Find Work You Enjoy in Life Advises Acclaimed NASA Scientist
Image of Timothy Lee.
Image of Timothy Lee.
Photo Credit: NASA Ames Research Center
Timothy Lee joined NASA to be a part of its world-class computational chemistry research. Since then, he has achieved his own world-class recognition for his many outstanding contributions in the field.

Recognized by The World Association of Theoretical and Computational Chemists, Lee was awarded the Dirac Medal in 1998, as "the outstanding computational chemist in the world under the age of 40." Among his other awards and honors, he is one of 15 NASA scientists who have been elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Like many scientists and employees at NASA Ames Research Center, Lee was not always a Californian.

Lee was born and raised on the outskirts of Denver, Colo., the middle child of three brothers. From eight years old, he remembers shoveling snow off sidewalks in the cold, mowing lawns, and delivering newspapers to earn a buck. By the time he reached middle school, however, he worked at the local middle school, which he wasn't attending.

"I remember shoveling snow at dawn in the cold at my neighborhood school, and leaving to catch the bus to go to my school on the other side of town. Those were the days of court-ordered bussing," Lee recalled.

A few years later but nearer home, Lee attended Abraham Lincoln High School. He was fortunate to have had an excellent chemistry teacher who made a difference in his life and career choice. During his senior year, the teacher recognized Lee's talent by nominating him for the American Chemical Society High School Chemistry Award, which Lee won. Lee's high school career also placed him in Who's Who Among American High School Students. By the end of high school, he didn't know exactly what he wanted to do with his life, but he knew he wanted to be involved in scientific research.

"Neither of my parents graduated from college. In our area, the only person who had a college education was a Lutheran minister," explained Lee.

After high school, he attended the Colorado School of Mines, because it was one of the best technical universities in Colorado, and he was awarded scholarships. Later as a graduate student, he discovered that he had clocked more time in the laboratory than most undergraduates from other schools. The experience helped him select chemistry as his major, and start thinking about continuing his education to earn a Ph.D. Two college chemistry professors helped him sort out his career choices, making recommendations to help him along the way. By the end of his junior year, he applied for and received the Lando Fellowship at the University of Minnesota, a summer research program designed to give students the opportunity to work in a laboratory under the direction of a faculty member.

"During that summer, I found that I did not want to do experimental laboratory research while working on my Ph.D. I later discovered that I liked working with computers modeling chemical reactions and characterizing molecules," continued Lee.

Ready to pursue chemistry research as a career, Lee selected the University of California at Berkeley for his graduate work. Lee and his advisors started looking at small molecules to predict their spectra that were of interest to astronomers. At the time, he identified one of the first ringed organic molecules observed in the interstellar medium. He performed calculations that explained inconsistencies in laboratory work that had been performed at a university in Germany, and he published a paper on the results. Their work aided the identification of the first small ringed organic compound in the interstellar medium, which occurred a couple of years later.

Always looking for more computer time, he started collaborating with scientists at NASA Ames Research Center to use the new Cray super computers, and came to know the members of the Computational Chemistry Branch. After almost two years at the University of Cambridge as a National Science Foundation/National Atlantic Treaty Organization postdoctoral Fellow, Lee returned to California to work at NASA Ames as a contractor in the Computational Chemistry Branch.

"Ultimately, I wanted to go into some kind of scientific research, and NASA was the best place for that type of research," said Lee.

As chance would have it, NASA Ames' computational chemists were performing cutting-edge research using super computers to test and develop new materials for re-entry into the atmosphere. In less than one year, Lee became a civil servant member of the Computational Chemistry Branch, which is where he worked his first 13 years of federal service. In 2005, Lee took the brave step into NASA management, becoming Chief of the Astrophysics Branch within the Space Science and Astrobiology Division. In 2007, he was named Acting Division Chief of the Space Science and Astrobiology Division.

When asked what type of advice he would give others just starting their careers, he said, "You are going to be working for along time, so you had better find something you enjoy."

Ruth Dasso Marlaire
Public Affairs Specialist
NASA Ames Research Center