Love of astronomy launches Pittsfield native's education to new heights
PITTSFIELD -- For Pittsfield native son Duane M. Lee, the next stop after graduating this year from the School of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University will be starting a post-doctoral fellowship at the Shanghai Astronomical Observatory in China this fall.
His story begins, however, as an African-American child growing up on Linden Street on the city's west side, a less-affluent section of Pittsfield that also is teeming with young children full of potential and dreams.
"I was always interested in science," said Lee, 33, during a recent interview from Columbia University in New York City, where he is fine-tuning his final dissertation for a doctorate degree in astronomy.
"Particularly, I remember my neighbors across the street had a telescope. In the summer, they invited neighborhood kids to come look through it," he said. "I was fortunate. Where I grew up we had very dark skies, where you can see stars and planets with the naked eye."
His mother, Francine Lee, said she recalls that her son wanted to be an astronaut, but issues with asthma prevented his pursuit.
Duane recalls how his father, Henry Lee, did buy him his own telescope. "I was about 11 or 12 and that pretty much cemented my love of astronomy," Duane said.
Before that, however, Francine said she wanted to instill an early love of learning in all of her children.
In 1981, when Duane was 2, she enrolled him in Pittsfield's free Parent-Child Home Program, a home-based early intervention initiative that focuses on literacy and school readiness for families who are low-income and may not have access to early educational opportunities.
While attending Conte Community School, Duane also received Title I reading support through second grade, a program that also supports disadvantaged students.
After that, Duane proved to be successful by his own right, advancing through Reid Middle School and graduating from Taconic High School in 1997.
While in high school, he proved a strong performer in chorus and theater, and showed athletic prowess as captain of the Taconic track team. Lee also demonstrated a proficient aptitude for chemistry, scoring a perfect 800 on the chemistry SAT II exam.
"It's incredible for a young man who comes from the west side," his mother said. "When he graduated, he worked hard to keep going," she said.
Lee became the first Berkshire County resident to receive the prestigious Stephen H. Tyng Scholarship to attend Williams College since the award program first began in 1940. He graduated from Williams in 2001 with honors and a bachelor's degree in astrophysics.
The young man's progress prompted James A. Shiminski, Pittsfield's former Title I program director, to nominate Lee for a national Title I scholarship; he was one of 48 young people from 36 states honored for their achievement in 2002.
After Williams, he taught physics at the Charles H. McCann Technical Vocational High School in North Adams.
Through the Bridge Program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., Lee enrolled in a master's program in astronomy, earning his degree in 2006. The Bridge Program provides support and financial aid incentives for minority students to study in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Marcel Agüeros is an assistant professor of astronomy at Columbia who also serves as director of the university's Bridge to the Ph.D. Program in the Natural Sciences, which has existed for the past five years.
He said the Bridge programs are an attempt to address what he calls "the shameful fact of Ph.D. programs in national sciences across the country."
"Science departments are not particularly diverse. It can be hard to navigate a department where you don't see anyone who looks like [you]," Agüeros said. "White men have those jobs historically."
At the turn of the century, new national data revealed not only a lack of minorities in graduate-level STEM fields but indicated a large number of retirements among advance-level scientists and a general lack of younger workers skilled enough to fill those positions.
"This was the first set of alarms that we needed to do a better job of casting a wider net" of graduate students like Duane Lee, Agüeros said.
Lee said it's also important to ensure that students have exposure to role models, access to information, and financial support about quality collegiate STEM programs.
He has met Pittsfield native and NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, and he said he respects her work.
He is also vested in sharing his own work through public talks and presentations.
"Ultimately I study galaxies, their formation and evolution," said Lee. His dissertation and research is focused on the chemical evolution of galaxies, how each has its own chemical signature and distinct makeup of elements.
"What this allows us to do is track the universe's evolution from the first 300,000 years or so after the Big Bang," said Lee. "This helps us try to understand how the universe has come to be."
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On Twitter: @JennSmith_Ink