Wayne M. Yokoyama, M.D., gives that advice to medical students and postdoctoral fellows aiming to become independent researchers.
“Work hard, exceed people’s expectations and you’ll be successful,” he continues. “We are often limited most by constraints we place on ourselves.”
That philosophy helped Yokoyama become a two-time Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, the Sam J. Levin and Audrey Loew Levin Professor of Research in Arthritis, professor of medicine and of pathology and immunology, chief of the Rheumatology Division, director of the Center for Arthritis and Related Diseases and director of the Rheumatic Diseases Core Center.
Behind the prestigious titles, Yokoyama is known as a patient, low-key and highly effective physician, teacher and administrator. As a researcher, he is internationally recognized for his studies of immune cells known as natural killer cells and how they help defend the body against cancer and viruses.
His work on natural killer cells earned him the prestigious Novartis Award for Basic Immunology in 2001.
“Wayne Yokoyama is the ideal role model of the physician-scientist,” says Kenneth S. Polonsky, M.D., the Adolphus Busch Professor and chairman of the Department of Medicine and professor of cell biology and physiology. “His research is of the highest quality while maintaining very strong links to our understanding of the biological basis of human disease.”
Richard D. Brasington, M.D., associate professor of medicine, adds that Yokoyama is “a talented researcher who can see connections between clinical and scientific observations and their implications. He has a real commitment to excellence and a sense of vision for the Rheumatology Division.”
Yokoyama was born on the island of Maui and raised in Honolulu. He grew up during the space race, which fostered dreams of becoming a scientist.
His high-school biology teacher encouraged his attraction to biology and helped him win an American Heart Association Junior Research Summer Fellowship. This allowed Yokoyama to work in the laboratory of an immunologist studying tissue antigens.
That was in 1969, the year the first kidney transplant was performed in Hawaii. Yokoyama was riveted to the televised descriptions of the transplant process and the importance of tissue typing.
“I didn’t understand much of what they said, but I knew it was related to the work I was doing in the lab, and that helped hook me on biomedical research,” Yokoyama says.
Yokoyama’s mother came from the island of Hawaii and his father from Maui. The couple grew up during the uncertainties of the Pearl Harbor era and met at the University of Hawaii.
His father was a computer programmer at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. He died when Yokoyama was a sophomore in high school.
His mother, a homemaker, became a substitute schoolteacher after his father’s death. Yokoyama has a younger brother, who now is a computer specialist, and a younger sister who is a chemist.
“We were fortunate. My mother wanted us to have a good education,” he says. “Despite my father’s death, she saved enough for all of us to attend private universities on the mainland.”
Few students from Yokoyama’s high school went on to college. Those who did usually attended the University if Hawaii or West Coast universities.
But Yokoyama wanted a different experience, so he selected the University of Rochester. Even snowy days and frigid temperatures didn’t stop Yokoyama from trekking to the medical school to spend his free afternoons working in an immunology laboratory.
After college, Yokoyama returned to Hawaii to attend medical school at the University of Hawaii. During that time, he met his wife, Lynn, who had graduated from that university with a double major in psychology and sociology. Today, she is a grant-funded data specialist who helps implement positive behavior support for St. Louis County Schools.
After earning his medical degree in 1978, Yokoyama did an internship and residency in internal medicine, followed by a clinical fellowship in rheumatology and a three-year research fellowship at University of Iowa Hospitals.
But even after three years of laboratory experience, Yokoyama felt he needed more research training. So in 1985, he, Lynn and their two small children picked up and moved near Bethesda, Md., where Yokoyama spent four years as a research fellow in basic immunology at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Training to become an independent basic scientist is difficult, Yokoyama explains. The fledgling scientist must focus on one research project while keeping involved in one or two others in case the main project isn’t successful.
“Young researchers must develop a sense of what’s significant and what’s within reach and constantly reassess their priorities,” Yokoyama says. “That can be difficult, but it helps to have experience and great mentors like I had at NIH.
“I’ve been fortunate because I’ve had tremendous support from my wife and family. Over the years, I’ve had terrific people working with me.”
Yokoyama spent 11 years in clinical and research training after medical school before he was recruited to the University of California, San Francisco, by Ira Goldstein, a renowned rheumatologist. And when Goldstein moved to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City to become chairman of medicine, Yokoyama went with him.
Goldstein died shortly after the move. Two years later, Yokoyama became the first Howard Hughes Medical Investigator at Mount Sinai.
Wayne M. Yokoyama, M.D.
Years at the University: 8
Birthplace: Wailuku, Maui
Honors: Gourmet cooking, watching Cardinals games, traveling and photography
Hobbies: Gourmet cooking, watching Cardinals games, traveling and photography
In 1995, John P. Atkinson, M.D., the Samuel B. Grant Professor of Medicine and former chair of the Department of Medicine, called to recruit Yokoyama to Washington University. Yokoyama was familiar with the School of Medicine’s reputation for strong research, particularly in immunology, and the Department of Medicine’s long history of supporting physician-scientists.
“It was a chance I didn’t want to pass up,” Yokoyama says. “It’s a great place to work.
“At Washington University, people get along. They communicate and work together. If others find something that’s of interest to us, or we find something of interest to somebody else, we start talking about how we can collaborate.”
In addition, his colleagues are among the leaders of their fields.
“They are incredibly bright and give us very helpful scientific feedback,” he says. “When we write papers and grants or give talks, they are well received because we’ve already covered the bases.”
To come to the University, Yokoyama had to give up his Howard Hughes Medical Investigator position at Mount Sinai — something few people are willing to do.
“Then he earned it back again, something few people are able to do,” Atkinson says. “And that attests to the quality of his science.
“He’s also built the rheumatology program into one of the outstanding ones in the country on both the research and clinical sides.”
The Yokoyamas have two children, Christine, who is entering her senior year at Harvard College, and Reid, who will be a freshman at Stanford University. The family encourages one of Yokoyama’s favorite weekend activities: gourmet cooking.
Yokoyama is a die-hard Cardinals fan who also enjoys gardening, traveling and photography.
These days, Yokoyama rarely gets to work at the bench, conducting experiments himself. But he still enjoys the discoveries and has come to enjoy publishing good papers, getting grants, giving seminars and the positive feedback that comes with those efforts.
He also enjoys training the young investigators who come through his laboratory.
“It’s very satisfying to see them take whatever positive things I’ve imparted on them and then go on and do well, ” he says.
It is the satisfaction of seeing dreams come true.