Most graduate students are primarily concerned with getting their degree. But Lee Pribyl has added a larger goal to his time as a graduate student at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.
Pribyl certainly wants to walk away from UTHSC with his degree. However, as President of the Student Government Association Executive Council (SGAEC), he is also determined to leave the university an even better place for those who come behind.
“I think that’s a goal most people involved in student government at their schools want to do,” he said. “You want to make the program better. You want to make the school better.
Pribyl, 30, grew up on a small, family-owned dairy farm in Maple Lake, Minnesota, about an hour west of Minneapolis-St. Paul. He got his undergraduate degree in genetics and microbiology at the University of Minnesota. A four-year stint as a volunteer in a lab after graduation ignited his passion for research with a focus on cancer.
He came to UTHSC in 2014 to pursue a PhD in cancer and developmental biology in the College of Graduate Health Sciences. “I actually found UTHSC online,” he said. He didn’t know anyone at the university and had visited Memphis only a time or two.
“I came here for an interview, and from that point, I really felt like this was a good learning environment,” he said. “It seemed like I would fit in well with the program.”
The first year went by in a blur of studies and busyness. But toward the end of that year, Pribyl started to become more involved in student activities in his college.
A talk during orientation by the graduate school’s student government president evidently left an impression. In his second year, Pribyl served as marketing chair of the Graduate Student Executive Council. Each of the six college at UTHSC has its own student government organization, all of which are under the umbrella of the Student Government Association Executive Council that represents the entire campus.
In his third year, Pribyl was elected vice president of the graduate student group. “That’s where I kind of transitioned into wanting to leave the program better than when I came in,” he said.
By his fourth year on campus, Pribyl was elected by the graduate student organization to serve as president of the SGAEC. The top position rotates among the colleges annually.
Pribyl credits his student government experience with helping him find a home at the university.
“You really do settle into your lab and you do your research all day, every day,” he said. “So it doesn’t leave a lot of opportunity to meet other classmates. We thought of some social events to get student out of the lab and interacting with people.”
Beyond that, he is proud that the SGAEC has been successful on several fronts this year. The organization was instrumental in the university going smoke free January 1; continues to advocate for vision and dental insurance for students and postdocs; is pushing for more green initiatives on campus; is strategically growing its profile among the student body; and successfully funded improvements in the library, new furniture for the lobby of the General Education Building, and new equipment for the campus fitness facility, which is being renovated.
“Lee has been an effective SGAEC president,” said Lori Gonzalez, PhD, vice chancellor of Academic, Faculty and Student Affairs. “He identified issues that would improve the student experience and worked tirelessly to make improvement. One great example is his work to have dental and vision added to the existing health insurance plan.” Dr. Gonzalez said there is currently a Request for Proposals that includes both dental and vision insurance for students as a result. “I look forward to following Lee’s career. I expect great things from him.”
Pribyl works most days in the lab of Peter McKinnon, PhD, at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, trying to uncover the secrets of cancer development in children.
“We know it’s a genetic basis, but it’s what aspects of that are actually driving the formation, and why is it only certain children who get it,” he said. “That’s really the passion for me.”
He hopes one day to run his own lab, and perhaps, it will be in an academic setting.
He believes his student government service has equipped him for that future.
“It’s really given me the knowledge that Number 1, things do not get done overnight,” he said. “There is a process to getting anything done. Especially at a government university, there is a hierarchy of administrative levels to go through. It takes a lot of time, a lot of patience, a lot of hard work to get things done that you have a passion for and that you know are going to be beneficial to every student. It is a good learning lesson.”
The SGAEC end-of-year banquet is April 18, and the new president takes office June 1. As Pribyl prepares to hand over the gavel, he has some advice for his fellow students and those who will come to UTHSC in the future.
“I would say get involved early,” he said. “We are here for such a short time. The earlier you get involved, you can make a lot of changes. Knowing that the students are definitely using and enjoying the things we’ve put on campus, that’s what really is rewarding.”