The 2022 AAAS General Election will open on April 7, 2022. Head here for more information about the general election slate and how to vote. Learn about President-elect candidate Keith Yamamoto below.
Keith Yamamoto, Ph.D., has spent a lifetime reading and studying cell signals. So when the AAAS President-elect candidate looks back on his youth and more than five decades he has enjoyed in the world of science, it’s hard to imagine his prior experiences could have pointed him toward any other path.
“I guess I was just sort of a science nerd all the way through. For as long as I remember, [this is] what I wanted to do,” says the cellular and molecular pharmacologist and biologist.
His father’s encouragement and gift of a hard-cover copy of Paul de Kruif’s classic book “Microbe Hunters” were the first two catalysts that facilitated Yamamoto’s pursuing what resulted ultimately in the decorated scientific career he can point to. The third notable ingredient was Frances Crick’s Scientific American magazine article theorizing the existence of mRNA.
“I was incredibly riveted […], and I got hooked on this notion of discovering previously unknown things that were fundamentally important,” Yamamoto explains.
While working on matters that are of fundamental importance in science has been a driving concept throughout Yamamoto’s career, ensuring that scientists’ voices are heard at the political roundtable is at the top of his agenda for 2022.
Yamamoto is now the first vice chancellor for science policy and strategy at the University of California San Francisco (often referred to as UCSF). He is formerly the chair of UCSF’s Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, vice dean for research in the School of Medicine, and vice chancellor for research.
According to Yamamoto, scientists enjoy the good fortune associated with being in a profession in which the policies and practices within the discipline are determined by the personnel themselves. But, he espouses, this good fortune is a result, at least to some degree, of the responsibility associated with setting the best standards to shape policies that make science principled and supportive of the people who work within its fields.
It’s why Yamamoto co-chairs the Science and Technology Action Committee, a group that works to strengthen U.S. science and technology and address challenges the country’s economy, national security and quality of life depend on. They include climate change and disruption; food and water security; public health issues; and the sufficient production, use and storage of energy — all of which, Yamamoto contends, can be addressed only through transformational advances in science and technology.
“If big changes aren’t made in quite a short time, then it really threatens our existence and virtually that of the planet,” he says.
Yamamoto’s passion for science policy is intrinsically linked to his scientific work on nuclear receptors and gene regulation, and was ignited during his early undergraduate college days at Iowa State University. There, he earned his degree in biochemistry and biophysics. It was also at Iowa State where he connected with a mentor who furthered his interest in all things cellular and molecular. Yamamoto then attended Princeton University to earn his doctorate in biochemical sciences. A few years later, in 1976, he joined the faculty at UCSF.
The science world knows Yamamoto for his lab’s groundbreaking discoveries around signaling and transcriptional regulation by nuclear receptors. Much of his work has focused on the glucocorticoid receptor, or GR. This single gene regulatory factor somehow controls the expression of distinct batteries of genes in different tissues to govern aspects of development, metabolism, inflammation, stress response and other key physiological actions. Yamamoto’s discovery of unique shape changes in GR imposed by different combinations of signals explains how one regulatory factor can control cell-specific sets of genes. His research has paved the way for the possibility of novel approaches to creating selective therapeutic drugs for a range of illnesses.
Since Yamamoto first stepped through the doors of Iowa State in 1964, “absolutely dramatic, world-shaking” progress has been made in the scientific community’s level of understanding of cellular and molecular biology.
“[Back then,] the key experimental systems were bacteria and viruses, and it’s not that people weren’t interested in studying higher organisms like humans, [we just] didn’t have the technologies to do it,” he says.
Advancements in the world’s understanding of larger genomes leave him confident that the future of the field is bright. So too, he hopes, will be the future of scientific representation in policy discussions. But there’s plenty of work to be done.
“Science and technology are not prioritized enough [on the political agenda], and the risk is that we fail to make the right decisions in addressing those existential challenges,” he laments.
Having recently closed his own lab after devoting 44 years, which he describes as being nothing short of wonderful, Yamamoto is looking forward to spending more time advocating for science policy and potentially leading AAAS. He believes he is well-equipped for this role having served two terms on the AAAS Committee on Nominations. Yamamoto is also a AAAS Fellow, elected in 2002, and has participated in several AAAS forums and roundtables for science and public policy, including last year’s strategic planning summit. Being nominated to lead the organization as its president, he says, is an honor.
“It’s humbling and it’s exciting to be considered to potentially lead this organization that plays such an important role as a voice of science,” he says.
If selected as AAAS President-elect, Yamamoto promises he would prioritize promoting policies and practices that build a scientific enterprise that is open and diverse — a science that is healthy, robust, engages the public and, most importantly, gets the next generation excited about it.
“We must be able to apply newly discovered knowledge to big, societal problems,” he says. “We need to build generations of people who really want to do this, and to do that, we have to create an attractive, exciting environment to work in that [holds] significance.”