Spotlight on Stanley Lee

Mentorship as a Key to Better, Timelier, Life-Changing Blood Cell Research

Stanley Lee, Blood Cancer Researcher

For Dr. Stanley Lee, science doesn’t have to be a work of art. More than anything, the blood cancer researcher at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center believes research needs to be collaborative, precise and — most important — without delay, especially in cancer where, ultimately, research can save lives.

Lee attributes these lessons learned to his mentors, who have emphasized throughout his career the traits that make a good researcher.

“In undergrad I had a mentor that stressed the importance of good data, in postgrad I really dug in and learned about teamwork, and then when I started my postdoc work, that’s when I really learned about being timely,” said Lee, who studies blood cell development and the dysregulation that can lead to cancers such as leukemia. “Mentors are important because they give you both time and patience, and a chance to fail.”

It was during his postdoctoral fellowship that the need to be prompt came into focus. At the time Lee believed that the most pragmatic experiments were the ones that would be the most important. It was through his own failure and release of the need for perfection that his focused widened and he realized the true qualities of the most consequential work.

“I really started to understand that to have the most impactful experiment, you don’t have to have the perfect design. Science doesn’t always have to be beautiful or perfect,” Lee said. “It’s even more important to be timely.”

This lesson was the last he would learn before becoming a mentor himself.

Dr. Stanley Lee in his lab
Dr. Stanley Lee studies the molecular basis of blood cell development and how its dysregulation can lead to hematologic malignancies such as myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS) and acute myeloid leukemia (AML). Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

In 2020, Lee joined the faculty at Fred Hutch to continue his work. What he didn’t know at the time was the experiences from earlier in his career would be put to the test as he officially started up his lab in January, two months before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I learned to be patient and resilient, and I leaned on my past experiences,” Lee said of his first few months at Fred Hutch where the insights gained from his mentors continued to arise as he dealt with new challenges.

Even though his lab was slow to start up because of COVID-19, Lee hopes to be a good leader for his team and to pass along everything he has learned to the young researchers he now mentors.

The stereotype of a scientist working in isolation doesn’t fit for Lee, who believes that a strong team that is dedicated to working together makes so much more possible.

And together, Lee and his team can be part of the larger scientific community that is using all their combined knowledge and skills to find new solutions for people facing cancer — people who have no time to waste as they face a deadly threat.

“We all know someone or have known someone who has cancer,” Lee said. “There are many people suffering from leukemia, and this is something I can help with.”

“I’m no longer working by myself; my lab is growing and it's inspiring to see my mentees growing and becoming better scientists.”

His research focuses on hematopoiesis, the process of blood cell creation and the basic regulatory processes of stem cells.

By understanding the fundamental nature of blood cell creation, Lee’s research can focus on how mutations arise. Hematologic malignancies, or cancers of the blood, are the result of these mutations. Through studying both the normal and abnormal, he can help us better understand how cancers will progress and respond to treatment.

With the advent of new technologies, Lee is studying the blood system at even higher resolutions. He believes that so much is unknown because it is hidden on the cellular level, which means technology and computational tools like AI and data analytics are key to new knowledge.

“Bone marrow transplantation is one of the most important innovations in our research, but in reality, a lot of patients don’t qualify for a bone marrow transplant which means they rely on other therapies and treatment options,” Lee said.

Bone marrow transplantation is a standard treatment for advanced cancers of the blood that was pioneered by Fred Hutch researchers. Lee hopes that the work his lab is doing can eventually lead to better therapies as well as combinations of therapies.

Lee believes that mentorship is key to making that happen. By strengthening his team, together they can pave the way for improved treatment of blood cancers.

“I’m no longer working by myself; my lab is growing and it's inspiring to see my mentees growing and becoming better scientists.” Lee said, “Without them the research direction wouldn’t be as advanced as it’s become. We’re working hard.” 

— By Kat Wynn, May 27, 2022


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