Iona College’s ‘Project Symphony’ Forges a Collaborative Path for Undergraduate Research

Sunghee Lee, Ph.D., Iona College Board of Trustees endowed chemistry professor, established the scientific research group Project Symphony to enhance the fundamental understanding of cell membranes and help engineer new bio-inspired devices. For nearly two decades, various Iona STEM majors have worked side-by-side with Lee to perform groundbreaking research, setting students well on their way to both successful careers and more advanced degrees. In recognition of her many contributions to undergraduate research, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) has named Dr. Lee as a 2022 CUR Fellows award recipient.

“I created Project Symphony to conduct research at the interface of chemistry, biology, physics and medicine with a highly dynamic group of interdisciplinary team members,” said Lee. “The name Project Symphony came from the idea that all of our group members work together in harmony to achieve shared goals. We recruit members who have a passion for innovation, excellence, the relentless pursuit of success and the ability to collaborate and work as a team.”

Presented every other year, the CUR Fellows award is a signal of honor, recognizing a sustained record of research excellence, characterized by activities ranging from extensive mentoring of undergraduate researchers, achievements of significant research outcomes and leading efforts to institutionalize undergraduate research both on campus and across the nation. As a CUR Fellow, Dr. Lee will have the opportunity to oversee a Brian Andreen-CUR Student Research Fellowship at Iona College. This $5,000 award constitutes a gift to Iona College to support the undergraduate research program. CUR anticipates making the formal gift to the campus in Spring 2022.

“Receiving this recognition from CUR is in every way a testament to the power of undergraduate research, and especially, to my students, without whom I would not be here today,” said Dr. Lee. “Their dedication to science truly propels me, and we act to motivate each other to extend the boundaries of what is known in Chemistry.” Lee’s laboratory uses the techniques of surface chemistry and biophysics, and currently features the following active research programs:

  • Building artificial mimics of cell membranes: The group builds artificial mimics of cell membranes, both to improve the fundamental understanding of cell membranes, and to engineer new devices inspired by nature. For example, by contacting water droplets immersed in a solution of lipids in oil, the group has developed droplet interface bilayers as a platform with unique advantages to help achieve their goals.
  • Studying drug-membrane interactions: The group uses Confocal Raman Spectroscopy, Differential Scanning Calorimetry, Electrophysiology, and Tensiometry to learn about the detailed molecular structure of lipid membranes and its structural changes upon its interaction with other molecules such as drugs, cholesterol, proteins, and nanomaterials. Several of these studies take place in collaboration with other laboratories in Japan and Italy.
  • Crystal engineering: The group creates self-assembled structures of molecules at a soft water-oil interface to design the structure of technologically important functional materials and crystals for their use in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and food industries.

Project Symphony was also featured in the scientific journal, “The Biophysicist,” highlighting their work in the peer-reviewed article titled, “Project Symphony: A Biophysics Research Experience at a Primarily Undergraduate Institution.” The article presents practices demonstrating that early exposure to the interdisciplinary field of biophysics can be effectively introduced at a primarily undergraduate institution through a well-structured research plan involving undergraduates with different STEM majors.

Shortly after this achievement, a blog post from the “Biophysical Society” was published, highlighting Project Symphony and sharing its success in creating an impactful four-year undergraduate research program.

“It is my honor to congratulate Dr. Lee on this prestigious award and recognize the many accomplishments of Project Symphony,” said Iona College President Seamus Carey, Ph.D. “Dr. Lee consistently goes above and beyond in her dedication to both Iona and our students. It shows not only in the results that emanate from her lab, but also in the passion that her students bring to their work and their lives beyond the classroom. I know the best is still to come as we continue to elevate the Iona experience.”

Written by: Diana Costello, Iona College

Founded in 1978, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) focuses on providing high-quality and collaborative undergraduate research, scholarly, and creative activity. Among the many activities and networking opportunities that CUR provides, the organization also offers support for the professional growth of faculty and administrators through expert-designed institutes, conferences, and a wide-range of volunteer positions. The CUR community, made up of nearly 700 institutions and 13,000 individuals, continues to provide a platform for discussion and other resources related to mentoring, connecting, and creating relationships centered around undergraduate research. CUR’s advocacy efforts are also a large portion of its work as they strive to strengthen support for undergraduate research. Its continued growth in connections with representatives, private foundations, government agencies, and campuses world-wide provides value to its members and gives voice to undergraduate research. CUR is committed to inclusivity and diversity in all of its activities and our community.

CUR focuses on giving a voice to undergraduate research with learning through doing. It provides connections to a multitude of campuses and government agencies, all while promoting networking and professional growth to its community.