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    Airman Balances Many Roles

    Airman Balances Many Roles

    Photo By Staff Sgt. Megan Shepherd | Lt. Col. (Dr.) Peter Lee, a surgeon at the 179th Airlift Wing, Mansfield, Ohio, holds...... read more read more



    Story by Senior Airman Megan Shepherd 

    179th Airlift Wing

    Most young people dream of what they want to be when they grow up, but a lot of times these things are unrealistic or they just grow out of it as they get older. That was not the case for one young man in particular. His passions from a very young age would drive what he would do for the rest of his life.

    “I have always been fascinated with rockets and airplanes ever since I was a little kid,” said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Peter Lee, a surgeon at the 179th Airlift Wing, Mansfield, Ohio.

    He has always had a love for science, engineering, medicine and space. This combination of interests led him to become a physician, a surgeon, a professor, an Airman, and a researcher who flies experiments in space.

    Lee grew up in Montreal, Canada, where high school only went up to grade 11, so he decided to come to the U.S. to attend grade 12. After that, he applied to a handful of universities and colleges and got accepted to Brown University and their 8-year medical program. It was guaranteed medical school admission out of high school, so he decided to stay here.

    “I’ve always had an interest in space, that’s kind of the one constant throughout childhood and now,” said Lee. “I became interested in medicine in high school and when I applied to the combined program at Brown, I had decided I wanted to do medicine as a career.”

    However, Lee knew he was not going to be satisfied just doing that, but he knew at least as a foundation he wanted to be a physician. He thought he would also do something related to engineering or science research. That evolved as he went through college and medical school.

    He said his educational path was a little unorthodox as he’s done multiple degrees at different times at several different institutions.

    Lee started his military career a little over four years ago. He said he would like to stay in at least twenty years, but ultimately do as much as he can and serve as long as he can.

    “I’m sure I would have joined much earlier if I had the chance,” said Lee. “As a Canadian, when I came, it took me 22 years to get my U.S. citizenship. Essentially, I had to wait until I was able to get through that process to join.”

    Lee’s interest in the military was specifically aviation and the Air Force. It was related to his overall interest in aerospace.

    “Being a physician, it made sense to try and blend those areas of interest,” said Lee, “which is why I joined the Air Force with the intention of eventually becoming a flight surgeon.”

    Some of his biggest role models were astronauts. He has had the opportunity to meet several astronauts throughout his career, but John Glenn and Neil Armstrong, both Ohioans, in particular have been inspirations to him.

    “I had the opportunity to have a sit down with John Glenn and his wife when he came to Brown University to receive an honorary degree,” said Lee. “At that point, I had just finished an experiment as a graduate student that flew on his mission in 1998 on STS-95.”

    So, it is ironic that Lee ended up on faculty at The Ohio State University where John Glenn was living right nearby.

    “Right now, I’m an assistant professor in surgery at The Ohio State University doing adult cardiac surgery which includes heart and lung transplants and the full gambit of adult cardiac surgery, bypasses and valves,” said Lee. “I also have a research lab, mostly surrounding tissue engineering and regenerative medicine. A lot of it has to do with skeletal muscle and cardiac physiology and research related to space, how space flight affects the heart and the muscles and what we can do to treat that.”

    If Lee were to deploy with the Guard, he would be deploying as a surgeon, dealing with general surgical issues and trauma. While on base, he is also serving as the chief of clinical services, overseeing a lot of the clinical activities of the medical unit here.

    “What I do in my civilian career is very different than what I do here, but I think they’re very complimentary,” said Lee.

    “Aviation and space is something that I always wanted to keep as part of what I do regardless of what my main career is,” said Lee. “So as a surgeon I had to be a little creative in terms of how to find a way to maintain my interest in aviation medicine and space biology research.”

    Lee said he is very fortunate to have found a place where he can do it all.

    “How I’ve done that is to get involved with the professional organizations that focus in those areas,” said Lee. “The Aerospace Medical Association is the main organization for professionals in aviation medicine, and I’ve been going to that meeting for over twenty years and I am a member of the executive council. Even though I was not practicing aviation medicine for most of that time, I’ve been working with those who do it all the time, so that was my opportunity to learn a little bit more about the field and work with professionals in the field and advance in the organization.”

    He has also done over 10 microgravity experiments on NASA’s zero gravity airplane and was a medical crew member for a Mars simulation in the Canadian artic. He has also had the opportunity to be either the principle investigator or the coinvestigator of two international space station experiments. One looking at how the space environment affects fruit fly hearts and the other looking at the effects of space flight on stem cell derived cardiac cells.

    “I also have a NASA grant that’s going to launch an experiment in the Spring of 2019, looking at how space flight or the microgravity environment affects muscle cells. That is going to launch with Blue Origin on their New Shepard suborbital rocket.”

    Recently, he also got an NIH grant and another NASA grant for two more experiments.

    NASA’s main focus now from the human spaceflight program standpoint is to get humans to Mars and back safely. There are a lot of medical barriers with that. In addition to what we traditionally know as being significant physiological impairments from space flight, such as muscle loss and bone loss, there are also neurovestibular changes and psychological issues. One of the things that is not as big of an issue in orbital space flight as it would be for a Mars mission, is the effects of radiation. There’s still much we don’t know about how radiation is going to affect the cardiovascular system. There is currently more research and experiments taking place for radiation specifically.

    Working with students is also an area of particular interest for Lee, because it’s an opportunity for him to give back to the community and share his passions with young people. Last spring, he was able to do a three-month program at Eli Pinney Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio, where the students learned about the space environment and went through the process of how to design an experiment. They decided to do an experiment with Jelly Fish that is actually going to launch on the same rocket as Lee’s own NASA experiment in April of 2019.

    “We actually designed a mission patch and a challenge coin,” said Lee. “The students came up with the design and then we made it into a patch and also a challenge coin that is a similar design.”

    All the students got them. “Team Jellies” was what they called it and JELLIES is actually an acronym for jellyfish experiment to learn about life in the environment of space.
    The students also each drew a picture that's going to launch with the experiment and they're going to get their picture back as a souvenir, so essentially, they’ll get back the picture they drew that has flown in space. They had a graduation event at the end of the program where retired NASA astronaut and retired Air Force Col. Gregory Johnson came and gave a talk at the event and stayed after for pictures and autographs.

    “We’re actually working on a grant now to do something similar with the Columbus City Schools,” said Lee, “especially trying to reach out to under-served areas and really encourage students to get excited about science, math, and other STEM fields by using the opportunity to experiment in space.”

    The program at Eli Pinney was kind of a pilot for this grant that Lee has always wanted to do, so now that they've completed it and it was successful, hopefully they’ll have the opportunity to get this grant.

    Lee said one of the biggest challenges for him has been time management.

    “I’m quite busy with my work,” said Lee. “I’m really grateful to my family for giving me the opportunity to do all this, because it takes away time from them.”

    According to Lee, trying to balance his clinical work as a surgeon and his research and the meetings and travelling that go with that, and the time he devotes to being in the Guard, and balancing that with his family and other obligations is the most difficult part.

    “I’m very fortunate to be able to do all the things I love,” said Lee.

    He is able to practice medicine and more specifically surgery.

    “It's one of the most rewarding fields,” said Lee. “We’re literally saving lives on almost a daily basis.”

    He gets to work on patients who are usually given only months to live, and then see those people wake up and leave the hospital and have a renewed lease on life.

    “At the same time, I’m able to do research on a fundamental level and hopefully some of that work will be able to have a broader impact, so not only have an impact on individual lives, but also have an impact on the science field as a whole.”

    And on top of all that, he gets to serve in the Ohio Air National Guard on the weekends.

    “It’s an incredible opportunity to serve the country that I’ve lived in for my entire adult life and sought out citizenship in,” said Lee. “I have had the opportunity to give back and do what I really love, which is to fly and be in this environment working with great people.”



    Date Taken: 12.30.2018
    Date Posted: 12.31.2018 18:24
    Story ID: 305791
    Location: MANSFIELD , OH, US 

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