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In 1989, Trotwood native Kenneth Lee IV beat out his older sister, Tiana, in the district spelling bee. Today, he’s a surgeon and assistant professor of surgery at the Hospital of Pennsylvania, specializing in gastrointestinal surgery.
Although he admits that it’s a leap to link a grade school spelling bee to his career, he does think, “Those people, including myself, presumably had a desire to be good at what they were doing and some kind of a knack for academics.” As for beating out his sister, he said, “The opponent was just the word.”
Today Lee’s opponent is cancer, and he participated in the recent Congressional briefing and panel on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., as part of President Obama’s Moonshot Initiative to accelerate cancer research.
Tiana became a lawyer, worked on Capital Hill to advise on health care policy and Obamacare, later working as a senior health policy analyst for the government. She recently took a job at the University of Michigan as a health policy lawyer.
“It’s not often that two kids from Dayton have followed paths that allow them to help the president of the U.S.,” said their father, Trotwood dentist Major Kenneth Lee III. Their mother, Valerie, is a retired psychologist.
Lee IV credits his father, who helped develop the Wright State University Horizons in Medicine Program, as a motivating factor in his success.
“From the time that my sister and I were young,” he says, “we read and studied science far above our level. It probably predisposed me to some kind of a career in science, though that wasn’t a mandate.”
Lee participated in Horizons in Medicine while a student at Miami Valley School, and earned his MD and Ph.D at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Kenneth is now a surgeon who treats the most difficult kinds of liver and pancreatic cancers,” said his father.
Early this year President Obama announced the Moonshot Initiative, calling on Vice President Joe Biden to lead the Cancer Moonshot Task Force. Lee was identified by members of the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) to take part in that initiative, and he received a $50,000 AARC research grant.
“A few other young investigators and I were elected to take part in the briefing,” said Lee. “I’d like to think of myself as a translational researcher — somebody whose interest is taking findings from the lab to the clinical venue.”
The 39-year-old says, “It is an exciting time in cancer research. As a surgeon, we have made a substantial amount of progress in doing fairly complicated operations safely. That’s a major part of my job.
“From a nonsurgical standpoint, we have for years treated cancers with broad-scaled, toxic therapies that have some efficacy but aren’t specifically designed for one individual. We are starting to understand what makes one patient’s cancer different from another’s and to target the therapy to the individual patient rather than to the cancer. That is something that seems simple but took quite a while to actualize,” Lee said.
“My goal is to keep taking care of people to the best of my ability from all standpoints. I’m confident that I’ll be happy with wherever that takes me,” Lee said.