Chemistry, community and change

Image via AISES.

It should come as no sur­prise that an ultra-​​marathoner would be a person with sig­nif­i­cant ambi­tion (an “ultra,” as it’s called by those in the know, is any race longer than 26.2 miles).

Fifth year chem­istry and chem­ical biology grad­uate stu­dent Joslynn Lee cer­tainly fits that bill. On top of her own run­ning, she also vol­un­teers with Back On My Feet (BOMF), a run­ning group that helps pro­mote self-​​sufficiency among the home­less, Sci­ence Club for Girls, which exposes young girls from under-​​served pop­u­la­tions to the sci­ences, and Youth Enrich­ment Ser­vices, which pro­vides out­door adven­tures to New England’s urban youth.

Lee grew up in the New Mex­ican border town of Farm­ington, just out­side the Navajo Reser­va­tion where her grand­mother still keeps cattle and sheep. “I always had a strong sense of com­mu­nity,” she said. Coming to Boston was a chal­lenge, because she had to leave that all behind. “Since I didn’t have my cul­tural com­mu­nity here, I cre­ated my own by volunteering.”

It was also the cat­a­lyst that led her to chem­istry. When she began as an under­grad­uate at Fort Lewis Col­lege, a small, four-​​year lib­eral arts insti­tu­tion in Col­orado, she found a strong, sup­portive com­mu­nity in the chem­istry depart­ment. She had her first research expe­ri­ences there and dis­cov­ered a deep seated love for proteins.

Today, under the direc­tion of pro­fessor Mary Jo Ondrechen, she is pur­suing two research projects that use com­pu­ta­tional biology to explore pro­tein active sites. In the first, she uses a protein’s three-​​dimensional struc­ture to reveal unex­pected func­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics. In the second, she designs mol­e­cules that can be used to diag­nose and treat cancer.

Lee in the Leadville Silver Rush 50 (that’s 50 MILES, in case you were won­dering). Here she’s got 10 down and just 40 to go!

My way of life is to approach every sit­u­a­tion by helping someone see things dif­fer­ently, whether it’s run­ning, sci­ence, or any­thing,” said Lee, who was recently fea­tured on the cover of the Amer­ican Indian Sci­ence and Engi­neering Society’s mag­a­zine, Winds of Change.

Run­ning three days a week with the home­less res­i­dents of Hope House, for example, has given her the oppor­tu­nity to show people how some­thing she loves — run­ning — can be a vehicle for change in one’s life. “Run­ning teaches them that they can meet small goals to get to the bigger overall goals,” she said. “They just have to make one small change in their day to result in some­thing grand.” In the club, that small goal might be run­ning a mile without stopping.

They are just excited and grateful that someone is willing to take the time and not just labeling them as an alco­holic. We label them as run­ners, even though they’re just starting out.” In both her work with BOMF and Sci­ence Club for Girls, Lee has had to con­sider the impor­tance of labels.

She helps the girls she works with in the Sci­ence Club to begin labeling them­selves as sci­en­tists. “They get excited about sci­ence and making obser­va­tions, which is basi­cally what sci­en­tists do! You don’t have to [wear a lab coat],” she said, “you can just be walking in the park.”

She had to make the same point to a group of peers at a recent work­shop with the Academy for Future Fac­ulty at North­western Uni­ver­sity. Grad­uate stu­dents who are making “huge dis­cov­eries” in the lab, she said, didn’t think of them­selves as sci­en­tists. “But, we’ve all been sci­en­tists for long time.”

Growing up in New Mexico, Lee devel­oped a strong interest in plants and the nat­ural world. She and her grand­mother would spend the summer months searching for plants used in Navajo teas, she told the Winds of Change reporter. She became a sci­en­tist way back then.