BYU chemistry professor Milton Lee co-founded three companies and filed more than 30 patents in his 35 years at the university, but he still considers his work with students his greatest accomplishment.
“What I recognized a long time ago, when I first came to BYU, is that a lot of these students are brighter and more creative than I am,” Lee said. “The best thing I could do was provide the environment they needed.”
More than 100 scientists from all across the world, Lee’s former students, gathered in Provo over the weekend to celebrate their former professor’s 65th birthday with a special symposium and reunion held in his name. The event, according to symposium chair Doug Later, allowed Lee’s students to share their research and accomplishments with their former professor, as well as recognize the work Lee has accomplished during his time at BYU.
Lee came to BYU in 1976, after spending a year conducting post-graduate research at MIT. Before MIT, Lee earned a B.A. in chemistry and a Ph.D. in analytic chemistry at Indiana University.
While at BYU, Lee co-founded three companies to manufacture lab instrumentation he developed, in addition to filing more than 30 patents and publishing numerous papers. Lee is now recognized as BYU’s H. Tracy Hall professor of chemistry.
About 50 of Lee’s former students, who traveled from as far as Finland and Taiwan, arrived at the Hinckley Center Friday morning to share presentations about the work they have accomplished since finishing their graduate or post-graduate training with Lee. Many of the presentations touched on how Lee’s former students have applied chromatography and mass spectrometry, technologies Lee helped to improve, to diverse scientific fields, and all shared a common theme of gratitude for the professor who encouraged his students to develop new scientific ideas.
“What I learned from him and his life has improved my research ability in my current work,” said Miao Wang, one of Lee’s former students at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in Orlando, Fla., who is currently researching the composition of lipids.
Other Friday morning speakers included Iulia Lazar, one of Lee’s former students who is now working at Virginia Tech developing a technique for detecting cancer using mass spectrometry, and Later, who is also the president of Torion Technologies, a company Lee founded to develop handheld mass spectrometers.
Mike Alder, director of office technology transfer at BYU, called Lee BYU’s most prolific inventor.
“I’m a botanist by training and didn’t get the opportunity to be Milt’s student, but I am a long-time admirer,” Alder said.
In addition to the presentations, the symposium included reunion-type events, including a picnic and a 5k race in honor of Lee’s fondness for running, and a fundraiser for the Milton L. Lee Associates Endowment in Analytical Chemistry, a scholarship for graduate students studying analytical chemistry.
The symposium’s participants are also producing a special issue of The Journal of Chromatography that will focus on the contributions Lee and his students have made to the field.