This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).
#LINO18 young scientist, Kayoko Shioda, 30, from Japan, ia a 2nd year Ph.D. student at Yale University.
Her research is about epidemiology of infectious diseases with a focus on vaccine preventable diseases. She is studying the population-level impact of vaccines against pneumococcus both in developing and developed countries. Her goal is to generate evidence to help control infectious diseases more effectively, in collaboration with hospitals, government, and international organisations. Enjoy the interview with Kayoko and get inspired!
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
My goal was formulated in my childhood when my family moved from Japan, our home country, to the Republic of South Africa. Living there for three years, I noticed a number of things that were different there. I learned that the burden of HIV/AIDS was extremely high in South Africa. I saw many families in rural area suffering from zoonosis, which you do not often see in Japan. I observed and also experienced racial discrimination a number of times. I was deeply shocked by differences in poverty levels, life expectancy, education, safety, infrastructure, and so on. These days in South Africa taught me numerous life lessons and changed my perspectives. As I grew up, I realised that these issues are intricately connected to each other, requiring a multidisciplinary approach to address them from multiple fronts. Because I was especially interested in infectious diseases and zoonosis, I decided to pursue a career in veterinary medicine and public health. I am truly grateful for my parents who gave me an opportunity to live in South Africa and to find my lifework.
Who are your role models?
Although I have many role models – both males and females – here I will introduce one of my female role models, Dr. Tomoko Ishibashi. Dr. Ishibashi, who is also a veterinarian, has led a number of programs to improve animal welfare, food safety, and veterinary education at World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. She is also a bright, strong mother of two children. I met her when I was an intern at OIE during the veterinary medicine program. She taught me ways to make contributions towards solving global health issues as a veterinarian and showed me how to balance work and personal life, which is important to many of us. I am truly delighted that I had the chance to get to know her, because it was challenging to imagine how to develop a career as a female veterinarian, especially because the veterinary medicine program at the University of Tokyo did not have any female professors when I was a student.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
My dream to become a veterinarian persisted after coming back from South Africa, so I matriculated in a 6-year veterinary program at the University of Tokyo. Among a broad range of topics taught in the program, I was drawn to infectious diseases and decided to conduct research on the canine distemper virus for my dissertation. I studied genetic mutations of a new strain of this virus isolated from a canine case and how these mutations affect their phenotypes using cell lines and animal models. I was also strongly inspired by the concept of epidemiology and public health when I took these classes in my fourth year. I learned that veterinarians play important roles in the field of global health. Stories about veterinarians working in African countries to respond to outbreaks of various infectious diseases were particularly interesting to me, as I always wanted to go back to and work in African countries where my dream was formulated. The courses made me realise that I would like to be involved in global health initiatives as a veterinarian, although I was not sure about concrete steps to achieve this goal.
During the last two years of the veterinary program, I learned through internships and talking to faculties and alumni, that one way to achieve my goal is to obtain a master’s degree and learn more about public health and epidemiology. Thus, I decided to go to a Master of Public health (MPH) program at Emory University. I chose to study abroad to expand my network and improve my English skills to work globally. Emory provided great opportunities to be involved in international collaborative projects.
My days at Emory changed my life. As many international students’ experience, it was not easy for me to study everything in English and live in Atlanta without a car and with a limited amount of student loans. However, it gave me an opportunity to make the first step towards my dream, which is to work as an intern at WHO Country Office for Thailand for several months. One of the projects I worked on in Thailand was to control leptospirosis infections in the Northeast Thailand, which became a topic of my MPH thesis. It was my first real experience in conducting a global health project, and I realised that this is my lifework.
Towards the end of the master’s program at Emory, I was applying for more than 50 jobs. Getting a job in the field of global health as an immediate graduate was challenging, because most of the positions require at least a few years of full-time work experience. Thanks to recommendation from my supervisor, Dr. Justin Remais, I was hired by the Division of Viral Diseases at CDC, which had been my dream place. I worked on infectious disease surveillance, outbreak response, and epidemiological research on the gastroenteritis team with Drs. Aron Hall and Ben Lopman and other wonderful colleagues for two years.
Through projects at CDC, I learned how to establish a nation-wide disease surveillance program and strategies for reducing limitations and collecting meaningful data. I also realised that, while surveillance systems collect a substantial amount of data, the use of them is often limited to simple descriptive analyses. Therefore, I decided to pursue a doctorate at Yale to learn methodology of mathematical modeling and explore additional utilities of such data. I would like to contribute to the characterisation of infectious disease dynamics and guide future interventions that can impact public health.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
One of the unforgettable projects was a response to an outbreak of limb weakness in the U.S. in 2014. State health departments noticed that there were an unusual number of children who suddenly could not move their arms or legs. The etiology and progression of this syndrome was unknown. To address this issue, CDC started a national surveillance within a couple of weeks of the first notification of the cluster in collaboration with clinicians and local health departments. As a research fellow at CDC, I helped collect clinical and epidemiological information and specimens from patients in order to gain a better understanding of the disease and to identify an etiology. Although it was the most challenging project that I have ever worked on, it taught me a number of important lessons, including how to develop a case definition, design a case report form, and formulate a laboratory-testing algorithm.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
I feel honoured and proud when I work with multidisciplinary teams to solve global health issues. Team work is essential, as public health cannot be improved by a single person. One of the most memorable is an international response against the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa in 2014-2015. My work at CDC was a miniscule part of the whole movement, but I felt that my work was an essential part of the response. I am so grateful that I am granted the opportunity to continue my lifework, because it is an incredible honour to make a difference in people’s lives through populational health.
What is a “day in the life” of Kayoko like?
During semesters, I take classes and help with courses as a teaching assistant. For example, in one of the courses at Yale School of Public Health, I lead a 2-hour computer lab every week to teach how to apply epidemiological knowledge and statistical skills that students learn through lectures to real world data or simulated data. Outside classes, I work on research projects at my desk in the lab, at magnificent university libraries, or cozy cafes around Yale. In between course work and working on my thesis, I spend time on a collaborative project with WHO and countries in Latin America and Africa to evaluate the impact of vaccines against pneumococcus in these countries. In the summer of my first year of the Ph.D. program, I went to Malawi for a few months to conduct research on infectious diseases in collaboration with Malawi Liverpool Welcome Trust Research Center. I also work part-time for a start-up company in Japan to develop a small, mobile blood testing kit that can run PCR and ELISA for multiple specimens simultaneously using a very small amount of blood in a short time without any preprocessing of the whole blood.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
When I was younger, I was not sure if I wanted to work in academia, government, international organisations, or private firms. Thus, I tried to experience each of them for various durations to learn how it is to work in these sectors. After doing so, I am hoping to pursue my career in academia, becoming a faculty member who can generate evidence to help control infectious diseases more effectively, in collaboration with hospitals, government, and international organisations. I hope to be a professor who can inspire and support students through courses and research projects.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I have been playing percussion in wind bands and orchestras since my childhood. I am currently a member of Berkeley College Orchestra at Yale University. I also love playing with my dog, Winston.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
There are a number of ways to work in science / physiology and medicine. You can be a medical doctor, nurse, pharmacist, veterinarian, public health practitioner, researcher, epidemiologist, and so on. If you are not sure, I would recommend that you explore your options by talking to people who are doing these jobs or doing internships or job shadowing. You may be surprised by how willing people are to help you with your career.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
Personalised medicine would be one of them. I have also been intrigued by the surge of machine learning, deep learning, and AI in medicine and public health, which will likely trigger impactful change and innovation. I am looking forward to learning more about next breakthroughs during the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting!
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
I believe there is a need to discuss gender diversity based on data. There are many anecdotes of personal experiences, with some arguing that that there has been enough support for female researchers, and others saying the opposite. We need more quantitative and qualitative data to guide our discussion. An initiative to collect data has just started in Japan, led by the Japan Science and Technology Agency. I have been participating in their symposiums and workshops to learn more about the current situation in Japan and would like to help disseminate the information so that we can have more constructive discussions on this topic.