Dr. Vicky Yamamoto is a cancer research scientist at the University of Southern California. Yamamoto works in the field of translational science, which takes findings from basic science and studies how these can be applied in the clinical setting. She specializes in studying cancer of the oral cavity, including the tongue, the inner lining of the cheek, and the throat.
“Since my childhood, I always had interest in science,” says Yamamoto. When she was a little girl, Yamamoto wanted to become an entomologist. “A lot of my friends thought insects were icky, but I was really interested in insects, how they grow, how the butterflies or grasshopper change their form from egg to adulthood. It was really fascinating.”
This interest in bugs evolved into a passion for biological science.
“Any new finding really fascinates me,” says Yamamoto, “so science allows me to find all the mysteries of the body and how the body works.”
Yamamoto got her start at Mount St. Mary’s University in Southern California. “[Attending an all women’s college] was actually a great experience, surprisingly. I thought that no boys, so it’s going to be boring – not at all! It’s really nice,” says Yamamoto.
Her college provided her with the supportive learning environment she needed for success.
“Luckily, going to an all women’s college, all the faculty and staff members knew what it’s like being a women, getting an education, going to a male dominated world, they all somehow understand strength and weakness of being women, they all taught us what to do to be successful. I was fortunate to be in that environment, to be successful, to go through that education and now end up as a scientist,” she said.
During Yamamoto’s time as Mount St. Mary’s, she found new inspiration for entering the field of research science.
“In my college, they encourage all science major to obtain a summer research internship when you’re a second year or third year,” she said. “So I think it was my sophomore year when I took this opportunity and applied to an internship at the Scripps Research Institute in SD. Luckily, I was accepted to that program, so I did research for about two and half months or so. […]Because it was the first time I worked in a full-fledged huge laboratory setting, I saw all the scientists working from early morning to late night, and that really fascinated me, I saw all their findings and all these graphs…”
“What particularly moved me towards science is, there was this one postdoc working really late, […] who has a passion and I sort of interviewed him [..] and it turns out he was MD, and he decided to take a few years off to do postdoc training. And he said this was very important to his patient, this was the time where he could find what could cure their disease, and I thought oh, that’s really fascinating! That was a moment where I had a huge interest in going into science, particularly research.”
For her PhD study, Yamamoto worked on stem cells and neuroscience, studying how a particular protein determines neuronal differentiation. Her current research is on a way to make cancer cells sensitive to radiation again.
She has dealt with numerous challenges throughout her career. As a student, her main concern was “lots of classes to take and lots of projects to deal with.” As a scientist, the biggest challenge she faces is “funding, funding, funding!”
Yamamoto is dedicated to helping the next generation of young scientists, even taking in high school interns. She has two pieces of advice to aspiring scientists.
First, “Start to explore early.” Look for internship opportunities. Do lab work. Conduct research big and small. Meet other scientists and find mentors.
Second, “Mentor really counts. You have to find a really good mentor who will give you guidance and support your for your career.” As you begin to explore the field, it’s important to find more experienced people to guide you.
Of course, breaking into the field of science is easier for some more than others. It is no secret that there are major gender gaps across all fields of science. Yamamoto says, “Just try. Just try. Work hard and show the result. That’s the only way we can show the world we can actually do it.”
Things are getting better. The gender gap within the biological sciences is shrinking. However, women are hard to find in the physical sciences and engineering, and women across all fields of science face sexist attitudes from coworkers and employers, particularly women with families.
“Hopefully our generation will fight to break such barriers, such negative stereotypes,” she said.
And for Dr. Vicky Yamamoto, science provides a unique opportunity to women.
“I feel like science does not rely on muscle, it all relies on intelligence, creativity,” she said.