well I actually thought he was an upperclassman when I first met him.”
The classmates roomed together in McIntire Hall their freshman year. They resolved to push the boundaries of academic and athletic growth, working out together and spending hours talking science. Outside the classroom, Lee took part in Wheaton-organized Habitat for Humanity projects in Florida and the Virgin Islands.
“Some people may see Joe as being cocky,” says Judkins, now a second-year student at the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, Va. “He’s just very, very sure of himself and that carries him further than most people would go. He’s not afraid to dip his toe into the cold waters. I think you might see his name pop up in the research world some day, or as a leader in general.”
Lee says it’s impossible to overstate the college’s influence, from small class sizes and a diverse student body, to its emphasis on writing, and non-major-related courses such as art history, which he credits for giving him a broader perspective on the world. “Every course I took at Wheaton formulated who I am now. They were tough, but I’m glad they were tough. Now that I’m out there, I can see the advantage. Wheaton opened up many doors on my view of the world.
“I always had the feeling at Wheaton that there was a great community supporting me and pushing me to be the best person I could be.”
Andrew Faught is a freelance writer who lives in California.