Joslynn Lee grew up in Farmington, New Mexico, a town bordering the Navajo Nation, where her grandparents lived. As a child, she enjoyed exploring the open land on the reservation, learning about local plants, and caring for animals, all activities that sparked her interest in science. When she first started school at her local community college, Lee pursued a premedical major, inspired in part by the show ER. After a semester of chemistry, though, “I was surprised by all the different applications,” she says. An enthusiastic general chemistry professor at Fort Lewis College piqued her interest even further. While taking organic chemistry, “I got really excited because we were doing a natural dyes lab, and I could bring in the local plants that my grandmother used,” she says. Lee started to seriously consider a career in chemistry.
An interest in instrumentation led Lee to pursue a position as an analytical chemist at Vertex Pharmaceuticals. “When I was at Vertex, I met these awesome computational chemists,” she says. She became interested in drug discovery and learned about nearby Northeastern University’s part-time PhD program for industry chemists. But she enjoyed teaching and ultimately committed to the program full-time so she could work with undergraduates. As a Native American chemist, “I was highly encouraged to think about academia when I was in grad school” to increase representation, she says.
Lee started a postdoc at the University of Minnesota Medical School, during which she volunteered to help faculty analyze their next-generation sequencing data. The institution was not a good fit, though, and she ended up leaving early. But her computational experience set her up for her next position as a data science educator at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. There, she trained undergrad faculty to incorporate computational biology and chemistry into their curricula and traveled the US visiting institutions and training faculty. “It was an awesome experience that drew me back into academia,” she says. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) soon recruited her to develop an undergraduate research experience about analyzing microbial communities.
This past fall, Lee returned to Fort Lewis College, this time as an assistant professor. So far, she has taught general chemistry and biotechnology and incorporated the course she’d built for HHMI. “It was pretty cool to see everything I’d built in the past 2½ years,” Lee says. She’s happy to be only an hour from her family and looks forward to continuing research on microbial communities in the San Juan River, which runs near the college and also touches the Navajo Nation. Lee is proud to use her unique background to show her students, many of whom come from underrepresented and indigenous backgrounds, that they can work their way up to prestigious institutions. She says, “I’m excited just to be back in the area and get a lot of folks excited about chemistry.”