UCSC Review Winter 1998
Today's students: Lynn Lee Senior, chemistry
Lynn Lee is uncovering clues to one of science's most vexing riddles: How did life on earth begin some 3.5 billion years ago? In the process, the UCSC senior has discovered a personal passion for the world of basic research.
A chemistry major working under the guidance of researcher Anastassia Kanavarioti, Lee painstakingly mixes an assortment of metals, ions, and organic molecules--analyzing the resultant products over time. Her goal: to replicate portions of the chemical soup that may have given rise to earth's first life-forms.
The lab work is helping scientists understand how certain molecules might have merged to form ribonucleic acid (RNA), the chemical chains that many scientists regard as nature's earliest tool for passing along genetic information.
Lee's first brush with research came during her sophomore year. Taking a class in organic chemistry, she discovered that undergraduates at UCSC can become valued collaborators in the lab. Since then, Lee has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Kanavarioti. "Every day I'm drawing from what I've learned in the classroom," she says.
In one and a half years in the lab, Lee has had no "Eureka!" moment: In basic research, she has learned, such breakthroughs are rare. Lee has, however, identified several factors that affect the formation of RNA chains, and she has synthesized a new RNA molecule.
Bolstered by her undergraduate experience, Lee plans to earn a Ph.D. in biophysics--then embark on a career in research. "Research is difficult, frustrating, and time-consuming, but that's where the challenge lies," she says. "If the answers were trivial, why bother?"
Lee isn't inclined to shy away from arduous work. As an undergraduate, she spends 10 to 12 hours a week in Kanavarioti's lab during the academic year; over summer breaks, she's worked there full-time.
She also finds the time to regularly summarize her research results in quarterly reports. These summations hold the promise of becoming the foundation for a research article published in coauthorship with Kanavarioti--a rare accomplishment for an undergraduate.
Lee won't have to wait to earn public recognition, how-ever. Last year, she was asked to present her research findings at the American Chemical Society's Undergraduate Research Symposium, held at UCSC, and at a NASA/Ames symposium at Moffett Field.
"It gave me a sense of achievement," Lee says. "Being able to present my results after spending a full year in the lab was very rewarding."