Many budding scientists would look back on the day they were named a contributor on a published research paper as the highlight of their undergraduate education. University of Maryland biological sciences major Justin Lee would look back on it as Tuesday.

Lee is the first author on eight research papers and one book review, and a co-author on three other research papers—a highly unusual tally for someone who has yet to earn a degree. His most recent paper, published in August in the journal Zootaxa, describes two new species of gecko from Myanmar. By the time Lee graduates in May 2020, he’s likely to add a few more new species descriptions to his resume. 

Lee’s opportunity to publish so frequently in scientific journals stems from several years of volunteer work at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, but his obsession with reptiles and amphibians began when he was just 2 years old. 

Justin dissecting a snake at the Smithsonian Museum Support Center“My dad took me to the Central Park Zoo in New York,” Lee said. “We went to the reptile house and I saw a rhinoceros viper, a really attractive snake from Africa. I also saw a boa constrictor, and something really clicked.” 

Soon he was watching nature documentaries and devouring books, not to mention begging his mother for a pet snake. (When she assented, he allowed it to make a slithery escape in the house just as relatives were arriving for a holiday weekend; today, to his family’s undoubted relief, he no longer believes in keeping reptiles as personal pets.)

At age 12, while visiting the Museum of Natural History’s research library, Lee met—and impressed—Smithsonian herpetologist Roy McDiarmid. The two stayed in touch, and Lee began an internship in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles’ herpetology collection at the Smithsonian during the summer after his sophomore year of high school.

Soon, he began helping to curate the collection, in particular identifying species that herpetologist Daniel Mulcahy brought back from collecting trips in Myanmar. 

“We’re working on creating a field guide for that region,” said Mulcahy, “When we’re collecting, we just put our quick identification on specimens knowing that we’re going to compare them with species descriptions in the literature and molecular studies in the lab back home. Often, Justin has changed an identification based on his evaluation, and it turns out, when I sequence it in the molecular lab, he’s right.”  

When it came time to choose a college, UMD offered both proximity to the Smithsonian, where he could continue his research, and a slot in the College Park Scholars Life Sciences living-learning program.

“The Life Sciences program really encouraged me to continue doing my research, and there were so many opportunities for me to learn hands-on,” Lee said. 

His latest research paper describes three species from Mulcahy’s collection. Two are new to science, and all of them belong to a genus that had never been recorded from mainland Myanmar. 

“Myanmar is really understudied as far as reptiles and amphibians go,” Lee said. “It’s common for scientists to discover new species or find species that have been known in other areas but never seen in Myanmar before. But finding a whole genus, which is a higher taxonomic rank, is a lot more significant.”

Lee is also the recipient of UMD’s Undergraduate Summer Research, Travel and Educational Enrichment Award from the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences’ Alumni Network, which he used to help conduct surveys of reptiles and amphibians for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Lee said his ideal career would be one in which he can pursue his own research, but he’s keeping his options open. 

“It could be as museum curator, naturalist, technician or consultant,” Lee said. “Just doing something involved with conservation and biology for the rest of my life, that would make me happy.”