In Profile: Cathy Lee, Class of 2018
Forging her own path in population oral health
While studying biology and chemistry in college, Cathy Lee’18 wanted to find a career that combined science with her love for art. Ms. Lee, who grew up playing violin and piano, sought to work with her hands and to create beauty in her work. She saw an opportunity to do both as a dentist.
“Dentistry is a lot like handling an instrument,” she says. “It requires creativity, dexterity, and sensitivity. When you’re carving and drilling a tooth, you have to think about aesthetics and function. You want to make something that’s beautiful, but also strong for the future. It’s quite exhilarating.”
When it came to choosing a dental school, Ms. Lee had a unique pull toward Columbia—her twin sister, Judy Lee’17. They started at CDM together, but their paths diverged when Cathy decided to pursue a dual degree in public health. “Columbia encourages us to strive to be better; their faith in each of us is a huge driving source for us to go beyond expectations,” Ms. Lee says. “The population oral health section helped me make this rather daunting decision that required a full-year commitment, but I’m so happy that they did.”
In her public health program, Ms. Lee teamed up with Kavita P. Ahluwalia, DDS, MPH, associate professor of dental medicine (community health) at CUMC, to visit elderly adults who receive home-delivered meals from City Meals on Wheels and to study their oral health, nutrition, and oral health-related quality of life.
“It truly opened my eyes about the social status and environment these elderly adults live in,” she says about visiting meal recipients in their homes. “Normally we meet the patients at the clinic so we do not get to fully know and understand their living conditions. It gave me a much deeper understanding of the population we serve.”
She parlayed that project into research that focuses on the oral health needs of elderly Koreans in Queens. Growing up in South Korea and moving to the United States in high school, she has a unique understanding of the cultural obstacles Kore ans face in New York. “Many of these elderly adults are underserved and have language and financial barriers to receiving dentalcare,” she says. “My goal is to come up with oral health-related interventions that meet the specific needs of this community.”
The dual degree in dentistry and public health will pave the road for Ms. Lee toward the intersection between dentistry and public policy. “This is just a beginning of many exciting projects I can and will do in the future,” she says.
In addition to her studies, research, and clinical work, Ms. Lee likes to write. “I love to share my own and other people’s stories through writing,” she says. “I want to bring positive changes in the lives of people through dentistry, public health, and writing.”
Last summer she delivered a series of lectures to encourage high school students in South Korea to also follow their dreams. Her tales of challenges she overcame on her way to a DDS/MPH degree attracted the attention of a Korean publisher, who asked to publish her story. “I’m going to be a published author. I’m so excited,” she says. Her book will be out in South Korea next year.