MATT LEE: DEDICATED EFFORT TO IMPROVE THE LIVES OF OTHERS
Matt Lee has his eyes set on applying his medical degree to serve his patients. With a compassionate heart and an inner drive, he daily channels his work ethic in order to become a physician that will leave a lasting impact on the lives of his future patients.
Matt grew up in North Carolina, where his dad was a math professor at North Carolina State University. Matt credits his Chinese cultural heritage as a crucial component of his upbringing, a blessing he realized more and more as he grew older. Thanks to his mother, who only spoke Chinese to him at home, he grew up speaking Chinese, allowing him to communicate and connect with vastly more people. He also attended Chinese school on the weekends, and these multicultural roots influence his views today on the value of diversity, and the rich context each culture brings.
In addition to his background, Matt has been enthralled by molecular level science from a very young age, ever curious about how life works on the most fundamental level. When he reached biochemistry class in school, he was struck by the fact that everything is driven by chemical reactions, and how these reactions are built up, layer by layer, to create the process of life. Yet it can also can misfire, producing disease. This choreography deeply interested Matt, which led him to study biochemistry and biology at the University of Pennsylvania. And because of his upbringing, Matt also minored in Hispanic studies to further grow his exposure to the multicultural experiences he’s so drawn to.
Over the course of four years, Matt worked toward his master’s degree concurrently with his bachelor’s degree. “I wanted to explore more of how chemical interactions and molecules contribute to how life both goes very right in terms of biological function, and how it goes wrong in terms of disease and dysfunction,” Matt said. Throughout the course of his time in college, he recalled that basic science research was intellectually stimulating – but he noticed a degree of personal fulfillment lacking. “I really wanted to see my day-to-day work directly impact the people around me,” he said. Even within the lab, the projects that most interested Matt were the ones most closely connected to the clinic. In turn, his interest in medicine grew.
Matt cultivated his interest in people through his involvement in the Asian American community on campus. Matt was involved in a mentoring program, which paired upperclassmen with freshmen to connect them with the Asian American community and the various resources available to them. He also became involved in the Chinese Students Association (CSA), which he credits as a way for him to explore his own heritage, and also to share it with other students who had the same passion. Matt even produced and served as the lead organizer of the cultural show for the CSA, a student-written, student-produced, student-directed show which showcased various aspects of Chinese culture.
While Matt was deeply involved in these activities, he continued to work on the research that would become his master’s thesis, research that focused on the human histone deacetylase protein. This protein was implicated in a rare genetic disease called Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, and in turn, Matt traveled to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to meet patients with this disease, connecting him to the fulfillment he was looking for. He recalls, “It was really powerful because I could see the patient, I could meet the family, and see the challenges they were going through. Knowing that my work in the lab, studying this mutated protein, could one day – even if it was years down the line – help to treat their child and other patients with this disease was a lot more meaningful and fulfilling than simply figuring out how this protein works.”
After graduation, Matt worked for two years out of the Boston Children’s Hospital, where he continued research that provided a daily connection to how his efforts could impact people. The goal of Matt’s research was to contribute toward the HIV vaccine effort. “This really sealed the deal for me in terms of going into medicine, because it was the thought that my work could help prevent HIV in millions of people around the world that really motivated me to go to the lab every day,” Matt recalled.
Gathering and applying knowledge for human impact
As Matt considered Carle Illinois as an option for medical school, he initially wasn’t sure if an engineering-based medical education would be a good fit without having a prior engineering background. He soon learned that his experiences to date set him up well for medical school at Carle Illinois, and that this approach would prepare him well for the future he was pursuing.
“My background and my interests, even though not explicitly within an engineering field, do align with an engineering mindset quite a bit. From what I’ve seen, I think engineering is fundamentally about problem solving and practical applications of basic science knowledge. And I think that in my research, a lot of it really is engineering on a molecular scale,” Matt said.
Now at Carle Illinois, Matt is daily encouraged and inspired by his classmates. “I’ve been very impressed with the caliber of my classmates. I think every day I find something I can learn from them, because they all just come from such different backgrounds and such different experiences,” Matt said.
“I really wanted to see my day-to-day work directly impact the people around me.”
Matt envisions a future where he is a physician that remembers the degree of sacrifice that this profession requires. “I want to be remembered by my future patients as a physician that took the time and effort to build a relationship with them, to figure out what their needs are, what their anxieties are, and what their interests are, and what’s important to them in their lives. And not only be able to treat the scientific, biological aspects of their disease, but also provide emotional support and be a physician that they can depend on to listen to them,” he said.
Now, Matt works hard to this end, realizing that each bit of knowledge he consumes today is preparing him for a future of making a difference in the lives of his patients. “You never know when some rare disease, which is maybe two sentences of our textbook, might show up. By working hard now, I might save someone from a lot of pain and suffering later,” Matt said.