Trainee hits the major leagues

By Jennifer Parraga, BA'93

With dreams of becoming a baseball player, Dr. Jason Lee spent his school days counting down the minutes to recess and lunch so he could go out to play.

Today, he is a physician currently pursuing a PhD in the labs at Robarts Research Institute, and this past year, was named a Vanier Scholar – Canada’s most prestigious academic honours for doctoral trainees.

So how did a young kid with dreams of making it to major league baseball end up as an internist and rheumatologist, researching inflammation and scarring in blood vessels?

Well, he says a great deal of credit goes to his many teachers, mentors, his current supervisor, Dr. Geoff Pickering, and to his parents who have been patient with him as he pursues his new dream to become a clinician-researcher.

“The people around me all helped to get me to where I am today,” Dr. Lee said.

“My mentors say that it takes a village to raise a clinician-scientist, and I really think that’s true,” he added with a smile. “Now it’s my job to succeed so that their many years of support don’t go to waste.”

Dr. Lee was born in Chicago, raised in Seoul, South Korea and moved to Canada with his family when he was eight years of age. It wasn’t until he started high school that he began to develop an interest in science.

“I had some wonderful teachers, who saw some potential in me and I started entering math and chemistry competitions. That helped me to develop my interest and confidence in the sciences,” Dr. Lee said.

One teacher in particular, Dr. Stavros Naxakis, took Dr. Lee under his wing and mentored him throughout high school.

It paid off.

After completing his medical studies at the University of Toronto, he moved to London for his internal medicine residency at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. With a growing interest in research, Dr. Lee took advantage of the Clinician Investigator Program (CIP), which provides the opportunity for residents to complete a graduate degree accompanied by specialized research training.

“I’ve always been interested in research and have had the good fortune to have mentors like Dr. Janet Pope, who encouraged me to become a clinician-scientist. The CIP program was there so I couldn’t let the opportunity pass.”

For the past three years, Dr. Lee has been working with Dr. Geoff Pickering in the labs at Robarts focused on cardiovascular research and looking specifically at inflammation and scarring of blood vessels.

Dr. Lee is looking at the pathways where inflammation occurs and working to understand why it occurs to develop therapies to stop it and restore vessels to a healthy state. Once the vessels are in a healthy state, the body may then be able to repair and regenerate damaged tissues.

“I hope to identify some of the important causes of inflammation in blood vessels and try to target it in human disease, so we can cure things like atherosclerosis and even autoimmune diseases like vasculitis and scleroderma,” Dr. Lee said.
With numerous awards and publications to his credit, Dr. Lee says his most meaningful recognition to date has been the Vanier Scholarship. Valued at $150,000 through three years, the Scholarship is awarded to doctoral students who demonstrate strong leadership skills and scholarly excellence in social sciences, humanities, natural sciences, engineering and health sciences.

“It’s an extraordinary honour to receive this award,” Dr. Lee said. “It is personally satisfying and a validation of the training, the process and the hard work that I have put in. But I’m equally, if not more satisfied, for all the mentors and teachers who have supported me. Because, it isn’t a product of my work alone, but of all those who support me”

Dr. Lee is quick to share the many people who have supported him, including his wife Jean, mother and father Namhee and Dalsu Lee, his brother Dr. Jooho Lee, along with his mentors Drs. Geoff Pickering, Janet Pope, Sherry Rohekar, Lillian Barra, Jim Lewis, and Rob Gros, PhD, Grace Parraga, PhD, Aaron Ward, PhD, and Stacey Bastien.

While Dr. Lee no longer dreams of a career as a major league athlete, he and his wife, along with their two Labrador retrievers, enjoy the outdoors by hiking, swimming and skating. He also can be found working in the rheumatology clinic at St. Joseph’s Hospital.