Victoria College's Michael Lee looks back on undergraduate career filled with research, exploration and discovery

June 2, 2020 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

There are few boxes that Michael Lee will leave unchecked when he graduates this spring.

In his four years at U of T, he earned a specialist in pathobiology and majored in biochemistry with a minor in Latin. He has done research while working in Professor Philip Marsden’s lab in the Faculty of Medicine and is co-author on two papers that have been submitted for publication.

Lee is co-president of the Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology Student Union, as well as co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Undergraduate Life Sciences, which showcases undergraduate research.

His energy isn’t diminished outside of his studies either. He’s won an Ontario Volunteer Service Award for his work with the non-profit organization Student Assistance in North Toronto for Seniors (SAINTS) and is director of the Healing Sounds of Music choir which raises funds for Alzheimer’s disease research.

His dedication and caring have not gone unrecognized and he recently received an Award of Excellence from the University of Toronto Alumni Association.

Can you tell us about the scientific research you did over the last three years?

My research focused on endothelial cells — the cells that line the inside of blood vessels — that are constantly exposed to physical forces generated by the pulsing flow of blood. To gain a better understanding of the role of pulsing — or pulsatility — in blood flow, I devised an independent project that investigated the downstream effect of this flow on these cells. Through a number of experiments, I discovered that this pulsing flow had similar effects as non-pulsing flow in several genes involved in maintaining healthy arteries and veins.

I was very interested in this work because researchers and physicians have always wondered if there’s a physiological significance to pulsatility, which is more prevalent in, for example, the aorta in contrast to the radial artery in the forearm. Ultimately through my work, we were able to understand more about how receptors on endothelial cells sense shear stress.

Is there any particular initiative outside of the lab and classroom that is most important to you?

All of the activities I was involved in have played a part in shaping my development and university experience. But the one initiative that was particularly significant to me was my involvement in the Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology Student Union. During my two years as co-president, I spearheaded the organization of two academic conferences.

After learning that there was a growing interest among students in forensic science, I organized the Making the Dead Talk conference in 2019 which attracted more than 250 audience members, five speakers and a career panel. Our most recent conference on gut microbiota was also a success and I’m proud to have organized a free educational event for not only U of T students and faculty but also the public.

What have been your most memorable experiences at U of T?

Some of the most memorable experiences at U of T are actually the late night studying sessions with my friends in a library. I have fond memories now of enduring those tough moments and then coming out of the exams. Although university is challenging, I think the difficulties I faced along with my friends really allowed me to push myself, pick up new skills, and learn to learn. Once I graduate, I’ll be able to easily handle other adversities.

Other memorable experiences were choir rehearsals, music performances for seniors and patients and concerts. Through Healing Sounds of Music, I was able to perform music — something I’ve always enjoyed — as a form of therapy in senior homes, nursing homes and busking. I’m happy that I was able to make new friends in this way who also shared their interests in music, while also healing others through my music.

What advice would you give your first-year self?

First-year is all about discovery. I know that a lot of incoming students are stressed about the difficulty of courses, living away from home and adjusting to a new chapter of their life. But the advice I would give to my first-year self is: explore and discover. Take a wide variety of courses!

The Faculty of Arts & Science allows students to take courses from so many different fields — something that allows you to discover your true academic interest. For example, I wish I had taken the introduction to computer programming course earlier so I could have taken more computer science courses before graduating.

Also, take part in extracurricular activities! Courses teach you more about a specific field or knowledge, while extracurricular activities teach you more about yourself. You’ll discover new hobbies, make new friends and develop your soft skills. Collectively, your courses and extracurricular activities will define your university experience. And starting them early in first year will allow plenty of time for you to discover, explore and grow.

What are your plans for the future? 

In the fall, I’ll be pursuing a research-based master’s degree in the Department of Laboratory Medicine & Pathobiology. My ultimate goal is to become a physician-scientist. Research is indispensable to modern medicine and I hope to bridge both research and medicine in the future.

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