Judge thanks and sentences acclaimed GA Tech coronavirus researcher

For months, top U.S. health officials have relied upon Georgia Tech professor Eva Lee’s computer modeling prowess in trying to bring the coronavirus under control and prepare for the best way to distribute an eventual vaccine.

But during an emotional hearing on Wednesday, Lee officially became a convicted felon for making false statements regarding a National Science Foundation grant. As he imposed her sentence, U.S. District Judge Steve Jones took the exceptional step of thanking Lee for her service to the nation and urged her to continue her important work.

“We need you in America for the next few months and the rest of your life to help us,” Jones told Lee. “… From what I’ve read and seen, you’ll play a major part in how America will come out of this coronavirus.”

The judge had rejected a federal prosecutor’s recommendation that Lee be sentenced to 8 months of home confinement. Instead, he sentenced her to 10 months probation with two months of home confinement — to be served next April and May.

“The court does not feel that society would benefit from you right now serving eight months in home confinement,” the judge said. “You need to be doing what you’re doing.”

In December, Lee pleaded guilty to falsifying the membership certificate behind a $40,000 National Science Foundation grant and then lying about it when questioned by federal investigators. As part of her sentence, Lee was ordered to pay $40,000 in restitution to NSF.

After her guilty plea, Georgia Tech banished Lee from its campus, cutting off her access to the 200 laboratory computers she would use to fight the pandemic. The institute also denied repeated requests from top U.S. health officials to restore Lee’s access to her computers while COVID-19 raged across the country.

Lee’s expertise, recognized worldwide, involves computational methods that sort through large, complex sets of data to find the most optimal responses to public health emergencies.

Lee used modeling programs to create mass drug-dispensing programs for pandemics and bioterrorism attacks. She has helped with projects involving border security, early disease diagnosis, human trafficking and prostate cancer. She helped Grady Memorial Hospital eliminate an alarming rate of infections related to open-heart surgeries.

Her RealOpt computer planning system helped public health officials respond to the H1N1 virus outbreak, an earthquake in Haiti, a nuclear accident in Japan, the Ebola virus outbreak and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of monetizing RealOpt, Lee made it available for free in all 50 states, where more than 14,000 users employ it to respond to public health emergencies, Mark Prausnitz, a Georgia Tech chemical and biomolecular engineering professor, testified.

“She is a national hero and a treasure,” Prausnitz said.

Lee’s colleague was one of several to testify on her behalf. Witnesses described her as a selfless, inspiring teacher who loved her students and often took disadvantaged minority students under her wing to give them hope.

Prausnitz was also one of a number of people who wrote letters to U.S. Attorney BJay Pak, imploring him to defer Lee’s prosecution — essentially dismissing the case altogether — or reduce her offenses to misdemeanors.

“If Dr. Lee were to be convicted of a felony, it would seriously jeopardize her ability to continue to serve students, society and the American people,” Prausnitz wrote.

Thomas Wilkinson, chief medical information officer for the Department of Homeland Security, made a similar plea. “I am asking that you defer prosecution of Dr. Lee’s case so that we can return her focus to projects of national significance,” he said.

Pak, who refused to do so, declined requests for comment.

During the sentencing hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Russell Phillips said he is aware of those who believe Lee should not be prosecuted “because she’s too valuable or too important or too special.”

But Lee violated federal law, he said. “Nobody is above the law. It doesn’t matter how rich you are, how smart you are, how powerful you are, how important you are, you’re not above the law.”

Lee’s lawyer, Buddy Parker, told Jones that even though his client was shut off from her computers at Georgia Tech, she has continued her work on the pandemic from a computer set up in her kitchen. Her sense of service includes “an unquestioned willingness to go above and beyond what many think is simply required,” he said.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Lee, who broke down several times during the Zoom hearing, apologized to Jones for her transgressions. She acknowledged that her actions shut her off from the students she taught, the emergency responders who relied upon her, and the hospital patients she wanted to help treat.

“So my punishment means punishing all these people and it feels horrible to me,” she said. “I would like to be able to continue my service for hospitals, for students, for little kids. Please forgive my mistakes.”