25 Faces 25 Years: Lee C. Dolat
By Daaimah S. Etheridge
Photo by Charles Shan Cerrone ’13
February 02, 2017
Lee Dolat has worked as a research technician at Harvard Medical School, contributed and authored articles for The Journal of Cell Biology and the Encyclopedia of Cell Biology, and become the first student in the history of Drexel’s Department of Biology to secure the esteemed Ruth L. Kirschstein pre-doctoral fellowship award from the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health. And that’s all before he’s even defended his PhD thesis.
Possessing an easygoing and remarkably humble demeanor, Dolat could be described as one of the rising stars in cellular and molecular biology research.
In his fifth and final year as a graduate student in Drexel’s PhD program in biology, Dolat spends hours inside the lab of Elias Spiliotis, PhD, studying the interaction of septins — a complex family of proteins — and their association with cancers.
“Specifically, we look at how cells form their shapes and how we can manipulate them. It’s really incredible work,” he says.
Dolat grew up in Connecticut, the middle of five siblings. His mother is a retired teacher who taught the hearing impaired. His father is a Navy veteran who works in health care. After graduating from the University of Connecticut with a degree in molecular and cell biology, Dolat was unsure of his next step until he landed a job at 454 Life Sciences, a biotechnology company outside of New Haven, Connecticut.
“They were on the cusp of the next generation of genome sequencing,” Dolat says. For a year and a half, he ran the company’s DNA sequencing machines as a research technician. The experience was good but the work grew repetitive, and in the summer of 2008, he quit his job, moved to Boston and began proactively contacting professors at different universities.
“I sent out numerous emails that went into detail about each professor’s research. It was difficult, and it took a lot of effort, organization and patience,” recalls Dolat.
His hard work and persistence paid off, though. He found a position as a research technician at the Center of Computational and Integrative Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital, the largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. There, he studied metabolism disorders using genetically modified mice to identify how specific genes were related to human disease.
“It was a really good starting point and my first introduction to academic science,” Dolat says.
After two years at Mass General, armed with glowing recommendations and a newfound fascination with epithelial biology, Dolat began searching for graduate programs. He received offers from several reputable programs and chose Drexel and the lab of Spiliotis.
“I distinctly remember Lee’s personal essay, as he stated that he enjoyed spending his Saturdays in the lab,” recalls Spiliotis. “What impressed me most about Lee is how quickly he got up to speed with a field of research that was quite different from what his lab was doing at the time.”
Together, the two have studied the function of the septin cytoskeleton in kidney epithelial cells. Their research has led to publications in the Journal of Cell Biology and the Journal of Molecular Biology.
“Lee is currently finishing one more first-author research paper,” Spiliotis says. “When he graduates, he will have six publications under his belt — in just five years — and a prestigious fellowship. That’s exceptional productivity for a biology PhD student.”
Lee remains driven in his final year as a PhD candidate. He’s served as a board member and president of the Biology Graduate Student Association, organized events that promote science literacy and career development, and was an active participant in the journal clubs of the Pennsylvania Muscle Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. He plans to defend his thesis, submit another paper by the end of the year, and interview for post-doc positions during the fall.
“I’m not thrilled to leave Philadelphia, but I know that I have to,” he says with a sigh, noting that he fell in love with the city over the years — the great food, affordability and abundant culture.
“I moved to Philadelphia and didn’t know anybody. I had to find my way here, but it has been a really great experience,” Lee says. “There’s been a lot of personal growth. Graduate school is a good time for you to explore your own ideas. I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to do that.”
This article originally appeared in the College of Arts and Sciences' Ask magazine feature story, "25 Faces, 25 Years." For more Ask stories, visit askmagazine.org.