Already a gifted researcher, Taiwan native wins 2009 Nominata Award

By Russell Rian 

At the age of 13, Heng-Chi Lee watched as his mother died of cancer.

“I was first attracted to the biomedical science because she passed away due to colon cancer and since then, something inside kept pushing me to pursue my passion that would hopefully benefit the human being in treating diseases,” said Dr. Lee, now 29. 

Dr. Heng-Chi Lee

Dr. Lee was born and grew up in Taipei, Taiwan, and discovered more passion for molecular biology while attending Cheng-Kung High School in Taipei. “I got a taste of how DNA and protein works to regulate a lot of biological processes in a biology class,” he recalled. “Since then I have been interested in studying molecular-based biology. It excites me very much.”

To recognize his research achievements, Dr. Lee was selected for the 2009 Nominata Award, the highest honor bestowed by the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

“I was thrilled and felt so fortunate. UT Southwestern has one of the best research-oriented graduate programs in the U.S. A lot of great science happens here, so it’s really an honor to be selected among the best for this honor,” he said.

The Nominata Award was created by the Graduate Student Organization in 1980 to stimulate academic excellence and research achievement among the advanced graduate students. The Committee on Graduate School Awards, composed of graduate faculty, judges nominees on academic and research performance. The honor includes a $2,000 award, and the winner presents the last seminar of the academic year in the University Lecture Series.

After high school, Dr. Lee attended the highly respected National Yang-Ming University in Taiwan, and came across UT Southwestern on several Top 10 lists when he began searching for further opportunities. “The academic excellence attracted me to
UT Southwestern,” he said. He applied and was accepted to the division of biological sciences graduate program in 2003.

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“After I came to UT Southwestern, during one of my rotations, Dr. Yi Liu, professor of physiology, described how he was trying to develop a new research area called RNA interference. I was completely impressed and excited about how small RNA [ribonucleic acid] molecules can regulate genes, which might have great potential to discover novel biological mechanisms, so I decided to join his lab,” Dr. Lee said. “Things have been very exciting in the last two years. We discovered a novel role of small RNAs in DNA damage response and uncovered a new small RNA biogenesis pathway.”

RNA interference and related pathways are evolutionarily conserved gene silencing mechanisms that utilize small RNAs to regulate gene expression, development, genome stability and host-defense responses. Dr. Lee and colleagues have been collecting and sequencing millions of small RNAs in filamentous fungus Neurospora crassa, an organism that broadly employs gene silencing in regulation of gene expression to understand the RNAi pathway.

“It is exciting that several types of small RNAs we discovered in this simple eukaryotic organism can provide important information on how RNAi pathways are evolved and have a lot of implications for higher organisms,” Dr. Lee said. The work has been featured on the cover of Nature magazine, among other publications.

“I enjoy doing research,” said Dr. Lee. “It’s a very rewarding experience when you can discover something completely new. That’s the attractiveness of doing science — knowing that the discovery could benefit and contribute to the scientific community.”

“As a graduate student, Heng-Chi has demonstrated academic excellence and an exceptional level of research achievement. His accomplishments serve as an outstanding example for all students here at UT Southwestern,” said his mentor, Dr. Liu, whose lab studies circadian clock and RNAi.

“His ability to carry out independent research, as well as his scientific insight and creativity, made him stand out,” added Dr. Liu, who is the Louise W. Khan Scholar in Medical Research 1999-2003. “He’s been a truly remarkable student.”

Outside the lab, Dr. Lee plays soccer and basketball and is a Dallas Mavericks fan, along with his wife, a registered nurse. “We married in 2004 during the halftime of the Dallas Mavs game,” with about 40 friends in attendance, an event that was plastered across the huge video screen at the American Airlines Center.

Even though family members are still far away in Taiwan, Dr. Lee talks with his father by phone regularly.

“He was really supportive in terms of my decision to pursue my passion in the U.S.,” Dr. Lee said.

He and his father also share a passion for music. His father is a piano teacher, and Dr. Lee has continued his love of piano, which he began learning at the age of 8. He now plays in a UT Southwestern trio that also includes a violin and cello. The trio played at the annual winter music festival on campus and sometimes plays at medical center functions.