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A cardiothoracic surgeon, aerospace researcher and professor: Peter Lee ’94 PhD’03 MD’05 on his path back to Brown

Lee returns to U. as professor, discusses pursuing diverse interests

Peter Lee ’94 PhD'03 MD'05, cardiothoracic surgeon and an assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, conducted his undergraduate, graduate and medical studies at the University and returns to College Hill from Ohio State University as an accomplished researcher and surgeon with varied interests. 

As a student at the University, Lee was part of the Program in Liberal Medical Education, and though he wanted to pursue a career in medicine, he “never lost that space bug,” he said.

“My interest in space began as far back as I can remember.”

When Lee was looking for a place to do research related to space, he found the laboratory of Herman Vandenburgh, professor emeritus of pathology and laboratory medicine at Brown, who had received NASA grants and had created experiments for space shuttle missions. Lee enrolled in Brown’s MD/PhD program with Vandenburgh as his PhD advisor. 

Vandenburgh’s lab researched the regeneration of damaged skeletal muscle. They sent “hundreds of small, bioengineered muscles into space” to study the “effects of microgravity and space travel on muscle tissue,” Vandenburgh said. 

Vandenburgh said Lee is a “dynamic individual” and “was a real leader in stimulating the intellectual processes involved in research.” Lee’s time in Vandenburgh’s lab also overlapped with the time astronaut Jessica Meir ’99 worked in the lab. “I think Peter and Jessica really stimulated each other to work in skeletal muscle research,” Vandenburgh added.  

While working in Vandenburgh’s lab, Lee’s own experiment ran on astronaut John Glenn’s space shuttle mission. Because of this, Lee had the chance to meet Glenn, which was “certainly a highlight,” he said. 

Lee praised the University, its curriculum and the PLME program for encouraging him to “open my mind, think outside the box, be creative in how to design an education and pursue interests outside of what may be my main career.” Because of this, Lee had the flexibility during his time at the University to start an MD/PhD, go to South Korea as an exchange student and take a year off to do a Master of Science in Space Studies at the International Space University in France. 

During his year abroad, Lee also spent three months in Moscow, utilizing his knowledge of Russian, which he took as an undergraduate, to work with monkeys that had just come back from space.

Lee had always wanted to do aerospace medicine as a career, but at the same time enjoyed his surgical rotations as a medical student. This was a “major fork in the road” for his career. Lee received advice that helped him make this difficult decision: “I can be a surgeon and do aerospace medicine on the side,” he recounted, “but I can’t do aerospace medicine and be a surgeon on the side.”

Accordingly, while Lee was training to become a cardiothoracic surgeon, he was able to continue his deep involvement “in the field of aerospace medicine without practicing it until recently,” he said. He was inducted as a member of the International Academy of Astronautics and the International Academy of Aviation and Space medicine, two prominent space-related academic organizations. More recently, Lee joined the Air National Guard and became an Air Force flight surgeon.

Lee has now received several NASA and National Institutes of Health grants of his own, but “being able to balance both research and clinical practice is not easy,” he said. Most of his time at the hospital is spent taking care of patients and operating in adult cardiothoracic surgeries. At the same time, Lee tries to dedicate a couple days a week to research, he said.  

“I was fortunate to be in an environment at Ohio State where I was able to do that,” Lee said. At Brown, he is able to continue teaching and research while still having a clinical practice at Southcoast Health, which is just 30 minutes away, he said. 

On top of research and surgery, Lee is also a co-founder and officer in a medical device company that he started with a friend. “We just spun off a new company, STARK Industries,” Lee said. The company recently won a competitive license, which allows them to “build, manufacture and sell a ventilator that was designed by NASA (Jet Propulsion Laboratory).” They now work with various countries and agencies to sell the ventilator. 

Lee has a private pilot’s license, enjoys scuba diving, used to be into rock climbing and is a 7th degree grandmaster in taekwondo. He ran the taekwondo club as a student at the University. 

Free time is hard to come by, but “I would like to fly more” if I had the time, Lee said. “I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to balance my multiple interests and pursue them.” 

Looking forward, Lee wants to make a significant contribution to the future of space research and space medicine, ”whether it’s going (to space) myself or being a part of future exploration,” he said. 

“Sometimes you don’t have to compromise. If you have passions and interests, if you have the right environment, support, a little bit of creativity and motivation you can find ways to do it,” Lee said. “I’ve found ways to do all of this: have a research lab, a clinical career, I’m an officer and flight surgeon in the Air Force, I have my own company and with all of that I have a great family.”  

Additional reporting contributed by Reem Ibrahim


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