A first-generation immigrant, Kenro Kusumi came to the United States when he was 2 years old. He grew up in a small town named Kinston in coastal North Carolina, and it was there that his dedication to scientific curiosity took root.
Since he was in middle school he was curious about why plants and animals looked the way they do. Why do trees branch the way they do? Why do people have five fingers? Why is a maple leaf different than an oak leaf? It comes down to genes, the blueprints to make any organism. He was curious about how that played out in the way things look and act.
He worked with the local natural history museum from middle school into high school, volunteering. That led to field research and scientific meetings.
“That really got me down this path of science, which I have been enjoying the entire time,” Kusumi said. “You look around the world, it's just beautiful. Just the things animals can do are amazing. Why do some tortoises live until they’re 200 years old? I've been working on trying to solve the challenge of disease. What goes wrong where you get scoliosis? What happens when the spine is malformed? More importantly, what can we do to either fix it, or at least identify the people at greatest risk for having diseases like scoliosis?”
Kusumi’s curiosity led him to become a genome biologist. He has sequenced the genome of desert tortoises, and his group has worked on how anole lizards regenerate their tails. Currently director of the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, this summer Kusumi will become the new dean of natural sciences for The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
ASU News talked to him about his research, what he hopes to accomplish in his new position and what The College can offer a new generation of students.
Question: You’ve got some pretty wide ranging interests. How do they all come together?
Answer: It's all basically data, right? Each cell contains data and that data makes us who we are. So it's basically like biological data science. It doesn't matter. You can apply the same approach to absolutely almost any part of biology. What about the coronavirus sequence makes it more deadly or more transmissible? And it really comes down to the data that's encoded in those genetic constructions and then the complicated sort of way that it interacts with the world.
Q: What are your goals as dean of natural sciences?
A: This is a time of unique opportunity, but certainly major challenges. Nothing has brought it as home as that we really have to learn from this pandemic. And then never be caught unaware. I mean, we've had coronavirus disease outbreaks about every decade. This current one is COVID-19. There was a disease called MERS about 10 years ago and SARS, the original big outbreak. And we were lucky those two times. … We need to be prepared all the way from our social structures to our scientific apparatus for the challenge. … We know that we desperately need science and technology to really help us deal with the impacts of climate change. Our deserts are getting drier and hotter. We're in the midst of a very long drought here. This will impact our city as it will impact so many different things: our wildlife, our agriculture. I think ASU is ideally suited in the natural sciences to be this champion, to innovate strategically in the research area.
Q: What can students expect from the natural sciences?
A: We are at this kind of incredibly exciting time for digital educational technologies and their impact on both our on-campus immersion students, but also our online students. All of the science and math units are in the middle of this transformation. And I think what will be exciting about the other side is that we'll be able to reach so many people both nationally and around the world. We'll be able to reach a much more diverse set of students. We're already seeing the ability to enable talented people to have an education that they just couldn't do the first time around because they had family or jobs. Not everyone can go to school when they're 18 or 19 years old. This is a chance to tap into the talent pool that is out here in the country. … The natural sciences is ideally positioned to be the academic home to reach out and continue to allow people to learn.
Q: What do students need now?
A: The things I learned in the '80s, in the 2020s it's just a whole different world. It's hard to learn everything you need to right now for the 2050s and the 2060s. And our first-year students? I mean, that's the world they're preparing for. So how do we stay nimble? How do we thrive during change? How do we quickly adapt to the new educational challenges? That's us, ASU; we can do it.
Q: Anything you'd like to add?
A: I'm a first-generation Asian American and I'm also a member of the LGBTQ community. … When I was growing up and when I was in college, there were just not many examples of university leaders who were part of any of those communities. We have this benefit from this incredibly diverse undergraduate and graduate student population. That's the future of our country in terms of tapping into and benefiting from the experiences that people bring representing culturally diverse different walks of life. … STEM education has not historically done a great job of reaching out. It's really important that we create inclusive communities of belonging. … We want to be the place that allows every student to succeed.
Top image: Professor Kenro Kusumi is the new dean of natural sciences. Research in the Kusumi Lab focuses on using genomic technologies to address biomedical and environmental challenges. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now
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