Campus News

Double Victory: Residency Classmates Turned USC Faculty Achieve NIH Funding Success

Former USC residency classmates reunite as USC faculty; both earn prestigious NIH grants simultaneously.

Eric Weintraub March 21, 2024
Dr. Sun Young Lee and Dr. Benjamin Xu as residents in 2013.
Dr. Sun Young Lee (pictured farthest to the left) and Dr. Benjamin Xu (pictured farthest to the right) with the USC Residency Ophthalmology Class of 2016.

In early 2024, ophthalmologists Sun Young Lee, MD, PhD, a retina specialist and Benjamin Xu, MD, PhD, a glaucoma specialist, celebrated a significant achievement – both were awarded their first R01 grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Remarkably, Lee and Xu’s journeys began together over a decade ago when they started residency training at USC in 2013.


Residency Bond

2016 USC Ophthalmology Residents
Dr. Lee and Dr. Xu with their residency class.


Lee and Xu took very different paths to their shared residency program. Lee, raised in South Korea, had already completed ophthalmology residency and retina fellowship training at the Asan Medical Center in Seoul. Driven by her ambition to become a clinician-scientist in the U.S., she made the bold decision to undertake another residency and fellowship—a six-year commitment—fueled by her dedication and vision in developing new treatments for retinal diseases. Xu, a California native, earned his MD/PhD from Columbia University in New York before beginning his USC residency.

“It was intimidating training with someone who already knew everything we were supposed to learn,” Xu recalled of the first day of his residency with Lee. “But Sunny quickly befriended all of her classmates and was always generous in sharing her knowledge.”

Lee and Xu both echo that they had fond memories of becoming close friends, along with the rest of their classmates. Both said they continue to learn from each other in their academic careers as clinician scientists. Not to mention, Lee used to dog-sit (for free!, she added) Xu’s family dog while he was on vacation. Lee found that her classmates became a second family. “The residency program rooted me here in Los Angeles, and we frequently saw each other and talked as a group,” she said.

As Lee pursued a subspecialty in retina (as she had done in South Korea), Xu became passionate about glaucoma care. “There was never a sense of competition,” Xu said. “We benefited from sharing each other’s expertise.”

Lee recalls how Xu’s development as an ophthalmologist-in-training motivated her. “Seeing Ben excel in his training gave me positive pressure to work harder – who is going to cure glaucoma versus retinal diseases sooner? The USC residency program provided an extremely educational and supportive environment.”

Post-Residency Journeys

After graduation, Lee and Xu followed different subspecialty paths to different parts of the country. Lee undertook a surgical retina fellowship at the University of Iowa before joining the department of ophthalmology at the University of Oklahoma. Xu undertook a glaucoma fellowship at UC San Diego before returning to USC to join the faculty. Despite the long distance between them, they remained in close contact.

In 2022, Lee returned to Los Angeles to take on a full-time faculty position at USC. Xu was the first person she called. “It was difficult to find a place to stay during the pandemic, so I ended up asking Ben if he could stay at his home,” Lee said.

Over the past two years, Lee and Xu have worked closely together as peers at USC, drawing from their individual clinical expertise and shared residency experience to mentor new classes of residents.


Pursuing Grant Funding

In addition to education and clinical work, Lee and Xu each began pursuing competitive NIH research grants. Securing an R01 grant from the NIH, which provides substantial funding for independent scientific research, is an immense challenge. Neither scientist received approval immediately.

“When Ben was down, or I was down from a prior application, we reminded ourselves that this is normal,” Lee said. “We assured each other that persistence is key.”

But in early 2024, both of their R01 grants were funded.

“It’s incredible we got our grants at the same time,” Xu said. “You never want to feel left behind. For us to do this at the same time is like crossing a marathon finish line together.”

While Lee and Xu celebrated their mutual victory, they were quick to recognize that this only marked the beginning of the next phase of their careers. “Of course, I was very happy, but I also realized this is a major project,” Xu said. “Now I’m expected to deliver.”

“We feel very privileged and grateful to receive funding from the federal government to support our research,” Lee added. “We owe it to the public and the scientific community to ensure that this money is put to good use. There’s a lot of pressure.”


R01 Projects

Lee’s project aims to develop new therapeutics to target age-related macular degeneration (AMD) using exosomes – extracellular vesicles that can deliver treatment directly to damaged cells. She will attempt to guide these exosomes to the macula, the area of the eye affected by AMD.

Xu’s project will combine OCT imaging and artificial intelligence to improve screening for primary angle closure glaucoma. Over the next 18 months, he will screen over 6,000 patients to gather data for modernizing the identification of at-risk individuals.

After supporting each other through their residency training and R01 applications, Lee and Xu are prepared to tackle these ambitious projects as colleagues and friends. Their years-long partnership provides a strong foundation to make discoveries that could positively impact and preserve the eyesight of millions of patients suffering from AMD and glaucoma worldwide.