Iona University Chemistry Professor Receives Prestigious National Science Foundation Grant to Conduct Critical, Unchartered Scientific Research

Dr. Sunghee Lee was awarded $345,000 from the National Science Foundation to explore how living cells arrange molecular components in their membranes

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Dr. Sunghee Lee in her lab on the New Rochelle campus of Iona.

Sunghee Lee, Ph.D., Board of Trustees endowed professor of the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department.

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. - Iona University’s Sunghee Lee, Ph.D., Board of Trustees endowed professor of the Chemistry & Biochemistry Department, has been awarded a prestigious $345,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for her project, “Self-Assembled Interfaces: Protolipids, Asymmetry, and Energetics.” The grant will extend from December 2023 until November 2027, and will allow Lee and her research group, Project Symphony, to continue their scientific research work as they study how living cells arrange molecular components in their membranes.

“All cells have boundary layers composed of fatty lipid molecules that assemble as a double layer, or a bilayer, with different kinds of lipid molecules on the inner layer relative to the outer layer,” Lee said. “This molecular difference, or asymmetry, is vital for cell function, and yet the fundamental reasons for this asymmetry are not fully known. Thanks to the NSF, we can dive deeper into this important topic.”

Lee and her team will explore a large array of lipid compositions of cell membranes, using cell-size water droplets that self-arrange to contain asymmetric bilayers, and microscopically examine the resulting physical, chemical and mechanical properties of these cell-mimics.

“The goal of the project is to determine how the differing shapes and sizes of individual lipid molecules can impact the functions and the life cycle of living cells,” she said. “The project will lead to insights that will foster advances in soft matter, functional materials and fundamental biological knowledge – especially of disease processes.”

The broader impacts of the proposed work will also help advance the production of biosensors, diagnostics, and drug screening platforms while helping to train the next generation of globally-competitive scientists with hypothesis-driven interdisciplinary research.

Founded in 1940, Iona University is a master's-granting private, Catholic, coeducational institution of learning in the tradition of the Edmund Rice Christian Brothers. Iona's 45-acre New Rochelle campus and 28-acre Bronxville campus are just 20 miles north of Midtown Manhattan. With a total enrollment of nearly 4,000 students and an alumni base of more than 50,000 around the world, Iona is a diverse community of learners and scholars dedicated to academic excellence and the values of justice, peace and service. Iona is highly accredited, offering undergraduate degrees in liberal arts, science and business administration, as well as Master of Arts, Master of Science and Master of Business Administration degrees and numerous advanced certificate programs. Iona students enjoy small class sizes, engaged professors and a wide array of academic programs across the School of Arts & Science; LaPenta School of Business; NewYork-Presbyterian Iona School of Health Sciences; and Hynes Institute for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. Iona is widely recognized in prestigious rankings, including The Princeton Review’s 2024 national list of “The Best 389 Colleges” and The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse’s “2024 Best Colleges in America,” which ranked Iona at #66 in the nation overall and #8 in the nation among Catholic schools. Iona’s LaPenta School of Business is also accredited by AACSB International, a recognition awarded to just six percent of business schools worldwide. In addition, The Princeton Review recognized Iona’s on-campus MBA program as a “Best Business School for 2023.” Iona also offers a fully online MBA program for even greater flexibility. In July 2021, Iona announced the establishment of the NewYork-Presbyterian Iona School of Health Sciences, which is now principally located on Iona’s Bronxville campus in collaboration with NewYork-Presbyterian. Connecting to its Irish heritage, the University also recently announced it is expanding abroad with a new campus in County Mayo, Ireland. A school on the rise, Iona officially changed its status from College to University on July 1, 2022, reflecting the growth of its academic programs and the prestige of an Iona education.