Takashi D-Y Kozai on how diversity drives discovery
Takashi D-Y Kozai was the kind of kid who loved robots and dreamed of becoming an engineer. But a scientist? Not so much. “Biology class was just taxonomy, memorization, and labeling stuff,” says the associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering.
That changed in high school, when Kozai learned about adenosine triphosphate (ATP) synthase, the turbine that assembles the basic biological unit of energy that powers everything from bicep flexes to nerve impulses to the beating of your heart. WOW, he thought. Okay. Biology is the smallest and most energy efficient piece of engineering that exists in this world.
Kozai completed not one but two life sciences BAs—one in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology and another in biochemistry—at University of Colorado, Boulder. There, he first dipped his toe into basic science research, in a neuroscience lab. One experiment in particular became another turning point.
He was trying to grow neurons onto cell-culture electrodes—and it wasn’t going well, because of the way the materials were designed. Exasperated, he complained to his advisor: Why do they make these things so hard to use? His advisor’s response was, essentially: Because engineers don’t understand biology.
That got Kozai’s gears spinning. He pivoted back to the engineering-curious kid in him, pursuing both an MA and PhD in biomedical engineering at the University of Michigan.
Kozai came to Pitt as a bioengineering postdoc in 2011 and eventually would found his own lab, focusing his research on cellular mechanisms of the brain in the context of, among other things, brain-computer interface (BCI).
Test runs of BCI have made headlines in recent years, enabling people with paralysis to use robotic limbs controlled by their thoughts. Unfortunately, bringing BCI into reliable and sustainable everyday use has proven challenging; the body’s reaction to the electrodes implanted within the brain gradually degrades the devices’ performance over time.
In Kozai’s most recent work, he’s showing that a non-neural cell called oligodendrocytes—which are under-researched in his subfield—could be instrumental to solving this puzzle. This spring, Kozai was awarded a $3 million R01 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to continue making power moves in this area.
While Kozai enjoys keeping one foot in each of his favorite disciplines, the tradeoff is he doesn’t exactly fit the mold for either. Biologists don’t really claim him as one of them, he says, “and to a hardcore engineering group, I'm not really considered an engineer.”
As an Asian American, he’s no stranger to feeling like… well, a stranger. “If I go to Japan, they’ll say that I'm a foreigner. And if I'm in America, they'll say I’m not really white,” he says. He was also the lone economically disadvantaged student in the private school his mom struggled to put him through growing up. “I was taking classes with a bunch of rich kids, but not living that lifestyle.” A couple times, the lights went out at home.
But the kid who grew up outside of the in-group is now the scholar confounding categories, and he has come to enjoy living between the lines. Freedom from group-think and all the hype over headlining science (“optogenetics, the brain-gut access, whatever the flavor of the year might be”), opened his eyes to new possibilities, he says—like a little-understood cell type with secrets to tell.
Kozai takes inspiration from a quote he once read in the New York Times, from Yoshinori Ohsumi, 2016 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winner who discovered a cellular process known as autophagy: I am not very competitive, so I always look for a new subject to study, even if it is not so popular. If you start from some sort of basic, new observation, you will have plenty to work on.
“To me,” says Kozai, “it’s about: What are the problems that are being overlooked?”
In 2020, with funding from the National Science Foundation, Kozai founded eBioNIC.org, a virtual community promoting diversity in his field. He believes different perspectives—in academic discipline, ethnicity, and economic background—is a powerful igniter for discovery. That principle guides him in both his classroom and his lab.
“There are occasionally some students that come up to you, like, Why don't you just tell me what you're thinking? But I need to know the things that I'm not thinking, right? That's how we build a stronger collective of perspectives, problem-solving approaches, and solutions.”
Photography by Tom Altany/Pitt Photography