When Kaiden Lee was in high school, he had a career arc in mind. Without undergraduate research opportunities, that arc never would have included The College of Idaho.
“I’m from Las Vegas, I’m not from Idaho,” laughed the senior, who is majoring in biochemistry. “I had never even heard of this place before.”
But doing what he does so well – research – led Lee to the College. Lee had a list of things he was looking for and one of them was the opportunity to do lab research as an undergraduate. As commencement approaches this spring, his resume includes a full page of research and presentations while he prepares to enter a Ph.D. program after graduation. But there’s room for at least one more presentation opportunity. Lee has been invited to present research at a national Society of Toxicology conference in San Diego in March. The research is an extension of work that has been done in Dr. Sara Heggland’s lab in recent years on the effects of vaping and JUUL liquids on bones.
“I was going into the lab and attending meetings but not actually doing research when the project was being defined,” Lee said. “What we’re doing now is very related to research that she (Dr. Heggland) has done in the past and papers that have been published out of our lab.”
The research that Lee will be presenting in San Diego is an extension of previous research done by Florence Wavreil ’19 and Maddie Villareal ’21.
“Dr. Heggland gives us a lot of freedom to experiment and to pick what we want to look at,” Lee said. “That’s a big part of the fit as a lab. Does the person you’re working with tell you exactly what you need to be doing or do they let you do stuff? We get a lot of independence and freedom in the lab.”
Lee excels in the classroom as well, earning Dean’s List honors each of the past four semesters. But his passion is research.
“It is so different from class and it is much more engaging to me,” Lee said. “My classes are interesting, I enjoy them, but doing something in a lab when you don’t know if it will work is a lot more fun. It gives information more dimension.”
Several professors maintain research labs inside Boone Hall, the College’s primary science building. The volume of undergraduate research done by the students isn’t common – it’s often a graduate-level experience. But not at The College of Idaho. Faculty and students work hand-in-hand, creating strong mentorship and teaching moments.
“Kaiden has worked with me for over two years. Initially, there was a steep learning curve in working with cell culture and learning how to use instrumentation. Now he is designing experiments, optimizing assays, and taking the research in his own direction,” said Heggland, who has instructed at the College for over 20 years. “It is rewarding to see Kaiden develop into an independent researcher. Honestly, I think of him more as a graduate student than undergraduate. Kaiden has trained and mentored several other students in the lab, which keeps our lab progressing and finding new questions to ask about vaping and human health.”
Those opportunities and that mentorship has made a permanent impression on Lee. He knew he wanted to do research. And now his career arc includes perhaps one day becoming a professor in part because of the mentorship from people like Heggland, Dr. Ann Koga, and Dr. Carolyn Dadabay.
“I met who I want to be, not what I want to be,” Lee said in describing what he found at the College. “I want to be who they are to me.”
The College of Idaho has a 131-year-old legacy of excellence. The College is known for its outstanding academic programs, winning athletics tradition, and history of producing successful graduates, including seven Rhodes Scholars, three governors, and countless business leaders and innovators. Its distinctive PEAK Curriculum challenges students to attain competency in the four knowledge peaks of humanities, natural sciences, social sciences, and a professional field—empowering them to earn a major and three minors in four years. The College’s close-knit, residential campus is located in Caldwell, where its proximity both to Boise and to the world-class outdoor activities of southwest Idaho’s mountains and rivers offers unique opportunities for learning beyond the classroom. For more information, visit www.collegeofidaho.edu.