Treating Obesity and Disease through Unique Personal Interests

Dr. Sei Higuchi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences within the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences at St. John’s University. Prior to Joining St. John’s in the fall of 2022, he was at Columbia University, serving as an Associate Research Scientist from 2019 until 2022. He was a postdoctoral research scientist at Columbia from 2015 until 2019 and at Kyoto University from 2011 until 2015. Dr. Higuchi earned a Ph.D. in Pharmacology from Fukuoka University.

Spanning the different disciplines of teaching and research, Dr. Higuchi describes his teaching philosophy as “teamwork” because he thinks listening to lectures is “really boring.” To combat potential boredom for his students, Dr. Higuchi equates lessons to things found in everyday life, such as discussing professional baseball players’ surgeries to help students remember the names of ligaments. He also uses learning apps such as Kahoot to make lectures more interactive. In his research, Dr. Higuchi turned his love of reptiles into the study of metabolism and human obesity.

He lives on Long Island with his wife and two children, as well as several reptiles.


IROHA: Please tell us about your past work, projects, or initiatives.

Dr. Higuchi: For more than ten years, I have been working on lipid metabolism research. Lipids are fatty compounds that store energy, absorb vitamins, and make hormones, among other functions. My research goal is to propose a novel approach to treat obesity and metabolic-related diseases. As a graduate student, I trained in neuroscience and behavioral pharmacology, a field of science that explores how the administration of drugs affects behavior, including cognition, mood, perception, and motor function. I spent four years as a postdoctoral research scientist at Kyoto University, and then I spent a total of seven years at Columbia University to train in intestinal lipid metabolism with a focus on the role of bile acids in this process, in which fat is broken down so that food can be digested more easily. My work revealed that bile acids act as regulators of intestinal lipid sensing and food intake regulation.

IROHA: Tell us about the work or project you are currently working on.

Dr. Higuchi: Since starting an independent laboratory at St. John’s University as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, I have been focusing on intestinal lipid sensing in obesity and obesity-related diseases. My three subject areas are satiety and satiation regulation system, fatty-food appetite, and obesity-related inflammation and neurodegenerative disease such as depression.

IROHA: What are your views surrounding Asian hate, and do you have any experiences that you’d like to share with us?

Dr. Higuchi: Fortunately, so far, I’ve never felt any Asian hate. Well, maybe I have, but I didn’t care! There have been a few changes in the academic field since COVID. For example, I started my faculty job hunting a few years ago—I got this position in 2022—and from around 2020 or 2021, [job applicants] had to write a diversity statement. Before COVID, there was no such document required for a faculty position. I had to describe how I could contribute to a diverse student body and faculty and how I can encourage the future careers of students from underrepresented countries. This is a big change, and I wasn’t sure how I should write this statement because I come from Japan, where 99.9% of the population is Japanese. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. I never thought about diversity, and I didn’t know that this was a big problem in the United States. This was a very good opportunity; I learned so much about DEI here.

IROHA: What has been your experience with the Asian glass ceiling in the academic world?

Dr. Higuchi: I think there is probably a glass ceiling for Asians, but at my university, my college dean is Chinese [Hong Kong native Anne Y. F. Lin]. My department is very diverse. The academic field is very sensitive in fighting Asian hate and discrimination. For example, I’m a tenure track assistant professor. I have to get an evaluation from the university chair and the dean every year. They come to my class and do evaluations. In one evaluation, some of the comments from the dean were, “He is organized, but his accent is thick, which makes him very hard to understand.” This is what he reported to the university. But a fellow committee member said that the statement was discriminatory and told him he can’t report that. Blaming an Asian accent or a Japanese accent is considered discrimination. We are changing in the academic field.

So, I mentioned I haven’t felt Asian hate, but I have noticed discrimination toward female scientists. Universities are actively hiring female scientists and faculty members. And on committees, we’re trying to make an even number of males to females. I feel at the undergraduate level, 60% or 70% of students are female at my university. But I think the faculty is opposite; 70% or 80% are male.

IROHA: How do you encourage young people—men and women—to achieve their dreams? Do you try to mentor female students to follow their goals in scientific fields?

Dr. Higuchi: My previous mentor at Columbia University had a unique style that we called IDP, Individual Development Plan. Once a year each post doc met with our PI [principal investigator], and we made an annual plan. But this is not only a research plan; we also discussed my future career. My PI gave me advice such as taking a grant-writing skills seminar, and she suggested that I expand my network when she noticed that I was speaking only to my fellow lab members at conferences.

Now I’m doing IDP for each of my students [at St. John’s], so I’m listening to their dream jobs. I’m making a network of people in the academic field or industries, and I will provide the necessary network or opportunities based on my students’ goals. I’m also a member of JMSA, the Japanese Medical Society of America. If some of the students are dreaming of being a medical doctor in the United States, I can connect them to medical doctors, and my students can have internship opportunities at a clinic.

To be honest, I was a really bad college student. My score was not very good; I was not a very serious student. But gradually, I was fascinated by science, the masters course, and a Ph.D. Also, I decided to go into academia because of my previous mentor.

I was inspired by the “connecting the dot stories” speech that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford University [the commencement address delivered by Jobs at Stanford in 2005]. I really loved his speech. I had so many reptiles as a college student: monitor lizard, tortoise, snake. Then I moved to Kyoto University and Columbia University, and I was working lipid metabolism. When I published in journals at Columbia University, I started to think about a faculty job, but my previous mentor said that if I didn’t have a specific or original idea or independent research project, I can’t be a professor. I was stuck. But I have snakes in my home, and my son also really loves reptiles. He noticed my python didn’t eat any meals for three months, so I thought my snake was sick or had some health issue. But his body weight didn’t change, and he looked so healthy. I Googled it and learned that sometimes pythons don’t need a meal for sometimes one year. So, I thought, if we could know why they don’t eat any meals for a couple of months, we can use this knowledge to study human obesity and diabetes patients. With my medical knowledge combined with my knowledge of reptiles, I thought I could be a professor. I can connect the dots: experience at Kyoto University, Columbia University, medical knowledge, specific training from Columbia’s professors. Then I can connect that to my interest and knowledge about reptiles. So, I applied to universities in the United States and became an assistant professor.

I say to my students, “Do not waste time.” Of course, studying and learning about a subject is really important, but don’t focus on only studying or learning. I suggest to students to experience many things, and later the students can connect their specific experiences like dots. They can be a unique person and get their dream job in the future.

My mentor changed my life. Now this is my turn to pay it forward. I want to change my students’ future careers. I can tell the younger generation to follow their academic inner voice, to follow what you’re really interested in. I really had an interest in life science and reptiles, then I was able to connect these two dots and create my dream job. I recommend to younger generations to experience many things and listen to their passive interests. And think of how they can contribute to society.   

written by Susan Miyagi McCormac

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