Travis Lee '05: 2x NCAA Champ & Engineer
Travis Lee had a plethora of matches to remember in his wrestling career.
How could he not, after going 143-13 in a Cornell singlet, earning two NCAA titles (at 125 in 2003 and 133 in 2005), and becoming the first four-time All-American in Big Red and Ivy League history?
But the bout that Lee considers the most memorable was his NCAA finals contest as a sophomore at 125 pounds against Chris Fleeger of Purdue.
"I was losing in the last 30 seconds and I needed a takedown to win," Lee said. "I had a plan, but I wasn't sure it would work."
It did. He notched a takedown and erased riding time to prevail 6-4 and clinch the National Championship.
"It was a defining win for me. It finished off an undefeated season," he said. "I was focused and had tunnel vision at the tournament. Being a kid from Hawaii, I always wanted to wrestle Division I. I'm so thankful to have gone to Cornell and been a part of the program."
After his outstanding college career, which also featured four EIWA titles and two Outstanding Wrestler trophies, Lee looked to build on his academic and wrestling success.
He stayed in Ithaca, earning his Masters degree in Biological Engineering and working part time at Rhoenix, a company focusing in microfluidics. Athletically, he worked with the Finger Lakes Wrestling Club, training in freestyle, with the goal of competing at the 2008 Olympics. He appeared to be on track, winning the Dave Schultz International at 60 kg in early 2007, with five dominant victories. However, in his next event, he suffered a severe injury that ended his competition days.
Lee coached on the staffs of the Finger Lakes Wrestling Club and Cornell wrestling until mid-2009, when he decided that it was time to focus on his long-term professional life. Lee moved to the San Francisco area and began his career at Life Technologies, a leader in biotechnology tools and instrumentation.
He still lives in the Bay Area, but now is the Director of Automation at Sana Biotechnologies, a company that develops cell and gene therapies with multiple drug development programs in progress.
"Previously, I did a lot of engineering myself - designing and building," he said. "Now, my role is more strategic and focused on leadership within the company and responsibility to mentor and guide the team I've hired and built up [across San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts]."
What does his team do?
"We provide a service to the entire organization," he said. "Our basic premise is to speed up and improve the operations within the company for scientists. We partner with the scientists, understand what they're trying to accomplish and automate that process. Automation improves consistency, speed, and reproducibility and sometimes it's really hard to collect enough data without automation. The Research and Development process has so many teams and so much specialty. It definitely keeps you on your toes for sure."
Lee feels that Cornell got him ready for these challenges.
"Cornell did a great job of preparing me," he said. "Not just the course work in engineering, but being on a team around like-minded people pursuing their career goals alongside their athletic goals. Seeing others doing well on the mat and in the classroom is motivation to keep you going. There were guys on the team I looked up to, like Jim Stanec, who was also an Engineer and an All-American. Guys like him laid the foundation for how to be a good student athlete and later on be successful in life."
His work doesn't keep him from staying involved with wrestling, however. Shortly before the pandemic began, Lee became a member of the Board of the Beat the Streets organization in the Bay Area.
"We're trying to get everything up and running again," he said. "I get a kick out of seeing kids improve and learn. It's always fun to spend time with kids and coach wrestling."
Like many Cornell wrestling alumni, Lee looks forward to spending time with his former teammates at the NCAA tournament.
"I definitely keep in touch with my teammates - we've had some 40th birthday parties. I can't believe we're turning 40," he said with a laugh. "We have group chats and had some Zoom calls during the pandemic. I always enjoy going to Nationals with my friends and supporting the team. We're fans no matter what, but it's really easy to be a fan of Cornell wrestling these days with so much success."
Lee attributes that success to a number of factors he experienced as an undergraduate as well.
"Cornell wrestling is a family," he said. "There's just so much to offer. There are some other places that offer strong academics and athletics as well, but I think Cornell is unique in the depth and breadth of offerings. Plus, the program has a ton of financial support and an incredibly strong and passionate Alumni Network that is unique and willing to do so much to help. The facilities are world class - a dream for a college wrestler. And I think with the Spartan Combat RTC, the opportunities that undergrads now have to train with and learn from world class athletes and coaches is so valuable. Mike Grey is so dedicated to the guys and the program. It's just an incredible place to be from so many perspectives. It's a lot to love and a lot to miss."
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