Posted May 15, 2013

From high school dropout to Harvard-bound

Paige Ozaroski
Jae Hyeon Lee speaking at last month's TEDxTempleU.

Born and raised in South Korea, Jae Hyeon Lee came to America in 2007 as, essentially, a high-school dropout. After graduating from Plymouth Whitemarsh High School in suburban Philadelphia, Lee thrived at the College of Science and Technology (CST). He participated in the Diamond Research Scholars Program and CST’s Undergraduate Research Program, earned a Creative Arts, Research and Scholarship grant and was a speaker — along with some of the college’s top professors — at TEDxTempleU. This fall, Lee will head to Harvard University to begin his doctoral studies in physics. 

Temple Times: How did you find your way to Temple?
Jae Hyeon Lee: When I was in high school — I didn’t know what I was thinking — I applied to all Ivy League schools and to Temple. I lived near Philly, so I had so many resources in the area. I knew a lot of people who were here already. I didn’t get into any of the other schools as an undergraduate, but I did get accepted to many of them for graduate school. That felt good!

TT: Why physics?
JHL: Since I was little I’ve had a curiosity about math and science, although I wasn’t always good at them. When I came to America, I couldn’t enroll in high school for six months. I was in a new country, didn’t know the language and didn’t know many people. I went to the library and checked out a pre-calculus book and saw some of the work by the physicist Brian Greene about the marriage of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity. That inspired me. Physics made me feel like there is something greater out there; something that binds society into a whole. 

TT: Proudest moment at Temple?
JHL: One of my proudest moments was being a speaker at this year’s TEDxTempleU event.  I’ve been speaking English for only about five or six years. I came a long way to be able to give such a talk in front of such a large crowd. It was good practice for me, giving a public speech. 

TT: Are you looking forward to graduate school?
JHL: Undergraduate life can be hectic, with all the requirements. You don’t always know what you are doing and where you are headed. In grad school it will be more well-defined. I’ll work with great physicists and focus on really understanding the material. I’m from a middle-class Korean family. I never thought I would go to Harvard. It’s very exciting. 

TT: What’s the ultimate goal?
JHL: Life is long, so I want to do multiple things. I want my life to be defined not by a career but by a dream. For now, I want to become a good scientist. Then, maybe, go into business or education reform so that I can have a greater impact on the scientific community. You know…something in the real world.

— Greg Fornia