A Winding Life Through Science:

Virginia Man-Yee Lee recounts her inspiring journey into becoming a lead researcher of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases

A Winding Life Through Science:

Virginia Man-Yee Lee recounts her inspiring journey into becoming a lead researcher of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases

About the Film

When Virginia Man-Yee Lee., Ph.D., was growing up in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, her parents had certain expectations for their daughter that did not include a career in academics and especially science. But Lee felt an inescapable pull to science. Challenging stereotypes at the time of what a Chinese woman could accomplish, she became a leading researcher of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. In this film,  Lee recounts her inspiring journey made possible by her determination, positive outlook, resilience, and hard work.

Short Films Health & MedicineScience Identity Transcript

Virginia Man-Yee Lee, Ph.D.: My scientific career is very checkered.

Yeah, and you know Asian families. I mean they really don’t like the daughters to wear pants, you know? And particularly my mother’s generation, I mean they’re very old fashioned. She said “You know, you’re so tall and you are just you know so dominant and you know you like to be in charge and no men will wanna marry you.”

But as a woman you really need to ask yourself, “What do you wanna do? What do you like to do?” And you’ve gotta pursue that.

In Hong Kong I had the opportunity to compete for this tough school in high school and I was accepted and I was delighted, except that everything was taught in English. I looked around the class and I said, “Well they’re better than me in English.” But I said to myself, “Well, we all have the equal opportunity for science.”

In that high school I realized that I have a good affinity for the sciences and for math, but my mother didn’t want me to go into sciences so she sent me to the Royal Academy of Music in London to study piano when I was 16.

I really didn’t like playing the piano. I mean I have no talent to be a concert pianist and I don’t wanna teach little kids playing piano. That’s not a good way to make a living for me. When I decided I wanna drop out, I said to my mother, I said, “I’m gonna apply to university and to study chemistry.”

Virginia Man-Yee Lee, Ph.D.

And so I did. I got in and you know I got into university, and so my mother at that point and you know and my father said, “Well you gotta you know, support her.” 

But you know as a woman and being Asian and, particularly in those days in the sixties, not having role models and not having really people around me to tell me that, “You know, you’re pretty smart. You can do this stuff.” I really just sort of bumbled along.

And I thought okay people get their PhD and so I finished my PhD and at that point I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was developing an interest in neuroscience. And the brain sort of is fascinating and it fascinates me. So I applied for a postdoc at the children’s hospital in Boston. My boss, actually he was not that smart and I was not so interested. And so didn’t think I wanted a job in academia.

At that time I already met my husband John and he transferred his residency from BMG to Penn. And then because I needed a job, I needed to move to Philadelphia. I said, “Well, maybe I’ll get a job in industry.” So that’s how I end up in Smith Kline.

I was at Smith Kline for a year and I hated it. My boss don’t know any science! I mean (she laughs), they don’t know what’s going on. So after one year I was bitching and moaning and John said either you shut up or you get out.

At that time his boss said to me, “Well if you get a grant then you come work here.” So I got two grants like within a year. And so I have a position. But at the same time during that period, I was enrolled at the Wharton School for an Executive MBA. 

And so I did all of that all at once. So I said to myself, “If I can do that, I should be able to be successful in science for crying out loud!”

My husband John is a neuropathologist and I’m a biochemist. And we developed this pipeline doing research on neurodegenerative diseases and built up this program at Penn. I got grants, I got promoted, and then eventually they gave me an Endowed Chair.

Virginia Man-Yee Lee, Ph.D.

Now I mentor graduate students and postdocs and, you know, fellows. It’s so important because I never really had much of a role model. Working in science is difficult to do, but my scientific career worked out really well. It’s really keeping me from aging quickly.

Producers: Kevin McLean, Lee Rossoff

Cinematographer/Sound: Kevin Flanigan, Syd Redmond

Editor: Lee Rossoff

Graphics: Chris George, Maggie Hubbard

Associate Producer: Shelley Elizabeth Carter

Executive Producers: Shannon Behrman, Sarah Goodwin, Elliot Kirschner