Briana Lee

(Central Florida)

The Research Scientist | 30 Under 30 Class of 2019 

"My favorite part about working in the lab is that every day is different."


Technically nanotechnology is the study and application of extremely small things. Think about something that’s 1,000 times smaller than a human hair. But ultimately, there’s more to it.


Briana studies nanotechnology and said, “Nanotechnology is this beautiful amalgamation of engineering, chemistry, biology and physics where we take holistic and interdisciplinary approaches to examine what it is we are studying.”

In her research, Briana characterized a novel target biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease. To do so, she worked with collaborators to use instruments that characterize the properties, shape and function of amyloid beta fibers, which are known to cause Alzheimer’s disease. The team was able to detect a new formation and structure that better allows for the detection of Alzheimer’s. Briana shared, “There are a lot of things that can cause Alzheimer’s, so this study specifically was to help identify it quicker.”

For the last two years, Briana has been working on a project focusing on the interaction of multivalent nanoparticles with agricultural bacteria. Essentially, it allows the researchers to create pesticides that have lower amounts of copper that can be sprayed into fields where food is being grown. They are working to reduce the amount of copper runoff in our food and water. This project has been applied in small scale field trials, but the ultimate goal would be to get it commercialized.

Briana thoroughly enjoys working as a research scientist and conquering new challenges every day, but the reason she started in her lab was to gain research experience for medical school. She loves what she’s doing now but plans to apply to medical school in the summer to study radiation oncology.


Why do you love what you do? 

I love what I do because every day is different – a new challenge that has to be solved. For every experiment or project that I am working on, I get to wear many hats, always thinking like an engineer, physicist, biologist and chemist. I also love that my work helps contribute to saving peoples’ jobs and livelihoods as well as aiding larger problems such as antibacterial resistance. Lastly, I really love that through research and outreach I have had the ability to continue acting as a role model and mentor to women in high school and college to stimulate the number of women in STEM fields, just as I did with Girls on the Run during my time with Gamma Phi Beta.

How did you discover your passion for your job?

I discovered my passion for my job as a researcher quite by accident. While on my journey to becoming a physician, it is often considered beneficial to be exposed to research. So as a physics teaching assistant, I began looking for my “research home” while becoming well acquainted with the various professors. Ultimately, I began conducting research in a physics lab that was located in our Nanoscience and Technology Center on the University of Central Florida campus and thus my adventure with nanotechnology began. My passion for research stems from my research professor, who from when I first began in her lab has given me every tool and opportunity necessary to explore my many different interests, such as cancer cells and diabetic tissue, but what has now mostly become microbiology focused. For the last two years, I have been studying agricultural bacteria that wreak havoc to several of the fruits and vegetables we all eat, like tomatoes and oranges. So now, I am passionate about finding ways to stop these bacteria from negatively impacting the livelihoods of several farmers and their families, as well as helping solve our food security issues as the population grows. With this knowledge, I am also studying human bacteria and finding new ways to design better treatments to help shed some light in the fight against antibacterial resistance.

How do you define success?

Success in research comes in all shapes, sizes and colors, while rarely looking the same each time. Therefore, success to me is having an experiment that has never been done before finally work after months of failed attempts, particularly when people tell you it’ll never work. Success is seeing your hard work published in a scientific journal, leaving your small impact on the world, creating a legacy. Success is inspiring and helping young women navigate chasing their dreams in a field where they are the minority and there are not enough role models or resources. Success to me is not avoiding failure or hardship, but rather taking those failures, hardships and voices of doubt and overcoming them to achieve whatever it is that your goals are, no matter how big or small.


What motivates you?

I feel very fortunate to have so many friends and family behind me to help me along my journey. They are what drives my passion for what I do every day and their motivation is what continues to push me ever forward in the field of science. First, my dad has always taught me to endeavor to persevere and when the going gets tough, which is often in my work, I hear his words in my head. But also, the friends I made through Gamma Phi Beta, such as our incredible education advisor Linda Stone, as well as my friend Lauren Daniel whose unwavering belief in me reminds me not to be such a tough critic to myself. Lastly, my research professor motivates and pushes me to be the best version of myself every day, sometimes requiring tough love. She embodies everything I could aspire to: intelligence, strength, confidence and fearlessness. As a result, she has played a large part in pushing me to take the many giant leaps and opportunities, to face my fears and have the potential to accomplish all that I have today.

Could you define nanotechnology?

You have probably heard “examples” of nanotechnology, such as in the latest Avengers movie with Tony Stark’s “nanobots.” However, nanotechnology is technically defined as the study and application of extremely small things, which have at least one dimension in the 10-9 scale (or nanometer). Think about it as something that is 1,000 times smaller than a human hair. However, the field as a whole is so much more. Nanotechnology is this beautiful amalgamation of engineering, chemistry, biology and physics where we take holistic and interdisciplinary approaches to examine what it is we are studying.

What did you get your undergraduate degree in? 

I dabbled in a few different things. My major was in health sciences, preclinical and I had two minors in hospitality and humanities.

What made you want to study nanotechnology?

In undergrad I was preparing for medical school and one of the things you have to do is get research experience. The research lab I happened to become acquainted with was while I was a physics teaching assistant. I met a physics professor who was a strong independent woman who I looked up to. She actually worked in the nanocenter, here so that’s how I got involved.

Can you explain what characterizing a novel target biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease means?

With our collaborators I used some instruments that characterize the properties and shape and function of amyloid beta fibers, which are known to cause Alzheimer’s disease. With them and with our characterization we were able to detect a new formation and structure that better allows for the detection of Alzheimer’s. There’s a lot of things that can cause Alzheimer’s so this one specifically was to hopefully help identify it quicker because it’s a lot harder to diagnose than some other things.

What did it mean to you to be published in the Federation of European Biochemical Societies journal?

To me it was exciting because it was my very first publication ever. It was an amazing first step into getting into that direction.

What can be done with knowledge about the interaction of multivalent nanoparticles with agricultural bacteria?

That’s a project I’ve been working on for two years now, and what it essentially allows us to do is create pesticides that have lower amounts of copper that can be sprayed into the fields. That way we aren’t having copper runoff get into our water and our food, but it also allows us to better target bacteria that are resistant to copper.

Is this being put into practice? 

Right now, I believe we’ve done small scale field trials. I think the ultimate goal would be to potentially get it commercialized.

How did you get involved in these studies?

My research professor writes these grants that get funding and then she works with us to figure out what we’re passionate about. One of the things I’m very passionate about is bacteria and specifically biomechanics of bacteria. So she found this project that she had written a collaborative grant on, and she asked if I wanted to work on it and I did. I got to take it in whatever direction I wanted.

How big was the team?

It’s a very, very large team. I specifically look at the bacteria characterization and how that interacts with the nanoparticles, but we have people who make the nanoparticles and the people that do the field trials.

Do you travel to other labs?

We do. Just in my building alone I’d say I work in at least four or five different labs. We’ve gone to other schools. I get to take this research that we’ve done and present it everywhere, so I’ve been all over the U.S. to present the work.


Where did you grow up?

I come from a military family, so I grew up across six states and Germany.


Where do you live now?

Orlando, Florida.


Who is your role model?

My research professor.


What are four things you can't live without?

Music, caffeine, goals and blankets/sweaters.

Could you tell me more about your involvement with Women in STEM? What do those events and mentorship opportunities look like?

We actually just got the approval to start a group on campus. A lot of the work I’ve done on campus is with my research professor where we hold different workshops on how women should work on negotiation language and we go out into the community and volunteer at different high schools. 

What was it like to speak for the Physics Women’s Society symposium? What did you talk about?

It was incredible. It was a very interesting group. I expected it to be a lot of other women from physics sitting there listening, and it was actually a lot of men as well. One of the biggest struggles I have is this uphill battle of I don’t look like I would be someone who would be in science first, and I definitely don’t look like someone who would be in physics. It’s always a great experience to be able to shock and awe them and show that those stereotypes don’t need to exist anymore. I touched on the projects I worked on and some of the outreach programs I’ve worked on and my role in that.

Have you had moments where you felt you were being discriminated against because you are a woman in a male-dominated field? How did you combat that?

I don’t want to say I face it every day, but it is a constant struggle. One of the first things I had to was look at the language I was using. One of the things females do in science and outside of science is we like to say, "I’m sorry" or we take the blame for things. It’s just using strong language to make my point. I also just continuously reinforce that I am in charge of my portion. I know exactly what I’m doing. This is my career. I know the topic. Treat me as anyone else who would be in that position, male or female. I also try to hold myself to a higher standard and talk as if I was Ph.D.

Why is it important to you to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers?

Women have a lot to offer the STEM fields. The way women approach problems and their problem-solving processes are unique. I think a lot of times women ask "why" more than I’ve seen men do, and that’s the question that needs to be asked so much in STEM. 

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve received so much advice from my research professor, it’s crazy. I think probably the best one is just breathe and believe and every day is going to be a struggle but it’s just a small one in the greater scale and once you get there it’s always worth it.

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