Of Math and MD

High school senior Lindsay Lee, who has congenital muscular dystrophy, seeks to combine math and medicine.

by Bill Norman on December 3, 2009 - 4:10pm

Many people, upon noting the academic credentials of high school senior Lindsay Lee, might characterize her as a math whiz.

The 17-year-old, who has congenital muscular dystrophy (CMD), is quick to demur. “Oh, I don’t know if I’d say that. I just really like math … and, well … I’m pretty good at it.”

A student at Oak Ridge High School in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Lee not only excels at her own studies, but also tutors students from grades four to eight in math disciplines ranging from simple addition and subtraction to geometry, algebra, trigonometry and calculus.

Recently, through her high school’s math thesis program, Lee was named a semifinalist in the regional Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, sponsored by the international electronics and electrical engineering firm.

Lindsay and fellow Oak Ridge High School students recognized at the regional Siemens competition. Photo by Scott Fraker, The Oak Ridger.

“The fractal nature of lungs”

The subject of Lee’s project was “the fractal nature of lungs and particle distribution,” in which she created a color computer model showing how the structure of human lungs responds to the influence of diseases and can be affected by drugs used to treat those diseases.

Lee selected her project after consulting with her math thesis instructor and a mentor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where she spent several 40-hour weeks developing her approach and completing the model.

“Fractals are repeating patterns, and I like them because they seem to represent order in a chaotic world,” Lee said. “Being able to combine math and medicine was a treat for me because modeling is important in all aspects of medicine. It would be really rewarding to me to be able to put my knowledge to work at finding answers to what causes muscular dystrophy and how to cure it.”

Lee gets around on a scooter at school and in a wheelchair at home, but she also gets around, big time, in aspects of the academic world that complement her love of math.

She’s an active member of her school’s Philosophy Club, debating topics such as free will and determination, and environmental ethics. As a member of the school’s International Relations Club, she’s planning a trip in February to Washington, D.C., to meet with 3,000 other students attending the North American Invitational Model United Nations.  “I’m totally excited about it,” she gushes. “It’s a really fast-paced two days, and the debates are intense.”

“Intense” also is a good way to describe Lee’s life. She’s a member of the National Honor Society, and in the running for a National Merit Scholarship. Through her Advanced Placement Spanish class, she volunteers to help struggling Hispanic students learn English. Over the holidays, she and fellow students collect food for needy families.

Math, medicine, Spanish and travel

Math and Spanish? They fit together just fine for this stellar student, and that’s the double-major she’ll pursue in college, en route to a career in medical research, preferably with lots of travel built in.

At the moment, she’s waiting to hear from four of the five colleges to which she’s applied: Vanderbilt University in Nashville; the University of Chicago; Columbia University in New York; and Harvard. She’s already been accepted to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, but is keeping her options open.

She may be the one looking, but there’s no question that one institution of higher learning is soon going to discover a special prize among its student population.

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