Sandy Kawano, Comparative Physiologist and Biomechanist

Who am I?

I am a nerd who turned a lifetime fascination in nature documentaries and monster movies into a career as an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach, where I get to study the amazing ways that animals move through different environments and then share these discoveries to students through my role as a teacher-scholar.

How did I become a scientist?

To explain how vertebrate animals became terrestrial, I have to study the evolutionary changes that spanned the transition from fishes to tetrapods which is recorded through the anatomical changes that are left behind in fossils, such as these specimens from the Field Museum.

My career started off a bit rocky when I was rejected from the four-year university programs I applied to in high school. I wanted to become a wildlife biologist to maintain biodiversity and this roadblock made me question whether I was good enough to pursue what I loved. The thought of being a university professor hadn’t crossed my mind yet but I knew that I needed a college degree, so I attended community college where my chemistry professor explained how research helps solve mysteries. I loved puzzles, so I thought “why not?”. I transferred to the University of California, Davis, and was lucky to work with excellent professors who helped me conduct research and inspired me to study how the environment affects animal movements. I did temporarily work as a wildlife biologist with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service during this time, but research made me realize that I could study the maintenance of biodiversity through the lens of evolution and ecology. With my mentors’ support, I completed a Ph.D. at Clemson University and earned post-doctoral fellowships at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis and the Royal Veterinary College. In 2017, I started a tenure-track position at California State University, Long Beach.

What do I study?

One of the aims of my research is to compare how fins and limbs allow animals to move on land and two key players in this story are the African mudskipper (Periophthalmus barbarus; left) and tiger salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum), respectively.

My research combines biology, engineering, and mathematics to reconstruct animal movement by piecing together how muscles and bones produce motion. I deconstruct how living animals move so I can build computer models that reverse-engineer the ancient movements of extinct animals. One of my goals is to figure out how vertebrates (animals with backbones) went from living in water for hundreds of millions of years as fishes to moving onto land as tetrapods (four-legged vertebrates). I enjoy studying animals that challenge the norm, such as ‘walking’ fishes, because they open our eyes to the amazing diversity on Earth and help us learn from those who are different from us. Here’s to nature’s misfits!

What would I have told younger me?

I would encourage anyone interested in science to explore diverse experiences and treat every challenge as an opportunity to learn something, whether it be about yourself or the world around you. We often treat obstacles in our lives as affirmation that we are not good enough, but it is not the obstacles that define us but the way in which we respond to those obstacles. These struggles can push us to grow stronger or approach questions with new and creative perspectives. There are many equally important ways to be a scientist and there is no single pathway to becoming a scientist, so enjoy your adventure!

Follow Sandy’s lab updates on her website and Twitter account!

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