Updated August 2022

berkeley phd student poses with uc president drake with large check

Berkeley takes first place!

Growing up Justin Lee wanted to be an astronomer. This third-year PhD student from the Bay Area is studying Metabolic Biology, Nutritional Sciences & Toxicology. Not quite astronomy.

He does wear an extreme PPE suit when he is working in the lab doing COVID-19 research. The lab PPE is in some ways similar to an astronaut suit. After giving a three minute talk about his research at the UC systemwide Grad Slam, he jokes, “One way to fulfill a dream while keeping my feet on the ground.” 

Justin’s presentation, titled Jamming the SARS-CoV-2 Copy Machine, won him first place at the UC Berkeley Grad Slam in April. As the Berkeley finalist, Justin went on to compete against the nine other UC campuses on May 6, and has officially won the first place! Justin takes home $7,000 and the highly coveted “Slammy” award.

[SARS-CoV-2] enters the body and hijacks our own machinery to become a copy machine to produce tons of virus copies for more infection and spread,” said study author and UC Berkeley NST graduate student Justin Lee in his winning UC Grad Slam talk. “We were able to find the key code in the viral RNA that allows the copy machine to run, and all the variants, including Delta and Omicron, share the same key code.

As a metabolic biologist turned corona virologist, Justin explores the synergy between disease biology and clinical medicine with hopes of solving the challenges of the pandemic and developing effective therapeutics against the virus. Justin joins a team of Berkeley scientists who have recently developed a new COVID-19 therapeutic that could one day make treating SARS-CoV-2 infections as easy as using a nasal spray for allergies. The therapeutic uses short snippets of synthetic DNA to gum up the genetic machinery that allows SARS-CoV-2 to replicate within the body.

Justin Lee, Chi Zhu, Lei Xu, Federico Gonzalez and Caslin Gilroy in lab coats

If the experimental treatment proves to be safe and effective in humans, the ASO technology could be readily modified to target other RNA viruses. The research team, led by Berkeley professor of metabolic biology in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology Anders Näär, is already searching for a way to use this to disrupt influenza viruses, which also have pandemic potential.

Read the full story in Berkeley News

Watch Justin in the 2022 UC systemwide Grad Slam.

Learn about how to compete in Berkeley Grad Slam.