David Asai wins the 2022 Bruce Alberts Award for Excellence in Science Education

David Asai

The American Society for Cell Biology honors David J. Asai, Senior Director of Science Education for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with the 2022 Bruce Alberts Award for Excellence in Science Education. Asai will receive the award during Cell Bio 2022 in Washington, DC, where he will present the talk “Lessons from the Little Red Hen.” The Bruce Alberts award recognizes an individual who has demonstrated innovative and sustained contributions to science education, with a priority on the national impact of the nominee’s activities. 

Nominator Michael Boyce, Associate Professor of Biochemistry in the Department of Biochemistry at Duke University, described Asai as a “transformative national leader in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the biomedical sciences.”

Wrote Boyce, “Those of us who have worked and interacted with David know that he is unafraid to question the racial equity implications of all the decisions we make, big and small. He challenges us to think strategically. We look to him for guidance and insight. David is known not only for his candor but also for his humanity. He shares stories of his own empathy and lived experiences, including discrimination against his Asian American (U.S. citizen) family during and after World War II. And yet, David does not pretend to have all the answers to the difficulties of injustice. David’s work is a journey – it will never end, and he is the first to say so. But his contributions strike at the heart of systemic inequity, and that matters deeply.” 

Humbled by the honor, Asai remarked, “This award is a high point of my career for three reasons. One, the award comes from the ASCB, an organization that has been my professional touchstone since I was a graduate student a long, long time ago. Two, the award honors the inimitable and unsinkable Bruce Alberts, a relentless champion for better science education from pre-K to senior faculty development. And three, the award recognizes the many persons whose ideas and insights have informed and inspired my work. (In Japanese), ‘Okage sama de’… I am what I am because of them.”  

Asai grew up in Hawai’i, graduating from H.P. Baldwin High School in Maui. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Stanford University and a PhD in biology from Caltech. He continued at Caltech as a Muscular Dystrophy Association postdoctoral scholar. He was then a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in the Department of Biology.

Before joining HHMI in 2008, he was Professor and Head of Biological Sciences at Purdue University and then the Stuart Mudd Professor and Chair of Biology at Harvey Mudd College. His research group studied molecular motor dynein’s structural and functional diversity. He taught mainly at the introductory level in cell and molecular biology for both majors and non-majors.

Through his experience as a science educator, however, Asai began to understand that “achieving meaningful diversity means moving away from a ‘fix the student’ mindset to a commitment to change the culture of science so that it is centered on inclusion through equity.”

“Our culture is manifested by the structures we build, what we do, and how we behave,” Asai said. “In the context of science education, changing our culture means re-imagining admissions, prerequisites, the curriculum, and the rewards structure. It also means that we must learn how to talk about race, teach and mentor in a culturally responsive manner, and examine our current values critically.” 

He continued,” At this moment in time, the ASCB has the extraordinary opportunity to lead the nation by modeling genuine cultural change concerning diversity in science.” 

Today, Asai’s efforts focus on incentivizing behavioral and structural changes so that science and science education aims to increase inclusion through equity. At HHMI, Asai leads the Undergraduate and Graduate Programs (UGP) group. UGP creates initiatives whose goal is to re-center science education on inclusion. Their programs are founded on the conviction that faculty, staff, and administrators are responsible for creating inclusive learning environments. UGP programs include:

  • Inclusive Excellence
  • Driving Change
  • the Gilliam graduate program
  • the Science Education Alliance
  • the HHMI Professors; and 
  • the Scientific Mentorship Initiative

In his letter of support, Clifton A. Poodry, Emeritus Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote, “David has been an outstanding leader in promoting and supporting advances in science education that put a premium on diversity and inclusion. He has boldly refocused attention away from the model of competition of individuals to collaboration among institutions as well as the development of the faculty to be more competent mentors for all students. His creativity and dedication to science education make him an outstanding candidate for the ASCB Bruce Alberts Award.”

Asai has received many professional accolades and contributed his expertise to many organizations. He is a Fellow of ASCB and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He serves on the ASCB Minorities Affairs Committee and was part of the Society’s Nominating Committee, Governance, and DEI taskforces. He serves on several advisory committees and is a member of the National Academies Committee on Advancing Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in STEMM.

In addition to his professor endeavors, Asai and his family are raising two-year-old Amazing Grace (Maizie), a 70-pound, white/yellow Lab “with the build of a Sherman tank and the emotional maturity of a puppy.”

“When we can leave Maizie in the capable care of her favorite doggie-sitter,” he added, “we visit my boyhood hometown to enjoy Spam musubi from Nagasako’s, guri-guri from Tasaka’s, and watch the sunset over Lana’i.”

About the Author:

Mary Spiro is ASCB's Strategic Communications Manager.