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New DBI Director Lee setting a fast pace

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NEWARK – When Jung-Youn Lee was an elementary school student in South Korea, her mother gave her a set of encyclopedia as a present.

New Interim Delaware Biotechnology Institute Director Jung-Youn Lee has been involved with the organization for nearly 20 years. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UDEL/EVAN KRAPE

New Interim Delaware Biotechnology Institute Director Jung-Youn Lee has been involved with the organization for nearly 20 years. | PHOTO COURTESY OF UDEL/EVAN KRAPE

“I loved to read, and when I came across a photo of a scientist in a white lab coat, I thought, ‘Wow, that would be neat a thing to do!’ So, I decided I want to be a scientist or a teacher or an artist,” she recalled.

Today, Lee, who was named interim director of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI) in March, is actually all three.

“I’m a teacher at the University of Delaware, I am a scientist and researcher and I’m an artist, because I do all the illustrations for my scientific publications,” she said.

It has been a hectic but rewarding two months since her appointment, Lee said, but a rewarding period as well.

“Last week, we had ceremonies for students receiving Biogenius Awards, and the governor was here for that,” Lee said in an interview in late April. “Tomorrow, we have almost 100 guests to kick off the Delaware Bioscience Center Advanced Technology (CATs) grants program, which helps funding until they can get government grants. We’re having another round of calls for projects, and we have previously made a significant number of awards from startups to larger companies.” 

The DBI was founded in 2001 to be a magnet for life sciences research and development and support multidisciplinary research at UD, Delaware State University, ChristianaCare, Nemours Children’s Health and Delaware Technical Community College.

But as busy as Lee has been with her DBI activities, the other half of her professional life is teaching and research. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in horticultural sciences from Korea University in Seoul, she came to the U.S. to get a doctorate in plant molecular and cell biology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Afterward, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California at Davis and then joined the Delaware faculty in 2003, where she has been a part of DBI almost from its beginning.

 Lee continues to lead a research team working to understand how plant cells communicate through plasmodesmata — plant-unique intercellular communication channels — and how these channels are affected by plant health and fitness during environmental challenges. She has received more than $17 million in funding, primarily from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, and published in high-profile journals, including the Nature journals, Plant Biotechnology Journal, Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and Plant Cell. 

Lee is also proud of the research capabilities DBI offers to a range of scientific researchers.

“Anyone can use our instruments, from faculty to outsiders,” she said. “Individual departments could not have easily acquired these expensive instruments. Additionally, we have in-house the required expertise to keep them operating. Hundreds have used the lab over the years, especially the DNA lab.”

Lee said this fall she wants to resurrect the DBI’s once-annual symposium, which was suspended in the past few years.

“I tell my staff that we don’t have the time to sit back and plan,” Lee said with a laugh. “For now, we have to think quickly and act quickly.”

That philosophy has served the child with an encyclopedic interest very well in her professional life.

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