Interview with Viola Lee
Viola Lee completed her BS degree in Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology - from Yale University in 2021 and is currently pursuing Master's of Public Health at Yale School of Public Health.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself (your background, your hometown, your school)?
I was born in Seoul, Korea, and moved to the US when I was in fifth grade. I have an older brother who also studied in the states but came back to Korea after graduating college. My parents stayed in Seoul, and I went to middle school while living with a host family in California. It was a wonderful place with lots of outdoor activities like hiking, which was a big change from the Korean education system that emphasizes testing and regurgitation. My middle school had a very experiential and hands-on curriculum, where every Friday we would have a full day of planned activities instead of typical classes — I really enjoyed learning about things like chaparral ecology and Greek philosophy by doing fun outdoor activities and going on community service trips. I loved my experience, but I decided to apply to New England boarding schools because I wanted a change of pace and a more rigorous environment. At Hotchkiss, I played golf and worked at the Fairfield Farm. I was also part of the debate team and dabbled in competition math (I was definitely at the amateur level). But the highlight of my Hotchkiss experience was definitely the academics; I think it really pushed me to engage with both the humanities and the sciences and appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of these subjects. I really enjoyed the discussion-oriented format of the humanities classes because it pushed me to think critically about the readings and engage with other students’ perspectives. The science courses were also very well-taught — especially for a high school, the quality of science laboratory experiments that Hotchkiss teachers prepared for us was truly exceptional. I’m also super grateful that I learned how to code at Hotchkiss — in Mr. Fenton’s physics class, we learned how to build small simulations that incorporate mechanics concepts — because coding is such an important tool, not just in STEM but for everyone. I think my early experiences in the US, including my time in California, shaped my interests in STEM a lot!
How did you gain an interest in STEM? What were your first experiences with STEM-related research?
I always knew I wanted to study something related to the life sciences, but I would say that my first real STEM experience outside the classroom was when I worked for a biotech startup my lower-mid summer. It was a genetics/precision medicine company whose vision was to identify individuals who had a mutation in a particular gene that made them more susceptible to corneal dystrophy. My upper-mid summer, I spent my summer doing research in a mechanical engineering lab at Columbia, which looked at properties of collagen cross-linking in the cornea. That was really my first exposure to academic research.
What advice would you give to female students concerned about the gender disparities in STEM?
I would encourage all female students interested in STEM to pursue their interests and really advocate for themselves. The gender gap is definitely not as pronounced as it was in the past, as more talented women are gaining a spotlight in various STEM fields with leadership roles in top academic institutions as well as tech and biotech industries. Grit and self-advocacy are important!
Can you please share what STEM-related projects have you worked on at Yale?
I’ve worked on several projects at Yale. My sophomore summer, I worked in a computational immunology lab, looking at whether deep learning could be used to predict B cell receptor specificity to various antigens. I then worked in a genetics and immunology lab, where the main research focus was on CAR-T cells in immune-oncology applications and CRISPR screening, but due to the pandemic, my senior thesis work in that lab pivoted to another computational project that used classical machine learning techniques to characterize immune responses upon COVID-19 infection. The most recent projects I’ve been working on have been more clinical, where we’ve been testing the efficacy of digital health tools in enhancing the quality of life and heart health among patients with cardiovascular disease. I’ve also just started a project involving natural language processing in electronic health record data to better understand why patients are being rejected from reimbursement during Medicare audits in the hospice care inpatient setting.
You seem to be interested in computational biology and translational research. Can you please share more about that?
Sure, I became interested in computational biology because I increasingly realized the importance of data mining in the biological sciences as I took more electives in the biology department. Biotechnological advances (most notably, the increasing affordability, accuracy, and speed of genetic sequencing) are generating so much useful data that can tremendously inform our approaches to healthcare. I realized that I needed computational skills to be able to use this tremendous volume of data in any meaningful way. Our current understanding of diseases and the optimal therapeutic approaches to the treatment of diseases have changed so much by advances in computational approaches, and I wanted to become literate in these methods so that I can contribute to the literature.
As for my interests in translational research, I think that I’m definitely more drawn to research questions that have a clear translational impact. I do appreciate basic science research because it provides the foundational knowledge that translational research builds upon, but I think the real-world impact and clinical implications of translational research appeal to me a lot more.
What interested you to pursue MPH (Biostatistics) at Yale?
I wanted to pursue an MPH in Biostatistics for a variety of reasons, but mainly, I wanted to become more proficient at applying statistical approaches to better understand biological data. I think this is a very important skill to have. Before applying any statistical approach to my data, it’s important to think carefully about the nature of the data first, then think about the advantages and limitations of certain methods. I’ve also learned so many computational tools, some foundational and others more advanced, which I appreciate. Also, the other MPH coursework like health policy and health economics that are not biostatistical courses, are helpful for understanding macro-level aspects of US healthcare.
What are your interests, other than STEM?
I love playing golf, indoor cycling, cooking, and learning new languages! I took Mandarin at Hotchkiss and I loved it — it’s such a beautiful language and it’s so cool to understand the Mandarin roots in Korean words. Right now, I’m learning Spanish and French on Duolingo and Netflix (there’s a neat Chrome extension called “Language Learning with Netflix” that helps you learn the language immersively through subtitles). Recently, I’ve also been obsessed with NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) and how it’s transforming the art market. I’ve always appreciated the visual arts (I took visual art as my humanities art requirement at Hotchkiss) and I’m excited by how NFTs have made the art market accessible to grassroots artists.
Will you like to share a fun fact about yourself?
Hahaha, this is always the hardest question because I never know what’s unique enough. I think I’m gonna go with “my favorite thing to make for breakfast is blueberry cinnamon baked oats.”