Suzanne Lee , PhD

Associate Professor · she/her/hers


I identify enthusiastically as molecular cell biologist and biochemist. However, my initial impressions of Biology were somewhat lukewarm, having attended an inner city, public high school in the Midwest where biology involved the use of chipped and broken test tubes, dissection of reused fetal pigs, and a lot of rote memorization. A major turning point for me occurred in college, when I was fortunate to meet an organic chemistry professor-turned-mentor who sparked in me an interest in “how things work” in living organisms. This interest deepened when, midway through college, in looking for summer work to supplement my job as a dishwasher for Chemistry lab classes, I learned of a summer research program for undergraduates in New York City. On a whim, I applied and was placed in a cancer biology lab studying the tumor suppressor p53. This experience opened my eyes for the first time to the exciting field of molecular biology, where chemistry and biology meet, and even more importantly, revealed to me that the study of biology isn’t just about memorization, but rather, active investigation of yet-unsolved mysteries in (cellular) life. I became intrigued by how interactions of biomolecules in a cell need to be precisely controlled in order to keep cells resilient and healthy - a fascination that I still have today.

Those early experiences propelled me onto a path that involved working as a research assistant for a few years after college, going to graduate school and pursuing post-doctoral work. As I grew scientifically, I considered a number of different paths in science - from science communication to genetic counseling to R&D in a biotech to running a research lab with PhD students at a large university or research institution - but ultimately settled on a career that would let me integrate my love for both research and mentoring at the college level, inspired by the incredible scientist-mentors I've been fortunate to meet and work with along my scientific journey. Now, as a college educator with a research lab powered by undergraduates, Masters students, and cherished collaborators, I am thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to support students in forging their own paths through college and into STEM careers.

I also identify as a woman, mom, and first-generation Asian-American who is passionate about promoting equity and inclusion in STEM and enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and (having also considered a career in the theatre at one point) the performing arts.

Research Interests

A fascinating discovery in the early 2000s was that many more regions of eukaryotic genomes are expressed than previously thought, producing a variety of RNAs whose functions, if any, are unclear. Current research in the Lee Lab is focused on understanding the biological impacts of these mysterious RNAs, with the broad goal of elucidating the underlying molecular mechanisms that govern RNA production, function, and degradation to maintain optimal cellular health. Key questions that intrigue us include: What are the molecular mechanisms that control the expression of non-protein coding and non-functional RNAs? What are the biological functions of uncharacterized non-protein coding RNAs?  What happens to a cell if pathways normally responsible for processing or degrading these RNAs are disrupted?  How are messenger RNAs, non-coding RNAs, and non-functional RNAs distinguished from one another?

To address these and other fundamental questions about eukaryotic cell and molecular biology, we employ the tools of biochemistry, molecular biology, bioinformatics, microscopy, cell biology, and reverse genetics, using the ciliate Tetrahymena thermophila as our model organism. As an educator and mentor, I am also interested in better understanding the environments and experiences that enable science students to thrive in their learning.

If you are an undergraduate, prospective Masters' student, or potential collaborator interested in pursuing research with us, please contact me to learn more our ongoing projects and interests!

Educational & Professional Experience

  • B.A. in Biological Chemistry (summa cum laude with Honors), Wellesley College, 1998
  • Research Assistant, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center/Harvard Medical School, 1998-2001
  • Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology, University of California, Berkeley, 2007
  • Postdoctoral Fellow in Molecular Biology, University of Colorado, Boulder and University of California, San Diego, 2008-2014

Selected Awards & Honors

  • National Science Foundation CAREER Award (2022-present)
  • Peter J Elich Excellence in Teaching in the Colleges of Humanities & Social Sciences and Sciences & Engineering, WWU (2021)
  • WWU Teaching-Learning Academy Award for Equity and Inclusivity (2016)
  • Helen Hay Whitney Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow (2009-2012)
  • Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Teaching Award (2003)
  • Howard Hughes Medical Institute Predoctoral Fellow (2001-2006)
  • Barry M Goldwater Scholar in Math, Science and Engineering (1997-1998)

Recent Publications

Lee SR, Pollard DA, Galati DF, Kelly ML*, Miller B*, Mong C*, Morris MN*, Roberts-Nygren K*, Kapler GM, Zinkgraf M, Dang HQ, Branham E, Tessier E*, Yoshiyama C*, Sasser J*, Matsumoto M* and Turman G*. Disruption of a ~23-24 nucleotide small RNA pathway elevates DNA damage responses in Tetrahymena thermophila. (2021) Molecular Biology of the Cell. 32:1335-1346. *WWU undergraduate researcher

Lee SR†, Dahlberg LL†, and Wiggins BL. A Short Laboratory Module to Help Infuse Metacognition during an Introductory Course-based Research Experience. (2019) CourseSource. †these authors contributed equally to this work

Dahlberg CL, Wiggins BL, Lee SR, Leaf D, Lily LS, Jordt H, Johnson T*. A Short, Authentic Course-based Research Module provides Metacognitive Benefits in the Form of More Sophisticated Problem Solving. (2019) Journal of College Science Teaching. 48(4):22-30. *WWU undergraduate researcher

Lee SR, Pratt G, Martinez F, Yeo GW and Lykke-Andersen J. Target discrimination in nonsense-mediated decay requires Upf1 ATPase activity. (2015) Molecular Cell. 59(3):413-25.

Lee SR and Lykke-Andersen J. Emerging roles for ribonucleoprotein modification and remodeling in controlling RNA fate. (2013) Trends in Cell Biology. 23(10):504-10.

Clement S, Joshi S, Otto S, Merkhofer E, Vicente-Crespo M, and Lee SR. (2011) “Development and Implementation of a TA Training Workshop on Diversity in the Classroom,” In Teaching Diversity: Conference Proceedings. Ed. J Lin and C Wastal. San Diego: University Readers.

Couvillion MT, Lee SR, Hogstad B, Malone CD, Tonkin LA, Sachidanandam R, Hannon GJ, and Collins K. Sequence, Biogenesis, and Function of Diverse Small RNA Classes Bound to the Piwi-family Proteins of Tetrahymena thermophila. (2009) Genes and Development. 23(17):2016-32.

Lee SR, Benjamin-Talsky K., Collins K. Distinct sRNA biogenesis pathways are linked through the associated proteins of a single RNA-dependent RNA polymerase. (2009) RNA. 15(7):1363-74.

Lee SR, Collins K. Physical and functional coupling of RNA-dependent RNA polymerase and Dicer in the biogenesis of endogenous siRNAs. (2007) Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. 14(7):604-10.

Lee SR, Collins K. Two classes of endogenous small RNAs in Tetrahymena thermophila. (2006) Genes and Development. 20(1):28-33.

Lee SR, Collins K. Starvation-induced cleavage of the tRNA anticodon loop in Tetrahymena thermophila. (2005) Journal of Biological Chemistry. 280(52):42744-9.