Student Voices

A scientist in wonderland: diving into the microscopic world of cells


Tiffany Natsumi Ishii

2nd-year doctoral student, Department of Chemistry


University of California, San Diego

born in California, USA

Natsumi Tiffany Ishii’s interest in science started in elementary school and has grown stronger ever since. Currently, she is a doctoral student studying basic pathways in cells to reveal the mechanisms that could be exploited to develop targeted treatments for various medical conditions.

Early interest in many forms of science

Since I was young my dream was to become either a geologist, entomologist, or some type of biologist. I love bugs and insects, which was pretty strange for a little girl to be fascinated by insects. I had insect encyclopedias that my parents gave me and I used to just stare at the insects. I loved collecting rocks and other geology-related things as well. So, the start was a fascination with the world around me. I also have to mention that in fourth and fifth grade my teachers were very science oriented. They taught me a lot about biology, geology, and hydrology. In fifth grade, we had science Fridays, when we had at least an hour of just talking about science. I think that was what made me fall in love with science. That time was the foundation. I think I started really liking biology in high school. It was then that I decided I wanted to go to medical school because I was really into biomedical science and medicine in general. I was trying to get into medical school but in college, I also fell in love with research. I hesitated about which one I should choose. I ultimately ended up going into research.

College in California

To get into medical school in the US, you don’t have to major in “medicine,” if that is what you would call it. There are certain requirements that you have to meet for medical school, and one of them is getting a good score on the MCAT. Then you have to take certain chemistry courses, have good grades, and be well-rounded. So, I chose biochemistry, but I also started liking neuroscience, which became another one of my passions. That's why I received my bachelor’s in physiology and neuroscience. I wanted to choose a major that would allow me to take all the courses to fulfill pre-medicine requirements and get me ready for the MCAT in case I did go to medical school. I did take many different courses outside of science merely out of personal interest. I have many different hobbies and I like trying new things. I don't want to generalize for everyone who's pre-medicine, but I think most people try to focus on studying and getting into medical school. Of course, I was very serious about getting into medical school, but I also wanted to be well-rounded and not limit myself to one path.

Road to Japan

I really wanted to experience college in Japan. Both of my parents are Japanese. My mother was born and raised in Japan. My father is half Japanese and has a multicultural background. He was also raised in Japan until he was young and then he went to the US. Hearing their experiences, I also wanted to experience Japan and later I also wanted to experience research in Japan. After my junior year of college, I decided I wanted to study abroad. I joined a lab as a summer intern, and I loved it so much that I went back for my master's.

A chance encounter with Serendipity

The Goda lab where I am a graduate student now is a member of the Serendipity lab, which is a larger organization. It includes many different laboratories and different people from around the world who have joined together and want to find “serendipity.” Serendipity is the phenomenon when you get success, or you have a great finding by chance. So then, if we have many great minds that are working together, we think that there is a higher chance of finding that. For me, serendipity means being in an environment that nourishes you to be the best that you can be. When I was an intern, the passion for research resonated with me. The goals and direction of the research itself and the people around me, including my mentors, were very supportive.

Imagi(ni)ng what is inside cells

In the lab, we have a machine called the intelligent image-activated cell sorter. It's a machine that can be used to take fluorescence images of cells. Then, we use artificial intelligence, machine learning, or traditional methods, to sort the cells. We create an algorithm, and then you can sort the cells based on morphology or other characteristics. I think it's quite a novel method still, although there are companies coming out with more image activated-cell sorters. But our main “selling point” so to speak, is that we can use deep learning to do more complicated, morphology-based cell sorting. I've been doing many experiments with the machine, and I am hoping to put out a first-author paper soon.

Telling single cells apart

The papers we have already published are mainly about imaging and sorting single cells, mainly algal cells, yeast cells, and cancer cells. We take images of single cells at a very high rate. As a result, we can see the mitochondria or other organelles inside the cell. Research like this could be later applied to develop screening techniques for important biological pathways. Pathways in cells are a set of steps that result in a certain product or change in the cell. So, one possible application could be in the field of biomedicine. I am interested in cancer or other disease-related pathways. If we are able to figure out the pathways that are perturbed and the proteins involved that would be helpful for screening, prevention, or even treatment.

The fun of doing hands-on work

I really like doing the experiments themselves. You can tell from my hobbies that I like moving and doing things, for example, baking or practicing sadou (Japanese tea ceremony). So, I like gathering data. For me, the data analysis part is more difficult because you have to really think about what data you need and what data you want to show. You also have to think about how to do the analysis effectively. I think what people outside science don't realize is that when writing a paper, you don't show all the data. Of course, you can't falsify data or distort your conclusion to make your research look good. It has to be objective, and you have to show your research in a truthful manner. So how you show your data is important.

Baking is not that different from a chemistry experiment, and Tiffany is close to perfecting her chocolate chip cookie recipe. ©Natsumi Tiffany Ishii

Future plans

I have three different paths I'm thinking of. I want to apply to Japanese companies mostly because I want to see what level my Japanese is and how, or if, I can continue living here. I am thinking of applying to foreign companies in Japan as well. I'm leaning more towards foreign companies in terms of work environment. I don't know if that's the right term, but I am not sure if I will be able to acclimate, because at heart I am pretty American. My mannerisms are Japanese American, and my mindset is more independent, I think. My third path is going back to the US to find work as a researcher for a private company. So, I don't think I'll continue in academia but find work in the research industry instead.

Figuring out your identity takes time

I want to touch on this as someone who is multicultural and who's lived in different environments that are less than or more multicultural. To anyone who is multicultural and is feeling a bit like they don't fit in, I think knowing your identity, figuring out your identity is very, very difficult. But it's something that's really important. When I became comfortable with myself, my identity, and how I express myself, I think it helped me grow as a person. How you interact with people and how you present yourself is different when you gain a sense of self. I hope that anyone who's struggling knows that they are not alone and that it's part of life to go through that. Your identity changes when you're in certain environments as well. For me, I think it probably changed when I moved to Japan and was in a completely different environment. Having a good sense of self, motivation, and passion helps.

Tiffany wearing a yukata, a form of traditional Japanese clothing ©Mika Hayashi

※Year of Interview:2024
Photography:Junichi Kaizuka
Text:Belta Emese
/The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Tiffany Natsumi Ishii
2nd-year doctoral student, Department of Chemistry
Tiffany was born in California, USA. She received her undergraduate degree in physiology and neuroscience from the University of California, San Diego. She then entered the School of Science and received her master’s degree in Chemistry in 2022. Currently, she is a doctoral student and a member of Goda lab. She keeps herself busy in her free time as well, attending tea ceremony and kimono-wearing classes.


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