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michael sesma

Michael Sesma, PhD

According to my mother, I spoke Japanese until I was three years old and then slowly moved on to English. This may seem strange until you find out my father was an officer in the United States Navy stationed in Sasebo, Japan. In Japan, he met my mom, married her, and they had me in 1953. My brothers and I were raised to identify with our Japanese heritage, but it was a somewhat different immigrant experience than a lot of Japanese-Americans had. Since it was only 10 years after World War II, we encountered postwar discrimination against Japanese-Americans and Japanese women who had married American soldiers. In many ways, it felt like my father’s Mexican-American roots were much more accepted since Latinos were more commonly considered part of American culture in southern California at the time.
I didn’t have much exposure to my father’s Mexican-American heritage until we lived in San Diego. My family and I hold great pride in our mixed heritage and what it has meant to American culture. Growing up, I was lucky to live where I did, because Latino mentors were easier to find in the San Diego area. In fact, it was a Mexican-American biology teacher in high school who encouraged me to take more of an interest in the sciences. He did a lot to help stimulate my curiosity and encouraged me to explore science beyond the textbook and what was offered in the classroom.
All the way through high school, there were many Mexican-American students and teachers. It wasn’t until college that I began to notice a drop in the numbers of minorities in my classes. At the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), I double majored in biology and psychology. About 15% of the students in my psychology program were Latino. There were fewer Asian Americans and no African Americans, and there were only two Latino junior faculty that I knew of in biology and none in psychology. What concerned me was the small number of minority faculty members in these departments and throughout the entire university. There weren’t that many minority undergraduate students either, especially in the sciences.
The number of minority students and faculty in my graduate program at University of California, Riverside (UCR), was similar. I focused on getting through the program and becoming competitive for future academic opportunities. I also knew that in some areas of science there were very few Chicano/Latino students pursuing graduate degrees. While I remember a number of my minority undergraduate classmates wanting careers in medicine, I don’t recall many looking to academic science. Over time this became a bigger and bigger issue in my mind.
After many years as a researcher, the issue of the lack of diversity in academic science led me to the job of chief of the Research Scientist Development Program in the Office for Special Populations at the National Institute of Mental Health. In seeking this position, I saw an opportunity to give something back and create change at a federal level. I’m now responsible for developing ideas about how to encourage the next generation of scientists, in particular, people who are from underrepresented groups. I want to facilitate the success of other Latinos who want careers in academic research. To achieve this, it is vital for students to have role models—to see people like them as faculty members, researchers, and leaders.
The perspective of a minority scientist may or may not be different from a majority scientist, but it does bring diversity to a research environment. I think growing up half Japanese and half Latino in a predominantly Caucasian culture taught me very early on what it means to struggle with adversity. I know what it feels like to try and achieve your goals without visible mentors who share your ethnic background in your field. To watch the numbers of minorities dwindle the closer you get to the top can be very discouraging. I strive to make it easier for everyone to attain the goals they seek, by helping to encourage students from a mentorship standpoint. My hope is that increased visibility and determination will prove to be an encouraging example for others.