James Lee
James Lee
Dr. James Lee, a chemical engineering professor for almost 30 years, passed away in April from lung cancer.

Lee’s research into cancer treatments may have played a role in ultimately extending his own life, says Jim Petersen, director of the Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering.

Lee, who was a non-smoker, conducted research in using tobacco leaves to produce proteins used in cancer treatment, producing tobacco cell cultures that contained mammalian proteins. The researchers chose the tobacco leaf because it was fast-growing and had been extensively studied, not realizing the irony of their choice until later. In particular, the researchers produced proteins used for communication between blood cells and for the production of colonies of white blood cells, both of which are thought to play a role in immune response. They also produced a protein that could be used in diagnostic laboratory tests.

Lee hoped that the use of the plant-based protein production would lead to less expensive and more effective cancer treatments.

Not only a researcher while at WSU, Lee also enjoyed teaching and maintained a focus on his students. He wrote a well-used textbook on biochemical reaction engineering.

“Despite his struggles with cancer, he was engaged in the classroom with students until a few weeks ago,” said Candis Claiborn, dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture. “Many students have expressed how much he cared about them and that, from him, they learned the essence of chemical engineering and the importance of the spiritual, intellectual, artistic, and interpersonal aspects of a balanced life.”

Lee, who was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1946, received his master’s degree there in chemical engineering. With his wife, Inn Soo Sohn, and his daughter, Young Jean, he came to the United States in 1976. He received his doctorate from the University of Kentucky and began teaching at WSU in 1983.

Read James M. Lee’s obituary at WSU Today