If ever students find themselves wandering the halls of Walters Life Sciences, chances are they have seen Melissa Lee, a junior in College Scholars with a focus on integrated neuroscience. Lee admits she is there more than any person should be.
"I spend most of my time in Walters because I have classes upstairs or I'm down in the lab, all the time," she said. "My free time is either spent doing research or homework."
Lee explores circadian rhythms and the disorders dealing with circadian rhythms that come about as a result of the misfiring of proteins in the brain. She said that, although she once planned on becoming a teacher, she found herself involved in research as a rising high school junior.
"I started doing research the summer after my sophomore year of high school at Vanderbilt," Lee said. "I actually hated it at first, but it has become what I want to do for sure. ... I want to go and do academia and do research."
Lee hopes to merge fields not traditionally combined in the scientific and medical communities, such as neuroscience and philosophy or poetry and psychology. Although some courses are a given in the field, she explained, combining these vastly different courses will hopefully give her a wider understanding of the brain.
A first-generation student born to immigrant parents, Lee has a unique perspective on the value of hard work. After losing her father to cancer at age 11 and seeing her mother battle the disease as well, Lee refuses to overlook the opportunities she has.
"Don't take your time for granted," she said. "If you can do it, do it. If you can't do it, do it anyway. Push yourself, because if you are not pushing yourself, if you're not at your limit, then you can always do more."
This refusal to waste time was reinforced by the former director of the Chancellor's Honors and Haslam Scholars Programs, Dr. Stephen Dandaneau. As a member of the third class of Haslam Scholars, Lee said the program lit a fire under her.
"Dr. Dandaneau basically told us that the weight of the world was on our shoulders and we were responsible for it," she laughed. "And that really pushed me into doing things — that was actually what got me and Mark Remec talking about starting our undergraduate research symposium."
On March 16, Lee and Remec, also a College Scholar, will host the 4th annual Undergraduate Research Symposium. The event provides students the opportunity to participate in research and present oral presentations on their subjects. The newly appointed vice chancellor for research and engagement, Taylor Eighmy, will serve as the keynote speaker.
"In the past," Lee explained, "it was an honor's symposium, restricted to honor students, but this year we opened it up to everyone. We're hoping to make it a much bigger event, and maybe even start inviting other schools."
Through working closely with Lee, Remec has experienced firsthand Lee's conviction to push herself.
"She cares a lot about making this symposium the best it can be," Remec said. "She wants to make it worth everyone's time."
Despite her impressive academic achievements, Lee said she does not necessarily "have it all together." She struggles with time management and mentioned that all the hard work does take a hit on her social life.
Still, the ambitious Lee continues to feel the burn of the fire to enact change. Her most recent undertaking, UTK Swipes for the Homeless, aims to bring an international 501(c)3 organization to UT. The program provides a means to convert unused student dining dollars and meals to much needed food for the local homeless. Although the program is still in its beginning stages, Lee has hope.
With a work ethic like hers, it seems that nothing — not cancer, research symposiums or even the hunger of the homeless — is too much to handle. It just may require a little more time in Walters Life Sciences; don't be surprised if you see her there.