“Failure is not the end, it is the beginning”

She is Director of the Center for Operations Research in Medicine and HealthCare, Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, and Distinguished Scholar in Health Systems, Health System Institute, Georgia Tech/Emory University. An interview with Eva Lee about mathematics, passion and planning. “You never have enough time. You have to make the time yourself.”

What did you study?
My undergraduate degree in pure mathematics comes from Hong Kong Baptist University. I did a minor in computer science, as I love algorithms. My PhD degree in Computational and Applied Mathematics is from Rice University.


What is it about mathematics that attracts you?
I have always loved mathematics. I am fascinated by the numbers, their patterns, the theory, and everything about it. I remember that when I was three years old, my kindergarten teacher asked me to add the numbers four and five, but by that time I could already add numbers with five digits.

Can you explain what projects you are currently working on, and how do you engage students?
I prefer to work with multi-disciplinary teams of investigators, including practitioners, along with graduate and undergraduate students. I like diversity. Students approach me quite often as they want their work to have meaningful impact beyond the classroom and publication. I select those who are passionate and hard-working. I work closely with my students; usually each of them investigates some parts of a much bigger project. They may work in groups or individually under my supervision. Some projects focus on early disease diagnosis. For example, we look very, very closely at early indicators of cancer. Sometimes, when cancerous cell behavior occurs, it is already too late to intervene. We explore early genomic changes in the body to predict the looming cancer; this may open up opportunities for gene therapy.
We look hard at evidence-based treatment design. This means that for each individual patient, you investigate how best to design customized and individualized treatments. We also research vaccine designs. We ask ourselves: how do you predict which vaccines will work for which individuals?
There are projects that relate to big-data analytics for decision and risk assessment. For example, we analyze millions of patient data to uncover evidence and patterns of effective treatment, polypharmacy, and identify potential areas of predictive health to improve outcome. We cover many projects in public health emergency response and homeland security defense areas as well.

One of the projects Eva has contributed to is the software system RealOpt. RealOpt is a decision support system to aid pandemic and bio warfare public health mass dispensing and emergency planning. It is designed to take the guess work out of mass dispensing of medical countermeasure. Lee’s work has become an integral part of White House and Department of Homeland Security planning and discussions for preventing and pre-empting health care threats. She also works with White House Biodefense Policy and Medical Preparedness Policy Directors on matters related to emergency response, mass casualty mitigation, medical preparedness and policy, and her work on RealOpt.

Why did you make the transition from mathematics to healthcare?
I have never left mathematics. Mathematics is my lens and window into health care. I expanded my theoretical and computational horizon to include real-world applications. I have always loved medicine and even took some pre-med courses as an undergraduate. When I was a PhD student, I thought of attending medical school and earning an MD/PhD, but my passion for mathematics did not give me time to embrace that opportunity. It was a chance encounter that I met Dr. Marco Zaider when I started my first job as an assistant professor at Columbia University. I was very fortunate to be trained by him and other oncologists for several years. It gave me much appreciation of the medical challenges and how mathematics is so intertwined with many medical technologies. I view mathematics as a vehicle to enhance and advance medicine.

Of all the projects you have ever done, which one did you like best?
I love all the projects that I am working on, or else I would not do them. My work is more passion than duty. I care a great deal about their impact to society and to humankind. But on a more personal note, one ‘project’ that I loved best was raising a baby sparrow that I rescued after it fell out of its nest. It was just a couple of days old and had not even opened its eyes yet. This bird, which I named Sweety, changed my life and taught me many things. I love nature very much and she was a perfect teacher. She was precise, passionate, tender and extraordinarily sweet. But she was so tiny; every bite I fed her, I was afraid she would die from suffocation. I had her for nine years. She was not one of my professional projects, but she holds a big part in my heart. When you take on a project, independent of its contents, it becomes part of your character.

Over the past few years, you have won quite some awards. You won the Whitaker Foundation Biomedical Grant for Young Investigators, you have been selected as one of the Extraordinary Women Engineers, and you have even won the prestigious Franz Edelman award. What accomplishment are you most proud of?
It was an honor to receive the Whitaker Foundation Biomedical Grant for Young Investigators, as the Whitaker Foundation is instrumental in funding the establishment of all the top biomedical programs in the United States. It offers very competitive funding support to young investigators who are engaging in cutting-edge biomedical research. As it happens, I was the first and only OR/IE recipients for this grant, which was amazing and gratifying. Forgive me, but I also think it was smart for the Foundation to recognize the growing importance of mathematics in biomedicine.
Being selected as one of the Extraordinary Women Engineers and winning the Franz Edelman award were unique and wonderful experiences. I give huge credits to Dr. Zaider for winning the Edelman award. He had the insight and the belief in me and what I can do, and he was the one who used the technology developed in the clinical setting. Winning awards is great, but I give my collaborators a large share of the credits. Beyond the awards, I am truly happy and grateful to be pursuing projects that have an impact on people’s lives and to work with and learn from a very diverse group of collaborators. I learn so much from collaborating with researchers and practitioners in many different fields. I make real friendships, too. We have intense passion and work really hard together. The fact that they accept me and we work so well together is something I am forever grateful for and that I value more than winning competitions, no matter how prestigious they are.

What would you still like to achieve?

Use your talents to contribute to society

Who is your role model?
I have two role models. First of all, there is my father. Not a single day passes that I do not think about him. He was a man with few words, but I learned so much from him, even in his silence. Secondly, there is my mother; she was the invisible force. Since she was severely ill ever since I was born, she gave me the strength in understanding and accepting things and the perseverance to handle adversity. She showed me how fortunate we are. You do not need tons of money, as long as you have your family, health and education.

How do you feel about working in a mainly man-dominated research field?
I do not like this question. No one ever asks the sex of an equation. When I was in college studying mathematics, there were a hundred male students and four females. So I am pretty used to working with men. Most of the time, people are eager to work with you and they focus on the work that needs to be done, rather than our gender. Yes, there are people who prefer working with their own sexes. I will not make judgement on that. We have to respect each other. There are some differences between the two sexes. Women may appear more passionate. Some men, for instance, do not like talking about their feelings. However, that does not mean that they do not care. Let me give you an example. I had a very strong bond with a medical director who treated me like a daughter. This one time, one of his patients had a heart attack during a knee operation. On the surface, he did not seem to be affected. However, that night we attended a party, he did not speak a word during the entire evening. Just because people react differently from what you expect does not mean that they feel differently or do not care. People have different ways to express themselves.

Do you yourself also ever feel guilty that you cannot save every single life?
Oh my gosh, yes!

How do you cope with that feeling?
You have to accept that you will not be able to save everyone, but meanwhile you should realize that you can make a difference. If you lose control when a disaster strikes, you lose very valuable time. I am a very emotional person, but conserve my feelings for later moments. You cannot stop people from dying, but you can minimize that number and that is what I aim to do. In some of the medical work, we see patients dying, it truly makes a mark in my heart, and I am more determined to make things work, to make up for the loss.

Are you afraid of failing?
We are all human, which means that at some point we all make mistakes. I notice that my students are very afraid of making mistakes and if they do, they become depressed. However, I believe that failure is not the end. It is the beginning. You have to accept that you did something wrong, so that you can learn from it and make sure that it will not happen again. You have to turn the negative energy around in order to make things better. When you encounter challenges, do not be afraid; know that you can learn from failure and become stronger. The most important thing is to be able to get back up and move on from it.

Do you have any other advice you would like to give?
You should follow your passion and find something you really love to do. Personally, I love gardening, art work, dancing, music, reading, and especially nature. When I was a PhD student I had a small studio room, but because I am so fascinated by nature, I managed to fit two hundred different plants in there. This might seem strange to many people, but I think that you have to surround yourself with things you are fond of. That is also why my husband and I house countless ‘rescue’ birds. Some are orphans who could not survive on their own; others got injured. Birds are really precise and have much better instincts than humans. I love them!
A couple of years ago, my birds suddenly became uncomfortable in the middle of the night and started making loud noises. Twenty minutes later, an earthquake took place, and they had been able to sense it long before it happened. I am not saying that you have to share my passion for nature, but when you find something you are truly passionate about, your life immediately gets better. Follow your passion and find something you love to do, because in the end, passion is what drives you. Try to use your talents to contribute to society.

When you find something you are truly passionate about, your life immediately gets better

How do you combine your busy professional life with your passions and hobbies, any advice for us?
I do not sleep a lot. Sometimes I just skip a night in order to have more time. Nevertheless, I never use the term ‘busy’. I believe that there is never enough time if you do not make the time yourself. I think that students should not be so obsessed with the amount of “friends” they have on their Facebook, rather they should focus on what really matters – those family and friends around them. Ten years from now, life will be more difficult, or more complex. Being an undergraduate student is your honeymoon. Enjoy it while you can! Make some genuine friends and share some life experience together.

We want to thank Eva Lee for her interesting stories, visions and advices.

Text by: Ennia Suijkerbuijk