Hill School student wants to cure cancer - really

David Lee grew up in Philadelphia but then moved to South Korea with his family. He returned to attend the Hill School.
David Lee grew up in Philadelphia but then moved to South Korea with his family. He returned to attend the Hill School. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 16, 2014

David Lee spent much of last summer in a laboratory in Seoul, South Korea, where he passed hours studying cancer cells under a microscope, taking measurements, and painstakingly replicating test results.

He also set aside a few weeks for a trip to Africa, where he helped deliver medical services to remote villages in Tanzania.

Lee has plenty more planned for the future. But first he has to graduate from high school.

After that, it's off to college, followed by medical school, and then a career that he intends to devote to finding a cure for cancer.

"The idea of being able to make a contribution, however small it might be, that's what appeals to me," said Lee, 17, who conducted the lab research as part of an independent study program through the Hill School in Pottstown.

Mark Nelson, Lee's biology teacher and adviser, said Lee was consistently one of the best students in each class he took. But what really made him stand out was his interest in helping others.

"That makes him one of the most impressive students I've seen," Nelson said.

Lee, who will attend Brown University in the fall through the school's eight-year premed program, grew up in Philadelphia before his family moved to South Korea. His father, a neurosurgeon, and his mother, a radiation oncologist, sparked an early interest in medicine, and as a child, Lee often visited the labs where his mother worked.

By the time Lee was 12, he was volunteering at a medical clinic in Korea run by a family friend. He was also spending increasing amounts of time in his mother's lab, learning basic research techniques, borrowing equipment, asking questions about how things worked, and familiarizing himself with developments in cancer research.

Lee ended up at the Hill School in ninth grade after deciding that a boarding school would give him more opportunities to pursue advanced studies. His parents were supportive, he said, even though it meant he and they live on opposite sides of the globe for much of the year.

That was also the year that a mentor he met in Korea introduced Lee to the Foundation of African Medicine and Education in Tanzania, an organization that brings medical care to rural families. For the last three summers, Lee has traveled there to volunteer.

"It gave me a lot of insight into public health on a global level," he said.

For example, he realized that every country experienced widespread health problems to which much of the population has become resistant.

"Here, it's the common cold, or a fever," he said. "In Tanzania, the prevalence of malaria is so high that many people tend to build up an immunity."

Community activist

Lee's experiences inspired him to lead fund-raising efforts through his school, and he has since raised enough money to donate several water tanks to Tanzanian villages, among other projects.

Nate Yinger, assistant director of communications and a Hill School alumnus, acknowledged that Lee was unusual, even in a school filled with overachievers.

"What he has done for others just in this community is remarkable," Yinger said, citing Lee's work with the student Philanthropy Council that has provided thousands of dollars to local organizations. "And then on top of it all, you hear about his work in Korea, where he was 20 years younger than everyone in the lab."

In his junior year, based on the research being done in his mother's lab in Korea, Lee developed the idea for his independent-study program. The lab director, a family friend, gave him permission to use the lab's materials to study the effects of a new drug on glioblastoma, a strain of brain cancer. In previous studies, the drug had shown promise, Lee said, and he wanted to expand on those earlier results.

"The fact that I had access to this lab where I could do the experiments I needed for this project meant I could do it. But I had to do it all over the summer," he said. "I knew I wouldn't be able to go back and finish."

By the end of the summer, Lee had results that made sense and showed continued promise in the drug's ability to battle glioblastoma. Soon, he will present the findings in a report to his school's independent-study board.

Lee also manages the Hill School wrestling team. Coach Tom Hutchinson, who is also teaching Lee in physics this year, said Lee rarely talks about the research he does outside of school.

"If you didn't know what his achievements were, he's not inclined to tell you," Hutchinson said.

When he's not studying, Lee said, he relaxes by getting food with friends and watching videos online - "typical" teenage stuff, he said.

But Nelson, Lee's adviser, said he wasn't sure Lee ever had any down time.

"He's smart, but he also works really hard," Nelson said. "If he doesn't get an A-plus in everything, it's shocking. That's how he likes to live his life."


asteele@phillynews.com

610-313-8113

@AESteele

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