Honoring Drs. Lee and Trojanowski -- trailblazers in neurodegenerative disease research

By Nicolette Calcavecchia

Virginia Lee, PhD, and the late John Q. Trojanowski, MD, PhD, partners in life and in science, have long been recognized as trailblazers in the field of neurodegenerative disease research. Now, their legacy will be immortalized in the halls of the University of Pennsylvania, as they join the list of leaders at Penn who have been celebrated with portraits to honor their impacts and contributions not only to the university, but to their respective fields.

Drs. Lee and Trojanowski spent nearly 4 decades working together at the University of Pennsylvania accomplishing one groundbreaking discovery after the other, all in hopes of solving the puzzle of neurodegenerative disease. On Thursday, January 25, 2024, the legacy of this remarkable team was celebrated at their portrait unveiling.

“Today’s event honors and celebrates, probably – not an exaggeration – one of the most successful partnerships in neurodegenerative science, and potentially in science in general,” said George Netto, MD, Chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Not only a scientific partnership but also a life partnership that will leave a legacy beyond description.”

With over 100 attendees – family, friends, colleagues, and trainees alike – the ceremony reiterated just how impactful Drs. Lee and Trojanowski have been at Penn and beyond.

 “Seventeen years ago, I became an assistant professor in our department all because John and Virginia took a chance on me,” said Li-San Wang, PhD, professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine. “They mentored me patiently and took me under their wings. Like mine, countless lives have been touched by their legacies.”

Jon Epstein, MD, Interim Executive Vice President of the University of Pennsylvania for the Health System & Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine, praised Drs. Lee and Trojanowski for setting the stage for the field of neurodegenerative disease research. “I really think it can’t be overstated, John and Virginia broke open the field of neurodegeneration,” he said. “And for many years they laid the fundamental groundwork through careful, painstaking basic science that we now see bearing fruit.”

The research of Drs. Lee and Trojanowski has inspired and motivated growth in the field – and will continue to do so for years to come. “When I think about the impact of the science of both John and Virginia, I think back on a conference I recently attended where I realized that about half of the talks, in some way, referenced their incredible work,” described David A. Wolk, MD, Co-director of the Institute on Aging and Director of the Penn Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

It is important to note that this portrait of Drs. Lee and Trojanowski will serve as a source of inspiration not only because of the incredible science that it honors, but because it represents the “reality of science that is done in this community,” explained Dr. Marisa Bartolomei, Co-chair of the Perelman School of Medicine Portrait Review Committee.

“Representation really does matter,” said Eddie Lee, MD, PhD, Co-director of the IOA. “My daughter, she is in kindergarten – when she comes to visit me in my office, she will be able to see on that wall an Asian woman – she will know that that is possible. To not only be excellent, but beyond excellent. To be enshrined forever, in the halls of University of Penn. That is meaningful.”

Before officially unveiling the portrait, Dr. Lee took to the stage and was met with a well-deserved standing ovation.

“I am truly honored and pleased that the University of Pennsylvania – an institution where I have spent 4.5 decades is honoring both John and I with this,” said Dr. Lee. “To be honest, the only thing I feel sad about is that John is not here with us. He would be so delighted.” Dr. Trojanowski passed away in February of 2022.

“We really did have a unique partnership and I don’t think it can be replicated that easily. One reason is that we literally sleep, eat and shit science, 24/7,” said Dr. Lee lightening the mood.  “And that’s the only way you can really do all of this work.”

Dr. Lee attributes much of her career in neurodegenerative disease research to her late husband. “If it wasn’t for John, this would have never happened. I didn’t know much about neurodegenerative diseases and John said “Look, I’ll do all the neuropathology and I’ll get you all the brain tissue that you want, but you have to do your magic, be able to isolate this disease protein, and then we can get started to build models, and he was absolutely right,” she said.

“I had a wonderful 4.5 decades of my life and wish it could have been longer. But I am so pleased to have all of you here and to share this important moment with me.”

The portrait will be available for viewing in its new home on the second floor of the Biomedical Building in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for the exact date of when you can go see it for yourself.

Event Media:

View photos here.

Watch the full ceremony here.

To learn more about Dr. Lee’s impressive career, and her partnership with Dr. Trojanowski, watch here.