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Q&A with Tim Lee: Biologist Turned Comedian

Alumnus Tim Lee wasn't supposed to be a comedian. A biologist by training, he graduated in 1993 magna cum laude from UC San Diego with honors in biology. He went on to complete his Ph.D. at UC Davis. He spent years developing simulation and analytical models of population dynamics before he discovered that this bored him to tears. So he tried comedy, and has become an underground sensation, with over 4 million views on his YouTube videos. He now sells out performances from New York to Sydney. In this interview, Tim talks about his transition from biology to comedy, and how his biology research recently helped him out in a San Francisco coffee shop.

How does a person with a Ph.D. in biology transition to the world of comedy?

Lee: I was bored out of my mind. I got to the point that I didn't want to write any more papers and I didn't even want to read any more papers. I needed something new and exciting. I had never been in a high school play. I was never even in the choir. Performing arts were a whole new world for me. Comedy seemed honest, brutal and real. That was what I was looking for, so I sucked it up and headed to an open mic. It was a little more brutal than I had imagined, but I could live with that. That night started my love affair with performing comedy.

How does your biology background factor into your comedy routine?

Lee: It's the basis for most of my humor. Studying science for so many years drastically changed the way I look at the world. For better or worse, I'm unable to shake that point of view. Much of my humor is about exposing the scientific parallels of human behavior.

If you could do it all over again, would you still major in biology at UC San Diego?

Lee: I still love biology, so I don't have any regrets spending so much time studying the subject. I value the education I got at UC San Diego. Unfortunately, I didn't realize until I graduated how much of the college experience I missed by going to UC San Diego. There's a lot more to college than obtaining knowledge. There should be a robust social life in a college town where you are free to experience life away from the watchful eye of the administration. Most of the people I know who graduated with me at UC San Diego feel like the university was not developed with that in mind. The whole university area was designed to be easy to administrate. That's great for the people who run the university but not so great for the students.

Why did you want to be a biologist? Why did you stop wanting to be a biologist?

Lee: I grew up with a river running through my back yard. I'd watch the steelhead run up it in winter and, during the summer, I'd float down it in a raft. I think that's where my interest in the natural world started.

What's the best part of being a full-time comedian?

Lee: The time on stage with the audience is, by far, the biggest reward to being a comedian. It's still as honest, brutal and real as the day I started. There's a real joy in watching the audience from stage. It's a bit like Christmas. As a kid, the joy is in receiving the present. As an adult, the joy is in watching how much the kids love the present you gave them.

Why did you choose to attend UC San Diego?

Lee: The proximity to the beach. I'm a surfer, and being so close to Black's Beach was a major selling point for me.

What do you remember most about your time at UC San Diego?

Lee: I remember catching Brewer's blackbirds for some research I was doing with Trevor Price. I used to trap them and tag them right near the Student Center so people would always wonder what I was doing. Not the best activity for meeting women. However, that experience came in handy this week when a Brewer's blackbird flew into a coffee shop I was eating at in San Francisco. The staff was freaking out more than the bird. I calmly walked over, grabbed the bird carefully, walked it outside, and let it fly away. I got a round of applause from the patrons. I thought to myself, "Hey, that research finally paid off!"


 Fun Faves

Favorite joke:

  • "I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this." - Emo Phillips

Favorite place at UC San Diego:

  • Black's Beach

Favorite place on Earth:

  • Roti, Indonesia

Favorite movie:

  • This Is Spinal Tap

Favorite hobby:

  • Surfing

Favorite food:

  • Cold smoked wild salmon

Favorite college course:

  • Population genetics

Favorite words to live by:

  • "Of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!'" - John Greenleaf Whittier


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