TAMEST Member Profile: Brendan Lee, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM), Baylor College of Medicine
TAMEST Board Vice President Brendan Lee, M.D., Ph.D. (NAM), Baylor College of Medicine (BCM), first discovered TAMEST more than twelve years ago when he participated in TAMEST’s Protégé Program. He went on to receive the 2009 TAMEST Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award in Medicine. He says the exposure to TAMEST in the formative years of his career introduced him to a tight-knit and diverse research community committed to supporting the next generation of Texas-based scientists.
In 2013, Dr. Lee was elected to the National Academy of Medicine for his ability to translate the study of structural birth defects and inborn errors of metabolism into a basic understanding of development, disease and novel therapeutic approaches. Today, Dr. Lee is the BCM Robert and Janice McNair Endowed Chair in Molecular and Human Genetics, and Professor and Chairman of the Department of Molecular and Human Genetics.
In addition to his busy research schedule, Dr. Lee remains committed to helping create the same early-career research cultivation he received by serving on the TAMEST Board of Directors. In January 2021, he began his two-year term as TAMEST Board Vice President, and in January 2023 he will become TAMEST Board President.
Dr. Lee connected with TAMEST to share more about his research and career as a physician-scientist and giving back to the next class of talented researchers.
- Please tell us a little about yourself and your work.
I am a physician-scientist trained in pediatrics and genetics. I have spent the past 25 years of my career identifying how genetic mutations in humans cause structural birth defects in the human skeleton as well as inborn errors of metabolism that affect nitrogen and protein handling.
By studying how these mutations cause disease, I hope to provide insights into basic mechanisms of human development and metabolism, develop a treatment for these rare diseases and translate these findings to understanding common diseases.
- What made you get into your field of research?
I was always involved in research even as a college student. When I started medical school, I realized how much I missed the discovery aspect of research. It seemed perfect that by combining research and medicine, I could help individual patients and many more individuals beyond my direct care by the impact of my discoveries.
I have really loved the complete journey from basic discovery to testing a therapy in clinical trials. The greatest privilege of being a physician-scientist is to contribute and lead all steps in that path.
- Why are you so passionate about your work?
As a pediatrician and geneticist, it was very logical to be focused on structural birth defects and inborn errors of metabolisms as these are the two big categories of diseases that afflict the newborn and young child.
As always, I was also impacted by my mentors and training. As a graduate student, I worked on collagen genes and their diseases. This interest in connective tissue diseases evolved into all birth defects affecting the skeleton. During my postdoctoral training at Baylor College of Medicine, I became focused on urea cycle disorders and gene therapy. I have continued to pursue these two areas because of the number of children and now also adults who are impacted by these conditions.
- You were elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2013 and became a member of TAMEST. What does being a member mean to you?
It is a great honor to be part of TAMEST, especially given that the election to NAM and TAMEST was very much a recognition of the support and intellectual generosity that I have found at BCM and the Texas scientific community.
As a geneticist, I am especially appreciative of gene-environment interactions and I think we all appreciate that we don’t succeed in any task without the support of others and our environment.
What I love about TAMEST is that it was built on the premise of supporting the next generation of stars in Texas.
- You now sit on our Board of Directors as TAMEST Board Vice President. What made you decide to volunteer your time and expertise to TAMEST’s mission?
In part, it is giving back to an organization that recognized me early on during the formative stage of my career. At the same time, supporting and identifying the next generation of stars is so critical to our institutions, our field, and our state.
- You are one of 15 TAMEST members who is also a former recipient of the TAMEST Edith and Peter O’Donnell Award. Talk about your experience with the program.
Being an O’Donnell awardee was extremely impactful and a career-defining recognition. As a midcareer investigator at the time, recognition as a “rising star” in Texas validated my achievements and opened doors to engage with role models who inspired me to continue to pursue my path.
While recognition and awards are wonderful, learning to deal with the many failures that are part of research is even more important. Seeing and meeting successful role models around me and the O’Donnell recognition helped me continue developing the internal fortitude to overcome the everyday challenges of research.
- In addition to your 2009 O’Donnell Award in Medicine, you participated in the TAMEST Protégé Program. Why is it essential that you give back to the next generation of researchers in Texas?
Despite the many awards, discoveries and publications that TAMEST members may have individually, ultimately, our impact will be defined by the achievements of our trainees, mentees, and colleagues.
The TAMEST Protégé program is an important way that we can impact the world – by supporting the development of the next generation of star scientists.
- Why do you live and work in Texas?
I came originally to Texas because of the outstanding pediatrics and genetics departments at Baylor College of Medicine. I received great training.
However, I stayed in Texas because of the intellectual generosity that marks our culture and the “can do” atmosphere that defines Texans. Together, they make an environment that supports the growing scientist like no other place.
On a personal level, Houston has been a wonderful city to grow my career and family. Houston over the past three decades has become a true world city and the scientific diversity of the Texas Medical Center is reflected in the cultural diversity of the city.