July 23, 2004

VUMC scientist chosen as Pew Scholar

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Ethan Lee, M.D., Ph.D.

VUMC scientist chosen as Pew Scholar

Ethan Lee, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of Cell and Developmental Biology, was recently named one of this year’s 15 Pew Biomedical Scholars. This national award recognizes gifted young scientists and provides support to cultivate innovative research.

The scholarship program, which is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts and administered by the University of California at San Francisco, awards recipients with $240,000 over four years to foster risk-taking and entrepreneurship.

“The award allows me to do many of the experiments I want to do, and take on high risk experiments I would have been hesitant to take. It also provides me a buffer until I get funding, so it allows me to generate data,” Lee said. “I think more than anything, it allows me to do more innovative work that may not have been possible without this grant.”

This year, the Pew Charitable Trusts invited 127 institutions to nominate a candidate. Susan Wente, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of Cell and Developmental Biology, recommended Lee.

“Dr. Lee is one of our brightest academic stars,” Wente said. “There are honestly very few investigators that have his unique combination of biochemical, mathematical, genomic and biological strengths. Yet another strength, Ethan is an incredibly collaborative scientist who seems to spur new endeavors wherever he goes.

“The Pew Award is a highly competitive honor, and reflects the high regard for Ethan in the biomedical research community,” she said.

Lee’s research focuses on the Wnt pathway, which plays a role in development as well as human tumorigenesis.

“It is thought that one of the components of the Wnt pathway is responsible for the vast majority of colorectal cancers. And it is also involved in a variety of other cancers,” Lee said. “The pathway also plays a role in the development of the primary body axis, heart development, and brain development. It’s an exciting pathway to study because there are a lot of important processes that it is involved in.”

Lee’s goal is to understand how the pathway works — to figure out how the different parts fit together, if there are any unknown parts, and how all of the parts fit into the overall scheme that is the human body.

“It’s like a car,” Lee explained, “until you know how all of the different parts come together and are coordinated and work in concert, it’s very difficult to fix.”

Lee joined the faculty at Vanderbilt in September 2003. He earned his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, where he studied G protein signaling in the laboratory of Alfred Gilman, Ph.D. He completed his postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School in the laboratory of Marc Kirschner, Ph.D., and was briefly was a visiting scientist at The Whitehead Institute at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lee is the fourth Vanderbilt University researcher to be named a Pew Scholar since the awards began in 1985. Other award winners at Vanderbilt include: David Cortez, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biochemistry and Ingram Assistant Professor of Cancer Research; Lilianna Solnica-Krezel, Ph.D., associate professor of Biological Sciences; and Jeffrey T. Holt, M.D., who is now professor of Pathology at the University of Colorado.