Even for one of the most high-profile virologists in the midst of the pandemic, it was not an event that will be easily forgotten.
For nearly 10 hours on a recent Saturday, Akiko Iwasaki was feted at a virtual gathering celebrating her 50th birthday and the 20th anniversary of her Yale lab. Former and current colleagues showered her with gifts, reminisced about outings to bars, Six Flags, and campsites, and answered trivia questions (her favorite color is purple — Iwasaki is a huge Prince fan).
But at about hour eight, the festive mood turned solemn. During toasts from her mentees, who thanked her for counseling them on how to respond to critics, Iwasaki shared how she’s still fending them off herself. She said a retired male professor, who was a former chief of surgery at a different university, had recently berated her in an email over a paper she wrote in Nature Medicine that called out toxic principal investigators in academia and charted how to dismantle hostile workplaces.
“He told me that my kind of attitude … was ruining the lives of young men,” she said, adding that this person also wrote that Iwasaki’s suggestions could have ruined the careers of many Nobel Prize-winning scientists had she spoken up about their toxic environments. And without missing a beat, Iwasaki added through laughs, “Maybe I should have.”
To know Iwasaki is to know that she is passionate about combatting sexism, power imbalances, and toxic behavior in academia. A prolific tweeter with nearly 80,000 followers, Iwasaki shares frustrations about mansplaining, gender discrimination, and the extra work that women, especially women of color, endure in dealing with messages that question their expertise and position. “I’m exhausted from having to do this, which takes time away from my real work,” she tweeted.
In several interviews with STAT, she did not hold back in her condemnation of “the power dichotomy” in science, where junior scientists — especially women — are subject to harassment and discrimination. “A professor holds such power that they kind of get away,” Iwasaki said. “Imagine having to protect yourself from this kind of behavior and having to do science.”
With the Covid-19 pandemic, Iwasaki, also an immunologist, has seen her influence soar. She is a go-to expert on Covid-19, and since the start of the pandemic, her team has published nearly two dozen papers, ranging from describing a new mouse model for studying immunity to outlining what reinfections mean for Covid-19.
“Back when I was in the lab and would tell people who I worked for, only people in our exact field knew her,” said Michal Tal, a former graduate student in the Iwasaki lab, who is now at Stanford University. “Now I tell people [I trained with her] and they swoon.”
Since March, Iwasaki is seemingly omnipresent in news stories and on TV, radio, and podcasts segments. Even with round-the-clock scientific work, Iwasaki said these media appearances are crucial to fighting misinformation about the pandemic and educating the public about how the body’s immune system is likely to be able to fend off SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
She has the same mission on Twitter: She’s written in-depth, sometimes wonky, threads explaining Covid-19 papers coming out of her own lab, and puts others’ research into context. Her thread explaining the significance of the first published case of Covid-19 reinfection in Hong Kong, for instance, has drawn more than 9,700 retweets and 12,500 likes. Being the first such case, there was considerable concern among experts and laypeople about what it meant for the trajectory of the pandemic. However, Iwasaki seemed unfazed. In her thread, she clearly states, “This is no cause for alarm — this is a textbook example of how immunity should work,” before she explains, in simpler terms, the findings.
There is this unspoken extra work load that #women and #POC are burdened with, which is having to deal with messages and emails calling into question your expertise, opinion & position. All the time. I’m exhausted from having to do this, which takes time away from my real work 😩
— Prof. Akiko Iwasaki (@VirusesImmunity) September 27, 2020
With her prolific tweeting also comes a fair amount of backlash. Iwasaki said she isn’t dealing with a daily deluge of Twitter trolls, but when it happens, “it puts a damper on my efforts.” Her messages about scientific topics don’t get nearly as many critics as when she tweets about women in science or other cultural issues about academia. “But I try to highlight even that, that when people are criticizing me, as a woman of color, they need to check themselves,” she said.
Iwasaki has also taken to tweeting in other languages, including Japanese and Portuguese. She doesn’t know the latter, but “I just use Google Translate,” she confessed. “I really want to reach out to the world.”
In recent weeks, she has collaborated with journalists to put out easy-to-understand diagrams explaining how the immune system works and participated in events that encourage scientists to step out of their silos and integrate social and political issues into their work.
Ruslan Medzhitov, Iwasaki’s husband and fellow Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Yale, recalled that she was fixated on the pandemic before it hit U.S. shores. “I wasn’t even thinking about it that much, and she was looking for every new report from China,” said Medzhitov, an immunobiologist.
While Iwasaki is now more publicly recognized as one of the “experts to trust,’’ her candor about delicate topics in academia has led her for years to establish a reputation as approachable, with her lab becoming a haven for those who are working under unsupportive mentors or who are no longer excited to be doing scientific research.
In the more than three years she has been on Twitter, she’s had hundreds of people reach out to her directly on the platform. But many others have reached out to her offline over the two decades she’s run her own lab. “I’m never too busy for that,” Iwasaki said. “I feel I have to do this because there’s no one else helping them. I cannot have students suffering in silence.”
There have been several people over the years who have been “rescued,” as the academic parlance goes, from difficult and often toxic lab environments to become a part of Iwasaki’s lab.
Two years ago, M.D./Ph.D. student Alice Lu-Culligan was in a different department at Yale and said she was exposed to bullying, harassment, and a cutthroat environment that robbed her of the joy of doing research. “It was a very difficult environment because of my colleagues and also the leadership of the PI herself,” she said.
But a chance meeting with Iwasaki at a women in science event changed that. As Lu-Culligan described her situation, she felt immediately validated as Iwasaki asked follow-up questions about the lab environment, offered to intervene on Lu-Culligan’s behalf, and advised that she get out of the situation. “Even members of my thesis committee advised me to keep my head down and get through it, but here was an outside faculty member who was telling me that she would protect me,” Lu-Culligan said.
And after she transferred into Iwasaki’s lab, Lu-Culligan learned that she was hardly the first such person to find a new scientific home with Iwasaki. Even the very first graduate student in the lab decades ago was such a “rescue.” “It showed that it was always part of [Iwasaki’s] purpose and identity to create a home for people like me,” Lu-Culligan said. “Whatever is right for her trainees is what she’s going to do.”
In a display of her commitment to trainees and science alike, Iwasaki has also been deliberate about assembling a diverse team, one that includes scientists from several countries, across the gender spectrum, those with different levels of education, and those who haven’t followed typical career trajectories.
During the Zoom celebration, Iwasaki gave a talk on the benefits of diversity in science, based on her “observational study” of her own lab over the past 20 years. “I’m sorry there’s no control group,” she joked. More than half of the nearly 100 people who have been members of her lab have been women, she said, and lab members over the years have hailed from more than a dozen countries.
“From a selfish standpoint, if we want to do the best science we can, we need a diverse set of people,” she told STAT. “I’ve also enjoyed hearing about a diverse set of thought processes, based on where people are from and their backgrounds — that really gives you that spice you need to do creative science.”
Iwasaki herself has spoken out about being a Japanese American immigrant, a background that she said she’s been especially conscious of as xenophobia and racism against Asian Americans has surged amid the pandemic. “It’s all subtle,” she said. Even before the pandemic, she and her family had dealt with incidents in their majority-white town in southern Connecticut. Her kids felt excluded and were made fun of at school, Iwasaki shared, and she and her husband moved them to a different school district. That feeling of being an outsider has only heightened. “If I go into the downtown area, there are some stares,” she said, adding, “I can’t tell if it’s because I am Asian, but I could feel it.”
Her willingness to be vulnerable about sensitive topics and with those she works with makes Iwasaki stand out in a world that’s otherwise shaped by strict hierarchies and boundaries between principal investigators and the members of their lab, whether students or staff.
“I hate hierarchy and grew up in a hierarchical system in Japan,” Iwasaki said, adding that she has “completely dismantled” it in her lab. “I never treat a high school student differently than a postdoc.”
That kind of open lab environment allows scientists to know they are more than just their research, said Howard Liu, a psychiatrist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center who struck up a friendship with Iwasaki over Twitter given their shared interest in gender equity work in STEM. “I really believe in the importance of intentional boundary crossings with trainees,” he said. When Iwasaki shares her ongoing struggles, or goes to the movies and restaurants with her team, “it’s a chance for [trainees] to see your life and the things you value, and to see life outside a lab. And she has consistently done that,” Liu said.
Many current and past lab members say that among the biggest things they’ve learned from Iwasaki is how to balance motherhood with the demands of academia. She had both her children — now 11 and 13 — after establishing her own lab. As Iwasaki was pregnant with her younger daughter, Naomi, one of her trainees was expecting her first child.
“We would pass each other in the hallway waddling back and forth to the bathroom all the time,” Tal said. One of the many lab outings was to a sushi restaurant, and Iwasaki and Tal strategized on ways to avoid eating sushi, even though it’s a favorite of Iwasaki’s. Having a female mentor and lab head is special, Tal said, but “nobody can get you like another pregnant woman can — it’s a whole other kind of relatable.”
And because it’s so rare for women in academia to get that kind of support, Iwasaki is intentional about showing hers.
The pinned tweet atop her page is a snapshot of a conversation she had with a mentee several years ago about choosing between pregnancy and a career in STEM: “Be pregnant and go on interviews,” Iwasaki told her. “If they don’t welcome you with open arms and offer childcare options, they don’t deserve you.”
“She taught me that there’s not one or the other,” said Maria Tokuyama, a current postdoc in Iwasaki’s lab.
Tokuyama said she got nearly 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, compared to the eight weeks designated by the National Institutes of Health. Ellen Foxman, who is also now a Yale professor of immunobiology, shared during the Zoom celebration that she was hired into the Iwasaki lab after taking six years away from science to become a parent.
“Her openness about succeeding as a mother was one of the most important things I’ve learned,” Tokuyama said, adding that it’s a trait she plans to instill in her own trainees when she starts her lab at the University of British Columbia in March next year.
Iwasaki said the only time she seriously thought about leaving academia was right after she gave birth to her first child, Emi. Not winning the on-campus child care lottery meant placing her daughter in day care about 30 minutes from campus. Emi had trouble bottle feeding, even though she was given different shapes and types of bottles. For a few weeks, Iwasaki made the 12-mile trip every day from campus to the day care to breastfeed.
During one of these trips, Iwasaki pulled off the road and broke down, she said. “I felt so guilty that she had to be hungry without me, but also for my lab members who couldn’t get my full attention.”
Iwasaki said her husband was a major support system in that difficult period, even though she often felt the pangs of unfairness as a working mother. “Of course he can’t breastfeed, but a lot of the household chores and child care issues fell on me and I felt devastated,” she said.
In the 15 years since, Iwasaki said her husband has been much more involved with their daughters, and she acknowledged other support systems and privileges that have allowed her to dedicate time and energy to work and her family life.
She was just 30 when she established her lab at Yale. She was granted tenure and an appointment at Howard Hughes Medical Institute within the next decade, both of which freed her up to take on non-lab projects, such as her science communication efforts, and to cultivate a lab environment that’s considerate of everyone. And in the last two years, she has been elected to both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, dual recognitions that are reserved for the most accomplished scientists.
“I think what allowed me to survive is the wonderful people who came through the lab,’’ she said. “I curated people who are kind and generous and whose nature was important.”
And continuing to mentor the next generation of scientists is what’s most important to her. She made that clear to everyone gathered at the Zoom party, who asked her what the next 20 years would look like for the Iwasaki lab.
“I really don’t need any more accolades or papers. It’s all about you guys,” she said.
Her hope is that the newer generation of scientists that comes in carries that mentality of showing kindness, standing up for others with less power, and working to make a difference. “Academia has to change,” she told the group. “And it’s gonna change if we all did that, and hopefully the older generation will be gone [so] can clean up this mess.”