Postdoctoral Researcher Spotlight: Sae-Byuk Lee

Sae-Byuk Lee, postdoctoral researcher with the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, conducts research in Chris Hittinger's lab at the Wisconsin Energy Institute in Madison, Wis. Matt Wisniewski

Our graduate students and postdoctoral researchers play an enormous role in the transition to a sustainable, resilient, and affordable energy future that is centered on social and economic equality. From lab experiments to field work to classrooms, these leaders of today and tomorrow are our catalysts for energy discovery.

In this series, we learn more about what inspired these talented researchers, what brought them to their field of study, and the questions that drive their work at the Wisconsin Energy Institute (WEI).

This week we spoke with Sae-Byuk “Karl” Lee, a postdoctoral researcher in Chris Hittinger’s lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Karl is from Daegu, South Korea, and studied food microbiology for his Ph.D. at Kyungpook National University. 

What did your path to UW–Madison look like? 
My family has always pushed me to pursue my academic dreams. For my undergraduate degree, I studied food microbiology and then worked at an agricultural processing company for one and a half years in quality management. I was then inspired to get a Ph.D. because I did not want to do the same things all day, every day. While completing this degree, I realized I wanted to work in the United States. UW–Madison had always been on my radar because it is one of the top schools in the microbiology field. I had the chance to meet Jae-Hyuk Yu, UW–Madison professor of bacteriology and genetics, when he visited my university to give a guest lecture. A few years later when I was looking for postdoctoral positions, he introduced me to my current advisors, Chris Hittinger and Trey Sato. He gave me one of the biggest opportunities in my life, because I really wanted to come to UW–Madison, especially the Hittinger Lab.

A group of students, staff, and researchers take a group photo together at the memorial union in Madison Members of the Hittinger Lab pose together at Memorial Union. Courtesy of Sae-Byuk Lee

How does food microbiology relate to research in the Hittinger Lab? 
While my Ph.D. is in food microbiology, it relates to microbial genetics quite a bit! Both involve studying yeast and use the same methodology. The Hittinger Lab is a great fit for me. I am currently investigating genetically engineered yeast to improve biofuel production efficiency from lignocellulosic biomass such as switchgrass. This is a cool area of application in microbiology because it includes many different fields, such as biochemistry, genetics, and bioinformatics. The lab also partners with biofuel industry companies to improve their yeast strains.

What is your current research project? 
My research team has recently developed an excellent xylose-fermenting yeast strain and published the results in the journal Metabolic Engineering. I believe that someday the research I am working on here will contribute directly to the biofuel industry. 

Sae-Byuk Lee stands with his arms in an anaerobic chamber while pipetting
Postdoctoral researcher Sae-Byuk Lee pipettes samples in an anaerobic chamber in Chris Hittinger's lab at the Wisconsin Energy Institute in Madison, Wis. Matt Wisniewski

What are some of your favorite memories as a postdoctoral researcher?
I have many great memories here so far! One that stands out is the WEI holiday party held in December of 2019. This was my first year at WEI, and I brought my family to meet my colleagues. I really missed this party the last few years. We lost so many fun things due to the pandemic, so I hope we can get through this difficult time and celebrate the end of the year once again together.  

I also remember that when I arrived in the United States, Trey, one of my advisors, invited my family along with Chris’ family to his home during Christmas. Trey’s family gave us Christmas gifts and made us feel very welcomed in Madison. My family sincerely appreciated it. 

Additionally, I enjoy Halloween in the United States. It’s great to see some of my colleagues dress up in costumes. My kids also really like trick-or-treating!

Sae-Byuk Lee poses for a photo at his lab bench in the Wisconsin Energy Institute Next March, Lee will be joining the Kyungpook National University’s Department of Food Science and Biotechnology, taking over the role from his previous advisor, who is retiring. Courtesy of Sae-Byuk Lee

What is one thing that surprised you about UW–Madison?
I was very surprised how much UW–Madison students and residents love the Badger football team. It is very fun to see so many Badgers going to the game each football Saturday. Honestly, I didn’t know much about football before coming to the United States but now I am very proud of to be a Badger! 

Where is your favorite place on campus? 
I really love the Memorial Union Terrace. The lake view is awesome and makes the beer taste much better. If I could invite my family or friends from Korea, I would bring them to the Terrace!

What are your plans for the future? 
Last summer, I got a job offer from my previous university to become a faculty member. I will go back to Korea next January and start to work next March at Kyungpook National University’s Department of Food Science and Biotechnology. I am very excited to take on this role from my previous advisor, who is retiring.

Did you always know you wanted to become a researcher and professor?  
It has always been my dream to become a professor! I first knew this when I got a chance to tutor and teach undergraduates while completing my Ph.D. In my ideal world, I would get to teach food microbiology and fermentation.  

What will you take away from your experience at the Wisconsin Energy Institute? 
When it comes to research, I have seen that many of the techniques, concepts, and fermentation end products are translatable between biofuel and food science. I hope to collaborate with my colleagues from UW–Madison and the Wisconsin Energy Institute in the future. I would like to send students here for their Ph.D. or postdoctoral research. 

What do you do when you’re not working? 
I like to travel to beautiful places with my family. We have been to Lake Geneva, Door County, Devil’s Lake, and many interesting places in Wisconsin. I would like to travel more before we go back to Korea.

I also enjoy snowboarding! I like to go with my family. I learned to ski during a recent winter. My family will miss the snow in Wisconsin.  

What is one fun fact about yourself? 
I am a big Marvel fan! I like to talk about Marvel with my colleagues.