World-renowned scientist Virginia Lee on her prominent career

Lee’s path to her groundbreaking discoveries stems from her unwavering dedication despite obstacles. Now, she looks forward to training the next generation of disease scientists at Penn.

Virginia Man-Yee Lee is one of the world’s most recognized and decorated researchers.

As director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research (CNDR) at Penn, Lee studies the role of different proteins in various neurodegenerative disorders of aging, including Alzheimer’s disease. And for each of the more than 1,000 research publications which she has authored, she has also been cited in nearly 200,000 articles by others.

Virginia Lee in her lab points at a computer screen with a team of lab members around her.
Virginia Man-Yee Lee, The John H. Ware 3rd Endowed Professor in Alzheimer’s Research at the Perelman School of Medicine and director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research. (Image: Scott Spitzer)

In recognition of that work, ranked her among the world’s top 100 scientists and the No. 2 female scientist. She has been awarded dozens of academic honors, notably the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

“At the time in Chinese culture, the general idea would be for women to have some sort of education. But if you’re from a good family, you get married, have children, and live happily ever after,” says Lee. “I had no pressure to have a career.”

When her mother encouraged musical studies, she obliged and moved to London to begin piano training at the Royal Academy of Music, but knew she wanted to pursue a different career. Supported by her father, she earned her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree at the University of London. She then received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California at San Francisco.

Ultimately, Lee moved to the U.S. for her postdoc training at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she met the man who would become her husband, John Trojanowski, a renowned scientist in his own right. Nearly three years later, the couple married and moved to Philadelphia.

While he completed his residency, Lee struggled to break into the scientific community.

With time and persistence, Lee slowly gained momentum in grants and awards and earned respect from her colleagues. “A large part of where I am today is that I’ve had a very long career,” says Lee. “In two months, I’ll be 77, and I’m still working.”

Lee believes her greatest accomplishment is the discovery of TDP-43, a protein that binds to DNA and can be harmful when built up in the brain.

“What was so fantastic is that people were able to repeat our research, and now are coming up with new applications and ways to use it,” says Lee.

Beyond TDP-43, Lee values mentorship, something she and most female scientists weren’t offered at the start of her career. Now, her goal is to gather and train the next generation of disease scientists at Penn.

Read more at Penn Memory Center.