CHS grad battling cancer receives honorary doctorate

Courtesy photo Virginia Lee, 24, was awarded an honorary Ph.D. in molecular plant science by Washington State University Dec. 13. Lee, a Clovis native, is battling terminal cancer.

Sharna Johnson

Virginia Lee’s outlook is simple — people were put on earth to help.

“If we’re not here to help others what are we here for?” Virginia Lee asked in a video filmed Friday by a journalist from Washington State University.

“It’s not always easy but it’s worth trying for, it’s not always easy to fight for the little guy and to know what one’s doing is not the most lucrative but I think that’s important,” she said.

And that’s exactly what 24-year-old Virginia was doing before she learned she had terminal cancer and was pulled away from her work by the rapidly advancing disease.

In September, Virginia Lee was diagnosed with what her father described as “a horribly aggressive cancer.”

Michael Lee said chemotherapy treatments were tried but unsuccessful.

Lee and his wife flew from Clovis to Washington to be with their daughter within a couple weeks of receiving the news and just three short months later, he said the family expects Virginia to be placed in hospice.

These last months with Virginia have been filled with daily challenges and hurdles, he said.

But “it has probably been the greatest three months of my life to be able to share this with her.”

A 2004 Clovis High School graduate and 2008 graduate of New Mexico State University, Virgina Lee became a doctor Dec. 13 when faculty from Washington State University gathered in her hospital room to award her an honorary Ph.D. in molecular plant science.

A graduate student in a fellowship program at WSU, Lee was working as an intern at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico when she began experiencing symptoms.

Her interests and research have been focused on using plant breeding and genetics to improve crop productivity and stability in developing nations, according to a letter from WSU.

She was awarded the degree “because of her potential as a scientist, her commitment to making a difference in this world and the tremendous impact she has already had on plant science education at WSU,” the letter said.

“Virginia’s focus on changing the world has been a reminder to all of us that what we do helps many people in many places live better lives.”

Lee said his daughter has always had an overwhelming desire to use her life to help others, recalling how she stood up in church one time and surprised her parents by challenging the church for cutting back the youth ministers’ time.

And in Las Cruces while at NMSU, he said she took it upon herself to raise money for an abused women’s shelter.

Even the internship to Mexico this summer she paid for out of her own pocket so she could forward her work and hopefully strengthen wheat crops to improve the food supply for the poor, he said.

“She did a lot on her own. She made us proud all the time,” he said. “(She wanted) to help the people that need help… She’s touched a lot of lives and she keeps on touching them.”

And that is the way they want people to see Virginia. Not for her illness, but for her desire and drive to make a difference.

But all the seriousness aside, Lee said when asked Friday how she wanted to be remembered, his daughter replied simply “with hair.”

It is that temerity and inquisitive nature that stands out in Carol Singletary’s mind when she thinks about the former student who attended her CHS journalism class.

Singletary said she sought Lee out to work on the school’s newspaper staff because of her strong qualities.

During her time with the Purple Press, Singletary said Virginia reported on the implementation of a staff dress code, writing a story called “Denim blues.”

“She went down and she interviewed the superintendent even though as a kid she felt intimidated. She didn’t let it show. She did a good job,” she recalled.

“(I remember) her questioning mind. She didn’t just accept things.

“She was like ‘I want to change things,’ that’s why I recruited her to be on the newspaper staff — I wanted kids like that.”