December 10, 1998
Vol. 18 No. 6

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    [kayeelee and students] by jason smith
    Ka Yee "Christina" Lee (seated) gives instructions to two of her students (left, to right, standing) Canay Ege and Ajakumar Gopal

    Chemistry professor wins Dreyfus award

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Ka Yee Lee is one of 10 new faculty members nationwide to receive the 1998 New Faculty Award from the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, but the primary beneficiaries of the award may turn out to be her students.

    Lee, Assistant Professor in Chemistry, will devote part of her five-year, $25,000 Dreyfus Award to support undergraduate research in her laboratory for two summers. Already assisting Lee in her research is Ali Javaheri, a third-year biochemistry major from Cincinnati who plans to attend medical school.

    “Part of the reason I’m in science is because I was given the chance to do some research when I was an undergraduate,” Lee said. “Being at the forefront of science is very exciting, and I hope to be able to give that kind of experience to an undergraduate.”

    Lee is one of only 10 Dreyfus award recipients selected from among 83 nominees. The Dreyfus New Faculty Awards Program is designed to provide external research support to new faculty members at the beginning of their first full-time, academic appointments.

    In addition to undergraduate research support, Lee will use the Dreyfus Award to develop classes related to her research interests and to buy research equipment and supplies for her laboratory.

    Lee’s research career began during her third year at Brown University in the laboratory of Nabil M. Lawandy, professor of electrical engineering.

    “At first I thought, oh, I’ll get a master’s and get a job somewhere,” Lee said. “He was the one who really showed me that science could be very exciting. That’s why I applied to grad school for a Ph.D. program.”

    A native of Hong Kong, Lee received her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Brown University in 1986. She attended graduate school at Harvard University, earning a master’s degree in 1987 and her doctoral degree in 1992, both in applied physics.

    Lee then worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University from 1992 to 1995 and at the University of California, Santa Barbara, from 1995 to 1998. She joined the Chicago faculty this year.

    Lee is gearing up her laboratory to study protein-lipid interactions in human lung surfactant and other biomedical systems.

    “I’m interested in applying physical techniques to look at biological systems,” Lee said, including optical and scanning probe microscopy and neutron and X-ray scattering. “I hope that in the process we will learn the biological system from a different angle and get a different perspective to enhance our understanding of the system.”

    A complex mixture of lipids and proteins, known as lung surfactant, makes breathing easy under normal conditions. But a lack of surfactant in infants, caused by premature birth, or in adults, caused by disease or trauma, can result in respiratory distress syndrome, Lee said.

    RDS strikes approximately 150,000 victims annually, including 40,000 children. And yet, Lee said, “a firm understanding of the role of surfactant in both normal and diseased lungs is still lacking.” Although the development of artificial lung surfactant has saved the lives of many neonatal RDS victims, a better understanding of lung surfactant structure and function could lead to still further therapeutical improvements, she said.

    Lee will utilize model systems, only one layer of molecules thick, to simulate the surfactant that lines the surface of the millions of microscopic air sacs found in the lungs. These air sacs are where the body exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide during breathing.

    Lee will devote a second research project to further study the most common brain-degenerative disease in the United States, Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicts four million people annually.

    Lee will study beta amyloid, a plaque-forming substance responsible for killing brain cells in Alzheimer’s victims.

    She will also apply physical techniques and use simulated biomembranes, either one or two layers of molecules thick, to study the interaction of beta amyloid with lipids.