Asian American and Pacific Islander faculty members investigate their backgrounds to find the roots of their academic and intellectual pursuits
In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Tufts Now asked faculty members to share their thoughts on the connections between their work and their sense of identity. They explained the ways in which their careers grew from their cultural and familial roots.
Rooted in the Past—But Looking Toward the Future
There’s irony in the fact that I went into veterinary medicine. Agriculture is a significant part of my heritage: my grandparents and great-grandparents, like many Indians of their time, raised livestock, primarily cows. Their lives depended on animals. But starting in the 1960s, people began to depart from that. My dad was part of the tech boom in the second half of the 20th century, which allowed Indians to leave agriculture for electrical engineering, computer science, and similar fields. So, our family was trying to move away from this idea that we rely on animals and farming for our livelihood—and then there I was deciding to pursue veterinary medicine. I came to that in a roundabout way: my first passion was public health, but it took me a while to realize I wanted to look specifically at humans’ connections with animals and the environment. In making that choice, I went back to my roots—but I also looked toward the future. Indians—and South Asians in general—are an underrepresented minority in veterinary medicine. I want to bring diversity to the field and help all my students cultivate a global perspective.
Meera Gatlin, director of the combined doctor of veterinary medicine/master of public health program, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
A Father’s Gentle Guidance
I love my work as a periodontist—but I’m not one of those people who always knew they were going to pursue dentistry. I fell into the career almost accidentally, after a conversation with my father. He was a physician and a hard-working person, who had lost his own father during World War II, when he was seven years old. At that age, he began working: he sold chewing gum to American GIs in Korea. He was always a role model for me, and he wanted me to go into healthcare. I majored in psychology and biology in undergrad, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. After college, I pieced together a living by teaching music and ice skating during the day and playing music at night. One day, he and I were having a casual dinner, and he said to me, “You’ve got a lot of jobs—that’s good. But have you thought about having a career instead?” That lit a fire under me, and I realized dentistry was one healthcare field that would bring together psychology and biology. When I told my father I was going to become a dentist, he didn’t offer any opinions; he just said, “Make sure you love it before committing your life to it.” Luckily, I did.
Natalie Jeong, associate professor and chair of periodontology, Tufts University School of Dental Medicine
Inspired by Childhood Visits to India
For me, global health is personal. As an Indian American, I took frequent trips to India during childhood, and those inspired me to make contributions that might help solve some of the challenges there. There are three pillars to my work. First, research in two main areas: social and environmental health in urban informal settlements and the engagement and care of people with tuberculosis patients. Second, teaching, mostly about global health. The third is clinical work, seeing patients and providing infectious disease consultation and care.
In all these areas, I’ve been particularly inspired by four Indian women: Suniti Solomon, who discovered the first case of HIV in India in the mid-1980s and had a big impact on me when I worked for a year at an HIV hospital in India; Soumya Swaminathan, the outgoing chief scientist of the World Health Organization, who encouraged me to study tuberculosis; Anita Patel Deshmukh, the executive director of PUKAR, a research organization in India with which I collaborate; and Sheela Patel, who for many years was the head of SPARC, an organization that helps people who live in slums advocate for themselves.
Ramnath Subbaraman, associate professor of public health and community medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine
Fated for Biochemical Engineering
I was born in Seoul, South Korea, in the early 1970s—less than 20 years after the country had been razed by bombing during World War II and the Korean War. It was an exciting time, when the country’s modern democratic society was new and there were many opportunities. But, as a culture, and specifically in my own family, we were still tied to traditions that required sons to study hard and achieve careers in stable professions so they could eventually take over caring for their multigenerational families. So, my path was already carved out for me; as the only son in my family, I had a duty to study very hard in order to attend a top university and to study what my parents told me to. For me, because I didn’t want to become a dentist, which was my mother’s original choice, that meant chemical engineering—I’d enjoyed chemistry in high school. Whether it was my passion or not was irrelevant. But, when I came to the United States to pursue my doctorate, I discovered that there were subjects within the field that I truly was passionate about. Now, I pursue my major research interest, which is exploring the unique and programmable properties and structures of biologically derived materials to make functional materials better. If it weren’t for my heritage, though, I might never have discovered my career path.
Hyunmin Yi, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, Tufts University School of Engineering
Recognizing a Father’s Sacrifices
I’m a veterinary cardiologist, but that’s my second career. I earned my Ph.D. in engineering and spent time working for startup companies in the semiconductor industry. But I kept toying with the idea of pursuing my real passion: working with animals. So I decided to leave engineering and earn my doctorate in veterinary medicine. The hard part wasn’t going to school again or getting trained in a new field—it was convincing my family that this career change was the right choice for me. My father was unsure about it at first. He was a microbiologist, and he’s the person who ignited my interest in science. (When my siblings and I were young, he would take us to his lab and have us stain slides for fun.) But, as is the case for many Asian families, both of my parents were eager for me to pursue a scientific field that they perceived as prestigious, such as human medicine. They made many sacrifices so that I could do so. However, once I started throwing myself into veterinary medicine, my dad supported me—I’m so grateful for that, and for everything he did to inspire and enable me.
Vicky Yang, associate professor of clinical sciences, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
Mining Family History for Meaningful Stories
I’m a fourth-and-a-half generation Japanese American (fourth on my father’s side and fifth on my mother’s, so I split the difference). Growing up in Hawai’i, where a large percentage of my high school was Asian American, I wasn’t hyper-aware of my Asian American identity until I attended college in Massachusetts. There, I took my first Asian American studies class, in which we read writers like Hawai’i-born Filipina Japanese American novelist Lois-Ann Yamanaka, and it was a seminal moment for me: I suddenly recognized how important it is to see your own family and your own history represented in what you’re studying. After traveling on a post-college Thomas J. Watson fellowship, and earning my M.Phil. degree in South Asian studies at Cambridge University, in the U.K., I began to ask scholarly questions based on my own background to find histories I wanted to tell. My first book examines the role of Asian American women in the Pacific Internationalist movement of the 1920s and 30s. My next book draws from my grandmother’s experiences as a tuberculosis nurse during World War II, looking at the racialization and stigmatization of those who suffered from the disease—and the women who cared for them.
Courtney Sato, assistant professor, Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, Tufts University School of Arts and Sciences
Mental Health for All
I conduct research at the intersection of public health and clinical psychology, looking at how we can make mental health care services more accessible and available in settings that are low in resources for mental health. I also research how social factors and neighborhood factors can impact mental health across the globe. I grew up in India and completed my undergraduate studies there, majoring in psychology and planning to become a psychologist. In order to gain some hands-on experience, I interned at an urban psychiatric outpatient clinic. I witnessed a couple things there that influenced my career path: First, people were traveling from very far away to get services at that clinic. They would take a bus overnight just to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. And it wasn’t just one or two people a day—it was the majority of people coming to the clinic. Second, many of the people coming to see us, and many people in India in general, faced a harsh societal stigma against mental illness. Later, when I was completing my graduate studies in the U.S., I got involved in public health, and I realized that the experiences I had had in India made me want to help figure out how to make mental health care more widely available—and less stigmatized.
Saloni Dev, assistant professor of public health and community medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine