Faculty members and others in the Tufts community describe how their family stories and heritage inform their scholarship, research, and practice
As recounted in the video above, Kyongbum Lee, Karol Family Professor and dean ad interim of the School of Engineering, can trace the inspiration for his life’s work in education to a surprising discovery steeped in the cultural traditions in which his grandmother came of age. For Alice Tang from Tufts University School of Medicine, her mother’s experience of a delayed diagnosis directly informs one of Tang’s current research priorities.
From a range of cultural traditions and life experiences, these eight Tufts community members have—in recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month—shared with Tufts Now elements of their backgrounds, their identities, and their scholarship—and the ways in which each of those elements of who they are informs and illuminates the others.
Many Ways of Being
Making meaning through the recognition of complexities has been central to my path. My previous career was in the business world, where I was a leadership coach and consultant focused on innovation and strategic management. I learned that there are many different ways to be a leader—just like there are many different ways to be a chaplain. Now, in my postdoctoral studies, I’m looking into what I call religious manyness. I can draw a direct line from my interest in that complexity to my area of focus in the corporate world, all the way to my upbringing in the Hindu tradition, in which there’s no one teacher, no one scripture, no one way of being.
—Preeta Banerjee, Hindu Advisor, University Chaplaincy
Lessons Across Generations
My research encompasses people with HIV, individuals in the criminal legal system, food and healthcare inequities, and the effects of anti-Asian racism. My parents were my inspiration—and also MTV’s The Real World! I’m half-kidding, but I did first learn about HIV from watching that show as a kid, and it sparked my interest in public health and advocacy. But it’s my parents who really fostered my interest, through their emphasis on the importance of community service and civic engagement. Also, growing up Chinese American, there was a strong cultural focus on education in our household. Now that I’m a parent myself, and I see the recent rise in anti-Asian racism, I think about how I can use my interests, my research and teaching skills, and my focus on community to contribute to a better world for my son—and to instill in him some of the values my parents handed down to me.
—Kimberly Dong, Assistant Professor, Public Health and Community Medicine, School of Medicine
The Difference a Generation Makes
There is something philosophical in me that is Asian. I say a daily prayer of thanks to all my mentors, and there are 25 of them, from kindergarten through my time as a first-generation college student to present day. What I have done in my scientific and artistic career is beyond what my parents thought was even possible. When I was growing up in Toronto, Canada, the Asian population was small—about 5,000 in a city of 1.5 million, at the time. On Sundays, my family would go to Chinatown and meet other families to have dim sum. The parents played Mahjong, the kids went to the penny arcade. As a child, being Chinese was not something that made me fit in with other kids. Interestingly, Toronto now has half a million Asians among its population, and my nieces and nephews are experiencing something very different with many of their peers being Asian Canadian. It’s extraordinary.
-Daniel Jay, Dean, Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences
From Rituals to Research
An eminent professor of medieval Japanese history, the late Yoshihiko Amino, introduced me to the concept of etoki, which led to my studies of Buddhist art. Etoki literally means “explaining pictures”: it’s the practice of using Buddhist images to educate and include subliterate people, who otherwise would have no access to the teachings. I read Chinese scriptures to pursue my interest in the relationship between word and image but not as a religious practice (and, while my partner diligently sits in meditation, I’d rather sleep in!). But my parents were faithful Buddhists. They had never studied Buddhism in school; it was just their way of life. When, as a child, you watch your parents dutifully practicing rituals every morning and every evening, you can’t help but carry that with you. Buddhism as a faith is a part of me—but what I know about it I learned through studying.
—Ikumi Kaminishi, Associate Professor, History of Art and Architecture, School of Arts and Sciences
Asian American Health
I’m trained as an infectious disease epidemiologist, and for most of my 22 years at Tufts, I worked in HIV, nutrition, and global health. Then, the pandemic hit. Like everyone else, I took stock of what I was doing. The incidents of anti-Asian racism that occurred around that time—some of which directly affected my school-age daughter—really hit home. I partnered with local organizations serving Asian American communities, and now I’m exploring the health effects of anti-Asian racism as well as the impact of a Chinatown community art project on residents’ well-being. I’m also studying why Asian Americans experience delayed diagnoses of Parkinson’s disease. That topic is personal, as my mother, a first-generation immigrant, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s very late, despite multiple visits to physicians over the years. So working to understand the cultural and systemic challenges that Asian Americans face in getting care and treatment for Parkinson’s disease is important to me.
—Alice Tang, Professor, Public Health and Community Medicine, School of Medicine
Investing for Change
I work at an asset management firm, where I focus on impact investing: investing that fuels societal and environmental improvements. I know firsthand what a difference impactful enterprises can make: my parents were refugees of the Vietnam War. They escaped during the Fall of Saigon, loading their children, neighbors, and anyone they could onto skiffs and rowing out to sea, eventually making it to the Philippines. Survival in such vessels would not have been possible without the help of Navy ships escorting us for part of the journey. Growing up in many homes across several states, I was always acutely aware of how my family was fortunate to have access to basic needs, including shelter, education, and health care, which were possible thanks to innovative social enterprises and impactful business models. Feeling the acute need to give back to others, I began volunteering in high school, and for a long time, I had two lives: working in finance and volunteering. Then, the field of impact investing formally developed and I was able to merge the two. In addition to my work in the field, I also teach at Fletcher because I want to share the power of impact investing with the next generation of interdisciplinary leaders and global changemakers.
—Quyen Tran, Professor of Practice in Impact Investing, The Fletcher School
A Professorial Legacy
I moved to the United States with my family when I was 13 years old. When I entered college, I had been here only three and a half years—my English was okay, but the language of numbers came more easily to me. Also, I loved playing with abstract ideas, and I saw great beauty in mathematics, so it was clear that that was the field for me. As far as entering academia goes, I was inspired by my grandfather, who was my role model: He was the first and only Taiwanese to become a professor while Taiwan was under Japanese rule. While I don’t think ethnicity played much of a role in my career development, it is important to me, as a professor here, to help make Tufts a place where Asian and Asian American students can feel at home.
—Loring Tu, Professor, Mathematics, School of Arts and Sciences