Yale News

On Friday, Yale appointed Akiko Iwasaki as a Sterling Professor of Immunobiology and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, making her one of 40 current professors across numerous academic disciplines to hold this honor.

The Sterling professorship is the highest academic rank at Yale, awarded to professors who are considered to be among the best in their academic field. According to the Yale Office of Public Affairs, the University President heralds the appointments, which are then approved by the Yale Corporation. The original endowment left by John William Sterling — Class of 1864 — as well as additional contributions by the estate’s trustees throughout the years, continues to support research grants, salaries and additional benefits for Sterling professors. 

“I received a phone call from President Salovey,” Iwasaki wrote to the News. “I am still a bit in disbelief that this happened to me — to an immigrant woman from Japan. When I was a student, I was told that I was not cut out for science and that I should look for other career paths. I never listened to such advice.”

Throughout the pandemic, Iwasaki spearheaded research in human immune response to infection, experimenting with a novel way of administering booster shots to infection-susceptible nasal mucosal areas and exploring the immunopathological pathways behind long and severe COVID-19. 

She said that the pathways involve a myriad of cell types and factors working together to prevent infection, comparing the immune system to an “orchestra” in which each “instrument” plays a distinct, yet interconnected role in “creating the masterpiece.” Iwasaki is currently examining such mechanisms — among others that foster “adaptive immunity” — in a lab she leads at the Yale School of Medicine. 

“The …  lab has given me a mix of unrestricted technical and conceptual support with complete independence and freedom to ask the most challenging biological questions,” said Postdoctoral Fellow Carolina Lucas, a member of Iwasaki’s lab. 

In addition to her scientific work — which includes a total of 238 published manuscripts — Iwasaki has also focused on educating others about various aspects of the pandemic, holding conversations about gender disparities underlying infections and speaking to the changes that the public can expect to see amid a new viral landscape under the Omicron variant. 

Iwasaki emphasized that her journey as an Asian American woman in STEM has not been a smooth one. Rather, it was and continues to be riddled with “stereotypes and biases,” a problem that she acknowledges is exacerbated for “younger” women whose scientific achievements are valued less than those of their male counterparts. According to Iwasaki, her identity — and the discrimination she has navigated — help her develop a better understanding of others in the same situation as she once was. They are a constant personal reminder to make academia a “more welcoming place” for people of all backgrounds, to support those who are struggling to have their stories and voices heard.

Iwasaki’s colleagues acknowledged her humility, dedication and commitment to a definition of science that promotes inquiry and inclusivity.  

“Akiko is a Yale treasure, who is remarkable not only for her groundbreaking science, but because of the way [she] smashes traditional norms in academic science and as she shows the power of collaboration, generosity, openness,” Professor of Medicine Harlan Krumholz wrote to the News. 

He has collaborated on projects with Iwasaki over the past year to “accelerate” breakthrough research, commenting on both Iwasaki’s “breathtaking[ly]”-paced laboratory work and her personal qualities. 

Krumholz further praised Iwasaki for her work in diversity, equity and inclusion.

“She lifts up others around her – and is fearless in promoting the rights of women in science – and other traditionally under-represented groups,” Krumholz said.

Iwasaki was previously the Waldemar Von Zedtwitz Professor of Immunobiology and Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!