Dr. Kenro Kusumi (he/his/him) is Director of the School of Life Sciences and Associate Dean for Strategic Partnerships at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University. His research uses the power of genome biology to help conserve and study the functional adaptations of reptiles.
How did you first get interested in science?
In middle school, I had a wonderful biology teacher who got me involved in a volunteer program at our local museum of natural history. Through that program, I was able to do hands-on science for the first time, participating in student field research across the state, ranging from looking for salamanders in the mountains to identifying carnivorous plants in the coastal plains. I was able to go to my first scientific meeting on herpetology while tagging along with a senior scientist in the museum program. Interestingly enough, I’ve now looped back to study reptiles today.
What experiences led you to your current career path?
My current job combines scientific research that I carry out as a professor, together with administrative duties as a school director and associate dean. My graduate training in genomics was an excellent introduction to working in large teams and gaining organizational skills that are very helpful in my current job as a school director. Sequencing of the human and other animal model genomes required interdisciplinary teams working together to tackle challenging projects. I still very much make use of that training on a day-to-day basis.
What does your research focus on?
I'm interested in how animals have evolved to adapt to their environments. To answer those questions, I've been using genetic approaches, in particular looking at the entire complement of an organism’s genetic information, the genome. Currently, I'm focusing these efforts on one group of animals in particular, the reptiles, which are some of the most diverse vertebrate animals but also some of the most endangered. To advance conservation efforts of threatened desert tortoises, we're sequencing the genomes of these animals and using genetic approaches to help inform wildlife management decisions by federal and state agencies. Some reptiles, such as lizards, have an amazing ability to regenerate parts of their bodies such as the tail, and we've been using genomic approaches to identify the genes required for that regeneration, with the hopes that we might eventually be able to increase human abilities to regrow tissues and organs.
Beyond research, you’re also involved with ASU’s LGBTQ+ organizations, and you provide mentorship to LGBTQ+ students. Could you explain more specifically what those projects are and why they’re important to you?
I'm currently involved in our university’s one-to-one LGBTQ+ student mentoring program. The program is designed to let students know about university resources and give advice around coming out or navigating their identity as a university student. Mentors include LGBTQ+ faculty and staff who can give feedback, advice, or encouragement from someone who’s “been there already.” I also learn a tremendous amount about what students are facing, particular from my mentee in the transgender community. I'm also serving as a faculty advisor to our graduate student LGBTQ+ organization, and maintaining connections in the midst of a pandemic has been a challenge for us all. Like many organizations, they're making use of video meet-ups and interactive gaming to allow for safe interactions.
Why was it important to you to contribute your story to the 500 Queer Scientists project?
When I was training as a researcher, I had no examples of more senior out LGBTQ scientists. There were no people to reach out to with questions on how to be out in academia, how to strategize about being a dual-career couple, what it was like to work in other countries as a gay scientist, etc. In order to create an inclusive environment, I feel it is important to be out and represented in our fields, so that students and other trainees see that they can succeed as LGBTQ scientists. In addition, creating a fully inclusive environment in the sciences for LGBTQ+ people is still very much a work in progress. I feel that as a more senior member of the community, it's important to listen to what students are currently facing and to see what we can do toward the goal of an inclusive STEM community.
As a first-generation immigrant and person of color, I feel that it is also important to create an inclusive environment among the LGBTQ+ science community for immigrants, black, indigenous, and people of color, and also to work toward advancing the goal of equality in countries around the world. There has been tremendous progress in the four decades since I started training as a scientist—but there is still so much more that needs to be done in the years ahead.