Cardiovascular nurse scientist Christopher Lee, Ph.D., RN, FAAN, likes to call his data-driven research approach “biobehavioral profiling.” Combining symptom science with exploring both the patient’s self-care behavior and the relationship between the patient and informal caregiver, he looks “into and beyond” patients suffering from heart disease.

Lee, who joined the Connell School in January 2018 as associate dean for research and director of the Office of Nursing Research (ONR), comes to Boston College after seven years at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), where hewas most recently the Carol A. Lindeman Distinguished Professor. At OHSU, a leader in women’s health, he published 10 papers examining gender differences in heart disease. In general, larger hearts are worse for men, smaller hearts worse for women.

With grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Nursing Research, Lee led a team of colleagues at OHSU and across the country in several studies on how the installment of a left ventricular assist device(LVAD)—a pump used for patients with end-stage heart failure—affects both physical and psychological symptoms. In one study, Lee’s team examined 64 bridge-surgery patients (who would eventually receive heart transplants) and 22 destination-surgery patients (ineligible for transplants) before and then one, three, and six months after LVAD implantation.

As Lee reported in the June 2017 Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, by far the greatest benefits for both bridge and destination patients appear within the first 30 days of installment, earlier than previously thought.

Lee also investigates patients’ self-management of heart disease. “What are patients doing for themselves during the 99.99 percent of the time they’re not in a physician or NP’s office?” And he examines how relationships between patients and their informal caregivers—such as spouses and adult children—can affect symptoms. (The most successful situation, Lee has found, is when both patient and caregiver willfully manage the illness, and the spouse treats caregiving less as a strain and more as a “labor of love.”) Lee’s work has earned him the 2016 Protégé Award from the Friends of the National Institute of Nursing Research, the 2014 Heart Failure Society of America (HFSA) Nursing Leadership Award, and the 2013 American Heart Association (AHA) Marie Cowan Promising Young Investigator Award. In addition to being a Fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, Lee is a Fellow of HFSA and AHA.

The Scituate, Massachusetts, native says his arrival at the Connell School “feels like a homecoming. I still have family here, and I never lost the accent.” After high school, he attended the University of New Hampshire, “mostly because of their cycling club,” he jokes. But as a student EMT, he became fascinated to find out what happened after he handed off patients “to really skilled, really confident nurses.” After earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing, he spent seven years as a bedside nurse in Massachusetts health care facilities, including Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and the Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. Then, while earning his nurse practitioner degree and Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, he “caught the research bug,” he recalls, studying under Professor Barbara Riegel, a leading researcher in adult heart failure (with whom Lee has since co-authored 34 articles); Nancy Tkacs, a neuroendocrine physiologist; and heart-failure physician Kenneth Margulies.

At OHSU, Lee taught biostatistics to Ph.D. students, which he may continue to do at the Connell School. He’s also interested in teaching and “finding ways to make undergraduates more inspired and have more opportunities to engage in research. It’s important to be exposed to research early.”

Lee is a “born mentor,” says Sean Clarke, associate dean for Undergraduate Programs, who met Lee in an NIH study session when Clarke was an undergraduate at Penn. “He’s great at figuring out what people need to transform their ideas into research and publications. And he’s had a great run at nailing down funding, which will help get science going on the ground for students at all levels.”

In his roles as ONR director and a mentor to faculty researchers, Lee hopes to encourage more interdisciplinary inquiry across the Connell School, in particular cardiovascular research. Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming some 610,000 lives a year, more than all cancers combined. But more and more, Lee notes, today’s patients “have cardiovascular disease and diabetes and high blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis. Treatment is increasingly complicated.” Nurses need “more information and skills to master than ever.” ▪

—By Zachary Jason
Photograph: Lee Pellegrini