Lessons in reinvention

When things don’t go according to plan, Daniel Lee finds opportunities to innovate in molecular engineering

 

Daniel Lee’s dissertation defense didn’t go precisely as planned. After COVID-19 moved academic work online, the UW molecular engineering graduate student had to present his thesis about polymer synthesis over video chat.

But Lee found a silver lining: the mentor who first inspired his interest in chemistry was able to watch his defense, Tom Ruttledge, a lecturer at Cornell University.

As an undergraduate student at Cornell, Lee was almost finished with a psychology major junior year before he found himself in Ruttledge’s organic chemistry class. There was something about Ruttledge’s enthusiasm that drew Lee to the subject. He made chemistry look elegant.

During his defense, Lee was also able to thank Ruttledge, who passed away a month later. Ruttledge’s mentorship and friendship set Lee on a path of exploring chemistry from multiple perspectives, first in industry, then in graduate school, switching labs midway through, to now working as a postdoc at Stanford University.

“Some of the amazing things that happen in our lives or where we end up is just a product of the people, the things that happen to us, that we respond to,” Lee said. “Sometimes I think about, what if I had never taken that class? I’m sure it would have been fine, we’d just be doing something else, but it just seems so right.”

Lee’s graduate thesis, “Synthesis of novel backbone functional polymers,” was honored with the 2020 Distinguished Dissertation Award from the Graduate School. Lee developed a new polymer, of which he is listed as the sole inventor on a provisional patent application.

"Some of the amazing things that happen in our lives or where we end up is just a product of the people, the things that happen to us, that we respond to."
Daniel LeePh.D., molecular engineering

Lee first worked at Shell Oil Company before joining Associate Professor AJ Boydston’s lab at UW where he studied polymer synthesis, or the creation of long molecule chains.

Lee became skilled at finding the minimal essential thing a material needs to be functional, and then thinking of an easier way to produce it so that it can be scalable across labs and industries.

Midway through Lee’s studies, Boydston was offered a professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Most of Lee’s labmates moved with Boydston to his new Wisconsin lab, but Lee decided to stay in Seattle, where he joined Professor Suzie Pun’s lab.

Pun’s lab focused on biomedical research, and while different from Boydston’s lab, it gave Lee the opportunity to learn from another mentor while also bringing his knowledge of polymer synthesis to the world of bioengineering.

He developed materials for bioengineering like conductive polymers, or plastics that conduct electricity and can be used to grow other cells like neuron cells or heart cells. But these polymers are very difficult to make and aren’t water soluble, a problem, because most of biology happens in water.

So Lee spent the next two years developing a polymer that could conduct electricity and also be dissolvable in water. This was the invention for which Lee and Pun filed a provisional patent, with the help of UW CoMotion.

“This was something that he conceived on his own, merging his expertise gained from AJ Boydston’s lab and combining it with our interest in neural tissue engineering,” Pun said of Lee’s work developing the polymer.

“Dan had a really effective way to dig in, understand the problems and work out step by step what to do."
Suzie PunProfessor, UW

Lee has had many mentors throughout his career, yet he’s uncomfortable at the thought of having to become one himself. But Pun has observed how Lee has been a natural mentor of junior graduate students all along.

Once the pandemic hit in March and students had to stay home, Lee created morning meeting groups with his peers where they studied different concepts in polymer chemistry and checked in on their goals and work. Finishing his Ph.D. in three years and 10 months, he shared tools with Pun’s lab group on troubleshooting roadblocks.

“Dan had a really effective way to dig in, understand the problems and work out step by step what to do,” Pun said.

Whether it’s as a mentee or a mentor, Lee values learning from his graduate student peers, even those from other labs in his building.

“A lot of awesome things happen when you’re just chilling out together in the lab, bouncing ideas and criticizing each other’s idea and building on those ideas,” Lee said. “Those types of connections happen all the time at UW.”

Lee now works as a postdoc at Stanford in assistant professor Yan Xia’s Stanford lab. Lee, who often consulted Xia’s research whenever he encountered a problem in molecular engineering, saw Xia as another mentor who helped him in graduate school.

Right now, Lee and his new lab mates spend short sections of time in the lab due to COVID-19 physical distancing rules. While it keeps them safe, Lee misses the spontaneous learning that comes from casual conversations with lab mates during the day. Though always able to see the silver lining, Lee says they can probably learn to be better focused and purposeful with the short time stints in the lab.

After all, some of the best opportunities for learning and invention come from moments that didn’t go precisely as planned.

 

By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School

Originally Published June 24, 2020