Acclaimed Georgia Tech professor Lee still barred from COVID-19 work

Georgia Tech professor Eva Lee is one of the country's most renowned mathematics modeling experts and has helped cities, states and countries deal with natural disasters, terrorist attacks and infectious diseases.    AJC photo: Bob Andres
Georgia Tech professor Eva Lee is one of the country's most renowned mathematics modeling experts and has helped cities, states and countries deal with natural disasters, terrorist attacks and infectious diseases. AJC photo: Bob Andres

Acclaimed professor Eva Lee remains unable to access her mathematical modeling computers on the Georgia Tech campus to help fight the coronavirus pandemic, despite repeated requests from top U.S. officials.

Early this week Duane Caneva, the Department of Homeland Security’s chief medical officer, became the second high-ranking member of the agency to ask that Lee’s access to be restored. Both Lee’s lawyer, Buddy Parker, and the school confirmed this on Friday.

Last year, Lee was banished from campus and locked out of her email accounts when National Science Foundation agents found she had falsified a membership certificate behind a $40,000 grant. In December, Lee pleaded guilty in federal court to two counts of making false statements. She is to be sentenced May 21.

But DHS officials are seeking out Lee’s help because she uses complex computer modeling to help governments respond to disasters like the COVID-19 outbreak. She has been working from her Atlanta home for states and local governments. But Lee said in a recent interview she would be better able to help if she has access to her Georgia Tech computers and email account.

For years, Lee, 55, has made her computer modeling program RealOpt available for free to agencies across the country. The system takes into account many characteristics of a particular area and helps decision-makers on the ground combat an outbreak, such as recommending the best places for treatment centers and testing.

In late January, Romel Lapitan, director of DHS’s Agro/Bio Terrorism Countermeasures Division, asked Georgia Tech president Angel Cabrera to restore Lee’s access. “I sincerely hope you will consider this request quickly so we can utilize Dr. Lee’s talents to serve this nation’s health crisis in a timely manner,” he wrote.

But Georgia Tech did not grant Lee access to her computers, including one from the Centers for Disease Control that she has used for biomedical research and national security.

In a statement issued Friday, the school said “it needs a request, in writing, from a senior official overseeing the U.S. government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak that formally requests her involvement.” Given the nature of Lee’s guilty pleas, authenticating such a request is reasonable and “we remain open to receiving it,” the school said.


AJC COMPLETE COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS IN GEORGIA


Caneva and Lapitan are the only two U.S. officials who have reached out directly to Georgia Tech, the school said. Its statement said the school called Caneva, but “he advised Dr. Lee had not been formally engaged by him or under any other projects with the government that he was aware of and was also not able to identify a point of contact in central command that he could direct us to.”

The university did not acknowledge that, since late January at DHS’s request, Lee has been working with a collaborative of high-ranking federal, state and local officials to fight the coronavirus outbreak.

Parker, Lee’s lawyer, expressed astonishment with the Georgia Tech’s position.

“This begs the question of exactly who has been formally engaged by the U.S. government,” he said. “It’s a red herring. It does not deny her work with the consortium on behalf of all government structures in combatting COVID-19.”

Georgia Tech professor Eva Lee is one of the country's most renowned mathematics modeling experts.   Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com
Georgia Tech professor Eva Lee is one of the country's most renowned mathematics modeling experts. Bob Andres / robert.andres@ajc.com

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Parker asked, “What is the issue with having a person of Dr. Lee’s stature being able to fight the good fight against the pandemic? What danger to Georgia Tech and its institution does she pose to enter the campus and use her computers to help save lives?”

Brent Egan, a University of South Carolina School of Medicine professor, expressed similar frustration.

“This is a national health crisis,” said Egan, who has worked with Lee using computer modeling to better predict medical outcomes. “Georgia Tech needs to remember their key opportunity to help and not obstruct.”