W&J Women in STEM: Getting to know Dr. Alice Lee

Created: March 28, 2018  |  Last Updated: January 31, 2020  |  Category:   |  Tagged:

WASHINGTON, PA (March 28, 2018)—While the world of STEM careers may have originally been a boys’ club, more and more women are pursuing their passions and making an impact in these fields, with many getting their education right here at Washington & Jefferson College (W&J)! In honor of the strong, intelligent women who are defying gender stereotypes in the workplace, we’re highlighting a few of our own in a new series on W&J Women in STEM.

Alice Grier Lee, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Biology and has taught at W&J since 1990. Dr. Lee served as program director for three grants ($2.3 million) from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute from 1996 to 2014. She also served as chair of Biology for six years and was one of the founders of the biochemistry major, serving as program director for the biochemistry major for five years.

Prior to joining the W&J faculty, Dr. Lee was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH. She has published a number of scientific papers in journals including The Journal of Immunology, and has presented her work at national and international meetings. Dr. Lee was the recipient of the 1997 W&J Distinguished Professor award and was named LeMoyne Professor of Biology in 2008.

We asked Dr. Lee about her work in biology and her path to W&J. Check out what she had to say!

How did you become interested/involved in your field of study?

I became interested in biology in 7th grade when my friend and I won the school science fair with our nutrition project using two hamster sibs. I majored in biology in college, worked in genetics afterwards, and studied biochemistry in grad school.

Who are some of your role models or inspirations in the field?

I had a merit fellowship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture during college, which allowed me to work every summer and during the year as possible at the Nutrient Data Research Center. My female supervisor was a nutritional biochemist and a lover of classical music who had worked her way through a male-dominated field during the Depression. She gave me some of the best career and life advice (and many tickets to Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap concerts!).

What challenges do women face in your field? What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

Women face similar problems as men in science, but there is still a glass ceiling. I worked in labs with men before grad school and during grad school. It made no difference because we were focused on the work. I worked smart, was organized, didn’t ask for special favors, probably worked harder than most people going through the system, and didn’t make excuses. Later, I was the first women ever hired in the Biology Department at W&J. Again, I sought out advice from my colleagues who were older and had experience that I lacked. I worked hard and juggled two children born 17 months apart early in my career at W&J thanks to a great husband (another biologist) who shared the responsibilities, caring daycare personnel, a positive outlook, and the grace of God.

What made you want to teach others about your field?

I was a postdoctoral fellow working on molecular immunogenetics in the Laboratory of Immunogenetics at the NIH after completing my Ph.D. at Georgetown Medical Center. I enjoyed teaching summer undergraduate interns, and taught some summer workshops for teachers. I actually planned to stay in biomedical research, but when I saw the ad for an assistant professor of biology at W&J, I thought I’d send in my CV and see what happened. They contacted me, interviewed me, and offered me the job. My fiancé (now husband) was also at the NIH, and he found another postdoctoral position he was interested in at the University of Pittsburgh, so we moved and thought we’d see how we liked it. Twenty-eight years later, here I am.

What advice do you have for young women interested in STEM studies?

Expect to work hard, be who you are, be sure to love what you do or find something else, and infuse passion into your work every day. Keep being surprised and delighted by learning and discovery.

This article is part of a larger series on W&J Women in STEM. Get to know some of our other professors: Dr. Alice Lee, Dr. Jennifer Bayline, Dr. Deborah PolvaniDr. Kelly WeixelDr. Jenny Kline, and Dr. Amanda Holland-Minkley.

About Washington & Jefferson College

Washington & Jefferson College, located in Washington, Pa., is a selective liberal arts college founded in 1781. Committed to providing each of its students with the highest-quality undergraduate education available, W&J offers a traditional arts and sciences curriculum emphasizing interdisciplinary study and independent study work. For more information about W&J, visit www.washjeff.edu, or call 888-W-AND-JAY.