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Serena's Search for an Autism Cure

Claire Lonergan profiles PhD candidate Serena Tamura ’08 and her neuropharmacological research into autism spectrum disorder.

Awarded the “most likely to be a superhero” senior surperlative when she was in high school, Serena Tamura ’08 is on track to becoming just that with her cutting-edge research into autism. Currently a PhD candidate at the University of California San Francisco, in the Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics (PSPG) degree program, Serena’s research in the Ahituv Lab is in neuropharmacogenomics. There her work encompasses functional genomics and development of CRISPR based gene editing platforms and translational therapies. Serena was recently awarded a pre- doctoral fellowship from the Autism Science Foundation, which will start in September 2019.

Serena’s whole face lights up at the mention of ASIJ and her energy is contagious. An active, passionate and extremely creative student in high school, Serena could often be found rehearsing for the next musical, working hard on the student council, or commanding a room for speech club. She credits ASIJ for shaping her as a person and giving her the tools to be successful in university and beyond.

After graduating from ASIJ, Serena went on to Stanford University where she originally intended to study religious studies and philosophy. She declared human biology as her major in her sophomore year and received her bachelor’s in human biology, neurobiology and behavior. Serena originally applied to Stanford because her family had a personal connection to the university. Her great grandmother and grandmother were both custodians at Stanford after the war, and then her father was also previously a gardener at Stanford before being accepted as a transfer student. “Stanford has been good to our family in that they have given us a lot of opportunity to better our circumstances through education, Serena shares. “It meant a lot to my family that I was accepted as a fully fledged student and was able to live in the dorms and have the quintessential college experience. I was a cheerleader at Stanford for two years, which was so much fun, I think my parents were happy that I was doing the most with my college experience, and not just locking myself up in the library!” Stanford is also where Serena really discovered her passion for science and today she shares her experience as a student at ASIJ as well as the breakthrough research she is engaged in.

👩‍💻 CL

What brought your family to Japan and ASIJ?

👩‍⚕️ ST

My parents moved my brother Nathan Tanaka ’05 and I from the San Francisco Bay Area to Tokyo after my dad was awarded a tenure professorship at Musashino University in 2001. My parents were self-payers and they moved mountains to send us to ASIJ. They wanted to invest in our education as well as our social and emotional

development, which they felt that ASIJ prioritized along with academic rigor. Nathan and I also knew that we wanted to attend college in the United State so it was important that we had access to take AP classes and all the necessary prerequisites. My parents decision to send me to ASIJ was one of the most significant opportunities that they’ve facilitated for me, and I am so grateful to them and for the financial aid that ASIJ also afforded to my education.

👩‍💻 CL

You’re currently a PhD candidate at University of California San Francisco (UCSF) in the Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomic Program. Can you explain in lay terms what that means and what you are working on?

👩‍⚕️ ST

The Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics Program at UCSF is an interdisciplinary PhD program that intersects drug discovery, therapeutic development, pharmacology and genetics. It is well understood that medications and treatments are not one size fits all, because our genetics and the environment can influence our response to these treatments. Our training is on how to design and construct smarter, more effective and safe treatments than what’s currently being prescribed. We do this by considering variability in individual genetic backgrounds.

My research takes place inside the cell’s nucleus. I comb through the DNA using specialized technology to catch genetic mutations that lead to human disease. I use gene editing tools like CRISPR, which can be thought of as a surgical scalpel to edit DNA, to fix these mutations. My thesis work is on developing a safe and novel gene therapy to rescue one of the most devastating and commonly occurring mutations associated to an extremely severe form of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability. This mutation does not allow cells in the brain to mature and develop typically. There are no medications to treat autism spectrum disorder, let alone to fix this extremely debilitating mutation—that’s where I come in! I’ve been able to fix and restore the cells that carry this mutation, and I am working to validate and optimize this method.

👩‍💻 CL

What is your research/work like day-to-day?

(Above and Cover Photo: Martin Voss)
👩‍⚕️ ST

I try my hardest to stick to regular working hours,  but that requires next level time management that takes years to hone. I generally have a loose plan of what experiments I want to prioritize over the next two weeks, and then I adjust my day to day according to my experimental results, my scheduled meetings and what seminars I want to attend. Though each day might look different, I always start my day by going to the gym, because taking care of your physical and mental health is essential when tackling a PhD. We’re in for the long haul, so it’s imperative that we actively preserve some time to ourselves.

I’m usually in lab by 8am where I prepare the chemicals and solutions I need for the day and then I start the experiment with the longest incubation time. In order to optimize my time, I run multiple experiments at once and I try to take breaks only when they coincide with long holds or incubation times. During my morning incubations, I run home and get ready for the day and come back to lab in time to stop the reaction.

Next, I dive further into my experiments, which includes a lot of molecular cloning and basic cell biology. The exact experiments change depending on the week, but you can often find me constructing bits of DNA to test its function in immortalized cells or extracting RNA from brain tissue or even single neurons to study the effects of the treatment I am developing.

I try to get to a stopping point by the afternoon so I can transition to my experiments that require model organisms. I have a mouse colony that carries the specific genetic mutation that I am attempting to fix, so I not only conduct essential experiments using these mice, but I also do general maintenance and husbandry. After finishing my mouse work, I’ll try to squeeze in one more experiment that requires an overnight incubation before I leave for the day at around 6:00 pm so that I can hit the ground running the next morning.

When I get home from lab, I’m answering emails and am reading papers. I’m also always working on a grant application or a presentation so there’s always more work to do in the evenings and on the weekends. In the evening I prepare dinner, spend time with my husband Andrew and play with our dogs Soma and Kuma. Experimental research is a huge test in time management and multitasking, but once you have your system down there is a lot of autonomy over your day to day, which I really enjoy.

👩‍💻 CL

How did you decide on this specific PhD program?

👩‍⚕️ ST

I chose this program because UCSF is a pioneer in scientific discovery research and is also the highest National Institutes of Health funded public institution, so there are lots of resources and exciting projects happening within our labs. UCSF is also unique in that it’s located in the heart of one of the biggest biotech hubs in the world. Many of our professors at UCSF have spun off startups and companies founded on the research produced within our academic labs. This was especially attractive to me because I applied to graduate school with no intention of doing a postdoc or staying in academia. I want to graduate with my PhD and work in the biotech industry and I knew that UCSF would be a good environment to pursue that goal, and that the Pharmaceutical Sciences and Pharmacogenomics program would give me the best training. It was also important to me that I conduct research at a university with a medical center. I am motivated to conduct research in an effort to improve human health, and UCSF researchers pride ourselves in our ability to, “leverage discovery to revolutionize care,” so having both a strong research institution and a top tier hospital is a huge advantage. Another big factor is that I had a long research career at Stanford, which is just 30 miles away from UCSF, so it was a win-win to be close enough to preserve those collaborations, while also diversifying my training with a different institution.

👩‍💻 CL

What has been the most challenging aspect of being a PhD candidate?

👩‍⚕️ ST

Imposter Syndrome, which is a very common pattern of internalized self doubt, is a huge challenge of being a PhD candidate. It’s easy to feel like you’re a “fraud” or that you might be exposed that you’re not smart enough to make it in science. This is a very common challenge that all PhD candidates face at some point in their graduate school career. Another huge challenge is that there are no grades or tangible check boxes to measure your progress. Unlike undergraduate, masters or professional degree programs, PhDs are really long with open ended projects. Research milestones are vague, years away, evolve all the time and there is no guarantee that your hypothesis is correct. There are no answers in the back of the textbook to check if you’re on the right path (also, there are no textbooks) and our professors don’t have a magic answer key to predict the fate of your research. There are no midterms or finals to measure your research progress. All you can do is take on the challenge and arm yourself with background research, technical proficiency and mentorship to tackle these questions. Sometimes it feels like you’re standing at the edge of the cliff, and the only way to know if you’ll fly or fall is to just jump and trust the research process. I find that the key to overcoming imposter syndrome and the lack of tangible progress is by reframing your thinking. Make short term goals for yourself and aim for progress, not perfection!

👩‍💻 CL

What do you see yourself doing in five years?

👩‍⚕️ ST

I hope to be working as a scientist in biotech. I’d  love to start as an experimental scientist within the CRISPR space and over time possibly transition to a business development role or into biotech investment.

👩‍💻 CL

Did you enjoy science in high school?

👩‍⚕️ ST

Strong no. I took the required science classes and they really didn’t click with me. I think at the time I was operating under my own assumptions that I wasn’t cut out for science, so I was too intimidated to receive the material. Also, the material felt very conceptual and didn’t motivate me. Many people who knew me at ASIJ were surprised that I ended up pursuing a PhD in the basic sciences, because I spent most of my time on the second floor in the humanities and social sciences classrooms. It wasn’t until I went to Stanford for undergrad where I learned that something as intangible as behavior can be dictated by ones biology. Another huge factor was representation. The first professor who I conducted research with was a really inspiring female scientist who was outgoing, unapologetically smart, a truly talented scientist and she recognized my potential. She took the time to understand what truly motivated me, which was the aspiration to help others, and she showed me how I can achieve that through research. The rest is history!

👩‍💻 CL

What type of student were you?

👩‍⚕️ ST

I was really active in high school. I was heavily involved  with Student Council, the Gay Straight Student Alliance, the National Honor Society, Speech Team and was a year round Thespian. I also took a full course load of AP and honors classes. I remember being very busy and very stressed at times, but I had a lot of fun too! Weekend rehearsals for the spring musical were always a lot of hard work, but it was so much fun to be in a creative and supportive space.

👩‍💻 CL

What did you enjoy most about your experience at ASIJ?

👩‍⚕️ ST

Coming of age in Tokyo. Riding bikes around Tama,  going to all-night karaoke in Shibuya, always being just a few steps away from delicious food and being able to rely on public transportation was really special. Having those shared experiences with friends from ASIJ is so meaningful. No matter how much time passes by, when the stars finally align and we’re able to reconnect, it’s like we’re back in the high school courtyard eating chahan and chicken cutlet sandwiches again. Mariko Funai ’08 and Glynis O’Bryant ’08 among other dear friends have shown me what lasting and unconditional friendship looks like.

👩‍💻 CL

Who would you say was the most impactful teacher you had at ASIJ?

👩‍⚕️ ST

I knew this question was coming and I was dreading having to answer it because so many of my teachers shaped who I am today! In middle school, Mr Hoover (FF ’94–’05) really stands out. He taught me how to think critically, to shape an argument and most importantly, how to respectfully have a discussion with others who might not share the same viewpoint. He also introduced me to the Autobiography of Malcolm X, which I’ve re-read almost every year since he assigned the book to us in eighth grade. It’s almost impossible to single out an impactful teacher from high school. Ms Krauth (current faculty) changed my life. She took my raw interest in social justice and pushed me to be a truly compassionate and socially aware individual. She taught me that being a global citizen requires active and intentional work, and I carry that sentiment with me when I approach my research. Ms Gotterson (FF ’01–’17), Ms Onions (FF ’96–’16) and Ms Noll (current faculty) molded me into a confident and effective public speaker, which has become one of my greatest assets in my professional and research career, because communicating science is just as important as actually conducting the experiments. Mr Welckle (current faculty) taught me how to form a thesis statement and how to organize a supporting argument, a skill that I use regularly when I write research papers and grants. Mr Staples (FF ’98–’08) taught me to stop, smell and listen to the cherry blossoms. Mr Olson (FF ’83–’87, ’88–’91, ’94–’14) showed me unwavering kindness and support. The entire math department showed me so much patience and encouragement. Mr Huber (FF ’88–’17) taught me that joy and discipline go hand in hand, may he rest in peace and harmony. Thank you to all of my teachers, I hope you all know how much of an impact you had and continue to have on my life. My teachers at ASIJ taught me to be fearless, humble and relentless.

👩‍💻 CL

Is there any advice you would you give to your high school self?

👩‍⚕️ ST

If you are up in the middle of the night studying for an exam the next day, you’re doing it wrong. It is more effective to go to bed, wake up early, have a good breakfast and revisit your notes than to stay up all night cramming. Trust me, I’m in my 20th year of school!

👩‍💻 CL

Tell us about a standout experience you have from your time at ASIJ.

Serena in ASIJ's 2008 production of Grease with fellow co-stars Hannah Brennan '08 (left) and Julia Sohn '08 (right).
👩‍⚕️ ST

During my last school assembly as student body  president I took a huge risk and performed a slam poetry inspired piece instead of a standard speech. I started writing the piece while I was backstage of our spring musical, Grease. I was struck by inspiration and was overwhelmed at the thought of graduating and leaving ASIJ for good. I spoke to the entire student body from a very vulnerable and authentic place, and thankfully it was really well received. I was truly moved and saw so clearly how supportive the ASIJ community can be. I remember after I finished, I felt like I could leave ASIJ knowing that I was confident, truly myself and was ready to tackle my next chapter in life.

👩‍💻 CL

How would you say ASIJ most prepared you for where you are now?

👩‍⚕️ ST

ASIJ prepared me most by teaching me to have a growth mindset, which gave me the confidence to tackle challenges outside of my comfort zone. I did not enjoy or pursue science in high school, so I didn’t have the fundamentals of organic chemistry and cell biology mastered like my classmates at Stanford did. But I stayed persistent and confident that I would get there. I didn’t let my lack of fact-based knowledge hold me back, because my teachers at ASIJ taught me something even more valuable than how to memorize facts, which was how to learn and to be resourceful with my education. Even though I was new to the subject material, I was confident that I could tackle it and that I would eventually get there.

👩‍💻 CL

In your free time, what can you be found doing?

👩‍⚕️ ST

I’m probably in the kitchen meal prepping lunches and dinners for the week while watching Bob’s Burger or The Office. I also love to bake, and I have recently been experimenting with making low carbohydrate and sugar free baked goods and chocolates, which has been so much fun. It’s like doing a science experiment, but you can actually eat the product! When I’m not cooking or baking in the kitchen, I’m usually going on urban hikes around San Francisco with my incredibly supportive husband Andrew and our two dogs Soma and Kuma.

👩‍💻 CL

Tell us something that would surprise people most about you?

👩‍⚕️ ST

I still use the same TI-83 calculator that I used since eighth grade. It’s 15 years old and it still works great!

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