Karissa Yamaguchi: Research First, People Always

Karissa Yamaguchi ’19 Genetics

“Through undergraduate research, I loved being immersed in my work but missed regular and varied human interaction. I found that in the future I want to focus more on translational, clinical or social science research.” – Karissa Yamaguchi ‘19

Karissa Yamaguchi is a May 2019 graduating senior from Phoenix, Arizona. Karissa has served as an Undergraduate Research Ambassador for the past two and a half years and has worked diligently to leave her mark on the next generation of Aggie researchers. She is graduating with a B.S. in genetics and a minor in public health.

Research First

Karissa has been an avid researcher during her time at Texas A&M University. Last year Karissa entered a computational and structural biology program in order to complete her goal of integrating natural processes into drug design to minimize the side-effects and toxicity to patients. As a part of this experience, Karissa was able to study the structure of a cancer-specific cell marker (MHC) complex for targeted immunotherapy. “By characterizing the marker, we could utilize the body’s natural immune system to specifically target cancerous cells without causing broad toxicity to the body.”

Karissa said that her research experience and her participation in the LAUNCH Undergraduate Research Scholars thesis program allowed her to gain access to more varied opportunities during her time at Texas A&M. One of these was the AURA Texas Cohort created by Dr. Sarah M. Misemer (TAMU) and Dr. Robert Reichle (UT Austin). The AURA Texas Cohort is a collaborative network of undergraduate researchers at Texas A&M and UT Austin that provides its members with opportunities for research exchanges, professional development, and networking  opportunities. AURA Texas members also travel to Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol in Austin, TX to present research and interact with state officials when the legislature is in session. Karissa said of her experience with the program that “At each of the meetings and events I would attend, I found myself especially drawn to the humanities. I never knew research could look differently than sitting at a lab bench and pipetting. After a long and intense focus on STEM, the piece of me that loved AP Literature, History, Latin, and Government in high school started to shine through again.”

People Always

Karissa says her research journey has helped her to see her future in medicine differently. Karissa says that experiences such as AURA and her Philippines study abroad have given her a new perspective, adding “My hopes to become a doctor have remained the same, but my focus and drive in medicine have changed. Before I was more fascinated by the basic building blocks of life from the biochemical level. Now, I am excited to pursue medicine for the possibilities of promoting equity and addressing social justice.” Karissa furthered this by saying that she “found that health is so intrinsically tied to human experience. As a physician I will constantly have to recognize my patients’ cultures, perspectives, and socio-political contexts.”

Reflecting on how research allowed her to arrive at this new perspective, Karissa said that “Rather than individual projects, I think the mindset of research is what has shaped who I am today. Any new research exists within a context–a body of knowledge–that it adds to. The mentality of seeking more knowledge always requires understanding more about what already exists. I think the same could be said of my own life. Through my experiences, my perspective has constantly been deepened, challenged, and broadened to better understand the contexts that I exist within.  Research has forced me to think more deeply about myself, my own questions, and identity as well as contexts to recognize the places I can contribute to. As a fourth generation Japanese American, my grandparents’ experiences in incarceration during World War II necessitates my activism for people who are alienated or scapegoated by the current political rhetoric. My adoption into my Filipino host community requires my commitment to not only service the poor with dignity, but change the structures that have forced them into intractable poverty. My identity as a Christian requires I view all people–regardless of race, socio-economic status, ability, gender, etc.–as valuable and worthy of compassion and justice and that I must play a role in promoting equity for the vulnerable. As a student and physician, I will both serve and advocate for the vulnerable.”

Advice for Freshman

Karissa’s advice to incoming freshmen is to “Jump at every opportunity you may come across. Even if it does not seem like a great fit at the beginning. Practicing applying for, interviewing and asking for recommendations is a great way to prepare for when you later find your passions.”