Dr. Akiko Iwasaki is currently a professor at Yale University and an investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Her research is focused on the dynamics of innate immune responses and memory T cell functions against viruses at mucosal surfaces and leveraging this information to develop novel vaccine strategies. We had the opportunity to connect with Dr. Iwasaki to discuss her career, fighting misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as her advocacy for equity and diversity in STEM.
Dr. Iwasaki completed both her undergraduate and doctoral studies at the University of Toronto. As a graduate student in Dr. Brian Barber’s laboratory, she studied DNA vaccines and the mechanism by which they induced immunity. Her favourite memories include spending countless hours with lab mates and other students in the program. “We worked hard but also played hard.”
Following her PhD, Dr. Iwasaki pursued a postdoctoral fellowship in Dr. Brian Kelsall’s lab at National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. This meant major change on multiple levels: transitioning from being a student to a postdoc, moving to a different country, and shifting from a University setting to a well-funded government organization. As a prospective postdoc myself, I was curious about her experience handling such drastic changes. “When I first got there, I felt like a small ant in a giant anthill,” she confided. “At the same time, the possibilities were endless. It felt like my imagination was the limit.” In comparison to graduate student life, being a postdoc also meant more responsibilities, including mentoring others in the lab. However, it also meant more time to focus on the science and to expand her experiences. “It is a fabulous part of a scientific career! … I went from studying DNA vaccines to studying dendritic cells in the Peyer’s patches. This was a great new experience for me.”
In 2000, Dr. Iwasaki joined the faculty at Yale and began building her lab to its prominence today. On running her own lab, Dr. Iwasaki believes the key to growing a successful team is to fill it with generous and collaborative people. She strives to foster a diverse, safe, and nurturing lab environment where all voices are heard equally, regardless of their positions. “Many people think that being successful requires one to be cutthroat, aggressive and selfish. In fact, I would argue the opposite… Happy people are a lot more productive and imaginative.”
For Dr. Iwasaki, the most fulfilling aspect of being a principal investigator is seeing members of her lab succeed by getting excited about science and making novel discoveries. Sharing and enjoying these moments fuels her drive. She divulged that the job does come with challenges. In particular, the toughest aspect is securing and maintaining funding for her lab, a sentiment that is likely shared by many others in our field.
As experts in viral immunity, Dr. Iwasaki’s group leads research on immune recognition and response to influenza, rhinovirus, herpes simplex virus, and Zika virus. Most recently, her lab quickly pivoted to studying SARS-CoV-2. Early on in the pandemic, the male sex was identified as a risk factor for disease severity and mortality from COVID-19. Inspired by Dr. Sabra Klein’s seminal work on sex differences in immune responses, Dr. Iwasaki’s team focused on analyzing immune responses against the virus in female compared to male patients. Their work revealed significant differences in T cell response and activation to SARS-CoV-2 infection between the two cohorts, implicating sex as a biological variable that may be important in treatment strategy of various infectious diseases. We also discussed her plans for the lab moving forward. Dr. Iwasaki hopes to continue to investigate immunity in long-haul COVID. “Is it related to persistent viral infection? Viral debris? Or potentially autoimmune response? Millions of people will suffer from long consequences of COVID, and currently there are no good diagnosis or therapy. We want to get to the bottom of disease pathogenesis.”
Beyond running a high-profile lab, Dr. Iwasaki is renown as an outspoken and passionate scientific communicator, frequently sharing updates on research as well as combatting misinformation across social media, including podcasts, YouTube, blogs. “I consider it is part of a scientist’s duty to communicate scientific information to the public. We are supported by taxpayers to carryout research. I feel we owe it to them to communicate how the fruit of their investment turned out. Bonus is that we get to encourage young people to get interested and involved in science!” As a prolific tweeter, Dr. Iwasaki promotes science, disseminates useful information, and inspires others in the community using accurate yet succinct and digestible messages. One benefit of the platform is how accessible it is: “Anyone can tweet. Anyone can read your tweet, respond and engage,” says Dr. Iwasaki. However, this advantage can also be a hazard. Often having to deal with trolls on Twitter, she recommends muting or blocking them. “It is emotionally taxing and they love it when we engage with them. Why give them the satisfaction at my expense? I have real problems to solve, and have no time or energy for these battles.”
Dr. Iwasaki is also involved in outreach through traditional media, such as newspaper, radio, and television, attempting to reach a wide range of demographics and communities. Throughout the current pandemic, she has appeared on numerous segments, educating the public on viral immunity and SARS-CoV-2. Vaccines, especially, have garnered attention, surrounded by copious amounts of misinformation. Dr. Iwasaki reassures us that all approved vaccines are rigorously tested and evaluated by domestic committees. For example, in the US, safety and efficacy data on various demographic groups are weighed prior to FDA approval. Notably, the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) sessions and documents are made available to the public. Regarding vaccines developed in other countries, “[T]he latest data on Sputnik V published in the Lancet look great, with overall efficacy of 91.6% with good safety profile. I look forward to learning more about Sinovac and Covaxin phase 3 data.”
On top of being an influential immunologist, Dr. Iwasaki is dedicated to dismantling gender and racial discrimination in STEM. It’s no secret that there is underrepresentation of minorities and women in the field of science, especially in senior faculty positions. Dr. Iwasaki believes that diversity is crucial to scientific innovation and success. She calls for taking proactive steps in identifying qualified diverse candidates, and cultivation of underrepresented groups at every stage, from recruitment of trainees to leadership positions on an institutional level. “[Diversity] leads to creative and productive science.” In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected women and underrepresented minority scientists due to increased burden of childcare, eldercare, and household duties. Dr. Iwasaki believes we need better institutional and government support to bridge these gaps during this difficult time, including additional funding, childcare assistance, tenure clock extensions, and leniency in annual evaluations.
Dr. Iwasaki is a strong advocate for women in STEM. In her opinion, the attitudes and expectations of mothers in science still needs a lot more work. Women still face countless barriers. “[S]ome are forced to choose between motherhood [and] science, others are forced out of science because they have no access to childcare, and others suffer because they take on [a] disproportionate amount of household responsibilities. Others are outright discriminated by their bosses when they become pregnant. This has to change, if we want to benefit from the talents of women who choose to have children.” Many trainees today still wonder if pregnancy will impact their career trajectory or success. Some of her own lab members have disclosed that they were reprimanded for becoming pregnant during prior work experiences. In contrast, Dr. Iwasaki has seen women who become incredibly productive during pregnancy and after childbirth. During her own pregnancy, Dr. Iwasaki wrote three grant applications, submitted multiple manuscripts, and even had a Nature paper published the week her daughter was born.
Revealing her personal journey, Dr. Iwasaki shared with us that she left Japan at the age of 16 because she felt there was limited opportunities for women to succeed in the professional environment. Scientific culture, in particular, is hierarchical and less conducive to young women pursuing creative work. That being said, Dr. Iwasaki confesses that power differentials also exist in North America. “There is deep rooted implicit bias against women and people of color in science. Part of what I do now, in addition to science, is to advocate for equality and diversity in science.” Dr. Iwasaki admits that when she was much younger, she did not have the time or capacity to consider these issues. Retrospectively, she has realized the tremendous support she has received from other women during critical junctures in her own career. “These include Profs. Tania Watts and Pam Ohashi. They gave me so much support during my graduate school. Of course, I could not be where I am today without the support and mentorship of Prof. Brian Barber, with whom I trained for my Ph.D. in Toronto.”