Acknowledge Diversity and Take a Step Back to Survey the Whole Scene
Pursuing a research career in search of excitement
Currently, I'm working as an Associate Professor at the University of California, Riverside in the United States. I didn't set out to be an academic: I just followed my interests and passion and ended up becoming a professorat a university.
Since I was a child, I have always enjoyed the activities researchers do, such as investigating subject matters diligently, acquiring new knowledge, and sharing it with others. In particular, the driver of my research endeavor is the feeling of excitement leading to an "aha" moment - the moment when you suddenly hit upon the answer to a problem, everything falls into place, and the world makes sense. That same feeling is what I cherish most in my work today.
I specialize in develop mental psychology, and my expertise is the effect of puberty on adolescentmental health. An intriguing thing about humans is that mental health problems increase around the same time as puberty-related physical changes occur, such as growing taller and having one's voice break. The main focus of my research is exploring the factors contributing to this concurrence.
When we look at research on mental health in children and their families, we see that statistically, they tend to cluster within family units, which suggests that mental health problems are intertwined in complex ways through the family environment and genetics within a broader social ecology. To tease out these connections, I use an approach that combines biological perspectives with insights into the family environment. For example, my colleagues and I have been working on a prospective longitudinal adoption study to collect data on adopted children and their biological parents and their adoptive parents. My research approach, trained in developmental science, is characterized by long-term engagement with children and families: in some cases, it takes 15 or 20 years to complete a study. We also have opportunities to do research that involves direct contact with children and their families.
Something I find particularly interesting in my research is to shed scientific light on things that people tend to consider "normative." For example, when you tell a child not to do something, parents need to give rationales to children and explain why they shouldn't do it. Through my research, I also found that explaining the reasons behind parental disciplines can lead to a decrease in adolescents' misbehavior. When I told this to my own mother, she just said, "of course it does!" [laughs] but I think it is crucial to provide empirical evidence that supports (or does not support) this folk knowledge.I find the complexity of human development fascinating.
Research career shaped by an early encounter with an ICU professor
Associate Professor Natsuaki with her former teacher Toshiaki Sasao (right)
After graduating from a high school in the United States, I decided to attend ICU without anyhesitationsimply because beginning the academic year in September was seamless for those of us who came from the United States. Looking back, I realize what a great choice that was.
The turning point was when I met Professor Toshiaki Sasao, who is still on the faculty of ICU today. It was Professor Sasao who had the most profound influence on my decision to pursue a career in academia, and I can't thank him enough. I feel I've been fortunate to have great mentors, including professors who supported my graduate and postdoctoral training in the United States.
I ended up in Professor Sasao's lab because, at first, I was intrigued by the bow tie that Professor Sasao wore every day [laughs]. And then, when I took his class, I found my preconceptions about research completely upended. The project I did in his class involved research on the prevention of smoking among parents of young children. Before I took the course, my rudimentaryidea of what researchers did was simply sitting at a desk and studying diligently, but what Idid was more action-oriented, e.g., calling up a kindergarten close to the ICU campus, playing with the children there, and talking with their parents. I was captivated by thishuman-centered, community-oriented approach, and it prompted me to dive deeper into the world of research on children and families.
Another extremely valuable experience I gained in Professor Sasao's lab was the participationin international conferences. Back then, it was rare for undergraduate students to participate in international conferences (especially as presenters). Professor Sasao gave me the opportunity to do so because he believed that there's no point in doing research and producingnoteworthy findings unless you share them with other people. I was anxious, to say the least, at the prospect of presenting to an international audience of scientists. But I found it very stimulating, and I feel that this experience led to my decision to study at a graduate school outside Japan.
Professor Sasao expected a lot from his students and he sometimes provided harsh feedback on my writing. But dealing with criticism is of being a researcher. The criticalquestion is how to turn the criticism you receive into something beneficial for yourself. Mastering this skill has proven to be a considerable asset and source of resilience as I continue my research activities.
Another experience that was just as valuable as Professor Sasao's guidance was the opportunity to develop a long-lasting friendship. Soon after starting the ICU life, I was lucky to meet fellow students who became my best friends. Like me, they were also returnee students who entered the university in September, and together we worked to adjust to our unfamiliar life in Japan, including the complex railway network in Tokyo. I thoroughly enjoyed the college student life with my friends, including engaging in research-related discussions and typical social activities such as going to karaokeand gossiping and talking about romance. Even now, more than 20 years after graduating from ICU, the friendship I made there is still an essential part of my life.
Research group meeting at the University of California, Riverside
Everybody can find a place for themselves
Out of all the things I learned at ICU, I think the most important was an awareness of the importance of "thinking." As soon as I entered ICU, I discovered what it meant to use one's mind and brain. I recall it being at ICU was a series of events where I had to think more deeply about each matter one by one.
What prompted this realization was learning in a philosophy class about "I know that I know nothing" by Socrates: how much our growth is impeded by a presumption that we "know" things, and how scaryit is not to be able to identify the "unknown." This realization was an "aha" moment for me.
There's one other important thing that I learned through liberal arts at ICU. This was to have a flexibility of "zoom in' and "zoom-out."As we delve deeper into your specialized field,we tend to become more myopic. This "zoom in" is important, but it is alsoimportant to step back and survey the whole scene, acknowledging that there are many different opinions and ways of thinking in this world. I feel fortunate to have developed this kind of outlook, especially since my position demands a holistic understanding of human development.
I also find this outlook useful in my mentoring ofstudents today. Students have a wide range ofinterests, and they pose all sorts of questions after class. If you have a good grasp of the landscape of matters, you can still have a meaningful conversation even if questions arebeyond your specialization.
Stepping back and surveying the whole scene also helps you find your niche in a diverse environment. It gives youa chance to wake up to your own potential, as well. As welead more restricted lives in the current COVID-19 pandemic,weare inevitably taking a narrower outlook of the world. But the world is a big place: there are many different people and numerous ways of thinking.There must be places where we can developour own niches. Liberal arts at ICU might open that first door for you, and it will serve asa critical guidepost in your journey through life.
Misaki N. Natsuaki, Ph.D. (original family name: Nishimura)
Associate Professor, University of California, Riverside
1998 B.A. in Arts and Sciences (Education)
2001 M.A. in ICU Graduate School of Education
Misaki N. Natsuaki completed the Ph.D. program at University of California, Davis, in 2006. She worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the same institution and at the University of Minnesota, then was appointed Assistant Professor at University of California, Riverside. She assumed her current position in 2015.