Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro, Plant Molecular Geneticist
Diane Jofuku Okamuro, PhD, is a plant molecular geneticist with a wide range of experience in cutting-edge research technologies. During her 25-year career, she worked in academic and corporate settings focused on plant developmental and molecular biology research.
Dr. Okamuro was one of the first plant geneticists hired at the plant biotech company Ceres where she applied cutting-edge genomics technologies to improve crop plants and generate new high-yield energy crops for biofuels.
In 2005, Dr. Okamuro joined the National Science Foundation (NSA). She is now a program director for the plant genome research program cluster, which manages the plant genome research program (PGRP). The PGRP provides insights into plant processes of importance to the U.S. economy by supporting functional genomics tool development and basic genome-scale discovery research. The cluster also administers the plant genome research postdoctoral fellowship program. Dr. Okamuro holds a PhD in biology from UCLA.
Please note that this interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
[OnlineEducation.com] You have a PhD in biology from UCLA and 25 years of experience in the field of plant molecular genetics. What sparked your interest in this subfield of genomics?
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] The molecular genetics came first. It is a very basic, detailed science, where you look at individual gene networks and gene function, and my interest in gene networks and how genes are regulated started when I was an undergrad. I was reading a book by Eric Davidson, who is a National Academy member, on genes activity in early development. It was riveting.
At that time, in the late 70s and early 80s, cloning was just in its infancy. They didn’t even think that plants had DNA because they weren’t able to isolate DNA intact, so it was very slow detailed work. I always wondered what would happen if I could actually see all of the genes that were involved in this network. What would I be able to learn?
And that’s what piqued my interest in genomics. Genomics is a technology. It’s a field of technologies that allows you to do things in a high throughput and very efficient way.
[OnlineEducation.com] What it was like to be one of the first plant scientists hired at Ceres?
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] My goodness, unlike anything I had experienced before. Industry was always something that we felt was very applied—not much basic research—really focused on the outcomes, right? But this was a startup company, and they were doing something.
They were trying to put together a functional genomics company to look at genes. Genes function in a high throughput way. At that time, only in industry was it possible. You needed to have very deep pockets to do this.
For me, looking at the possibility of joining the company was the best of both worlds. I could do the basic research, but there was a direct link to translation in agriculture, and I thought that this was fabulous.
As a startup company, you have multiple roles so there’s no real division of labor there. Everyone’s doing whatever they can to open up the company, so it was a lot of fun.
[OnlineEducation.com] By this point in your career, you had three children. What was that like to do the juggling act, also with your spouse in a research-based position?
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] It was tough. I’m not going to say it wasn’t. I had children in every stage of my career: as an undergrad, a grad student, and a post-doc. All three were girls, and we really had to be careful about keeping a healthy work-life balance because we could see that if you didn’t, we could see that it was affecting them.
It was difficult, but I had a lot of support. My husband and I have always worked together since we were in graduate school. In fact, for the first 25 years of our marriage, we were with each other 24/7. It’s a wonderful partnership. We’ve been married now for, oh my goodness, 42 years.
And we still are the best of friends. So it’s great.
[OnlineEducation.com] Wonderful. What a blessing. Throughout your career, what challenges did you face, particularly as a woman pursuing work in this field, and what helped you navigate them? I understand having a supportive spouse has been key.
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] And a supportive family. My children are also very supportive.
I don’t think we can ignore the fact that women have faced a lot of implicit and explicit bias in our careers throughout the years. It is getting better because people are more aware of their biases and how even small biases, collectively, can become a major hurdle for a person in their career development.
But I think I think that one of the things that has always helped me are my mentors. I had amazing mentors, both men and women, and I think that was very important.
I think also the fact that I never felt trapped: I never wanted to feel trapped because then you are subject to more difficult decisions.
And because of the support I had, professionally and personally, I was able to make decisions that some people might not be able to.
[OnlineEducation.com] That’s a really interesting point.
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] Yeah. It’s very empowering to feel like you can make the choice to prevent being trapped. I think I’ve been very fortunate.
[OnlineEducation.com] Having options…
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] Having options, yes, and putting myself out there because I think that you know I’m an introvert, essentially. I’m pretty shy. I realized that from people reaching out to me and telling me their stories. It’s time for me to do the same so that people feel emboldened and empowered to do things they never thought they could.
[OnlineEducation.com] It’s really interesting how other people seeking you out gave you that impetus to also speak out.
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] One of my reasons for joining NSF was that NSF supports not only advancing research in the sciences but also training and advancing people. Advancing people’s careers and broadening participation was always very important to me.
I grew up in a coastal farming community in California. Our town was mostly minorities, and I understood how opportunities aren’t often available for people…In fact, at the time I was in public schools, the numbers weren’t so great for people advancing into college. I don’t think we’ve actually moved that needle as much as we think we should have. It’s very important that it’s not about me anymore—it’s about everyone else, and how can I help them understand that they are more than just what they feel is their place. They can do more. They just need to believe and know that we’re there to help.
[OnlineEducation.com] At what point in your career did you join the NSF, and what prompted that move?
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] I joined in 2005. I was at the company and thinking about what my next would be. The company was really morphing into a traditional breeding company—a breeding seed company and less basic research, much more applied research.
I was thinking about what I should be doing. I always felt that it was important to evaluate where you are both in terms of your career and your personal life and to make adjustments, so you don’t make those big mistakes that haunt you the rest of your life!
At that moment, several women who, unbeknownst to me, had been following my career, heard that I was considering leaving the company and they reached out to me. This was Mary Clutter, Machi Dilworth, and Jane Silverthorne at NSF. At USDA, there was Judy St. John and Kay Simmons. All of these women I knew.
And it was Machi, Mary, and Jane who reached out and said, “Why don’t you come and visit NSF?”
And I thought, wow. I’ve always felt that I needed to pay back because I had been funded by Federal agencies. As an undergrad, I was funded by NIH. And as a graduate student, by NIH and NSF. As a postdoc, I had NATO/NSF fellowships, as well as an EMBO fellowship from the European Molecular Biology Organization in Europe. And then, as a co-PI, I was funded by NSF, so I knew that it was important for me to pay back. I just didn’t know what the job was…
One of the reasons I felt that it would be a good move is because everyone, no matter what their position was—whether they were a program assistant, operations specialist, program director, or senior manager—they all worked together to advance the goals, the mission of the agency. They were all passionate about funding the best science and training people, and I thought that would be amazing.
Scientists can be so competitive, and science is competitive, for funding and such. Here was a situation where everyone would set aside their own desires and goals to advance the one that the agencies had. I thought I want to do that. And I signed up for two years as a rotator.
But then, a permanent position came open, and I applied for that. I was lucky to be offered that position, so I’ve been in NSF for 17 years, almost 18 years now.
[OnlineEducation.com] And were your positions consistently with the plant genome research program?
Yes, for most of that time…My position is a program director—a permanent program director. I am responsible for managing the review of proposals that are submitted to the program, as well as managing the awards and the projects throughout their lifetime.
I’ve been on different working groups which managed new programs. I have also served as a science advisor for our division. That was very interesting as well because I was able to see the whole breadth of the plant science that was being funded as well as the organizational biology across all species, all scales. It was amazing.
[OnlineEducation.com] It’s no wonder you have stayed where you are.
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] It’s been fantastic, and my husband has been able to find a job here, too. He loves his job as well. He’s very happy where he is.
[OnlineEducation.com] What accomplishments are you most proud of, and what are some current or future goals that you have in mind for your career?
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] Well, I haven’t done research in a very long time, as you might imagine, but I think scientifically, I’m most proud of my work on plant regulatory networks and how that led to the discovery of a family of transcription factors that played key roles controlling plant growth and development. To this day, it is, it is, it is one of the largest chain families in plants. I couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t been willing to move, from the states to Europe and back to the States, and just been very flexible about my decisions in terms of my career and my family.
In terms of my life here in the NSF, I’m most proud of the postdoctoral research fellowship program that I’ve been associated with since its inception ten years ago.
I’ve had an opportunity to interact with amazing individuals who are at the post-doctoral level. I continue to be able to interact with them after they’ve gotten positions—many of whom have positions now in industry, academia, and not-for-profit institutions.
For the future, before I retire, it’s important to put into place the types of resources that the community needs in order to advance both basic and applied research to benefit society for agricultural improvement. There are bottlenecks, and it’s important to be able to efficiently test and validate gene function before you put it out in the field and it comes to market. That process is at least two years in terms of regulatory processes and field trials, etc.
And then, I want to help broaden the participation of groups that are underrepresented in STEM. That has been a goal since the day I stepped into my role as a program director.
I want to help anyone who would like a career in science. One of the things I truly believe is that access to genomics technologies and resources levels the playing field for everyone, and it opens up career opportunities in all fields of science.
It’s not just in the plant sciences. If you learn how to sequence and analyze sequences, you can go to government and be in a forensic lab. You can go to a genotyping facility to help people understand what they might be more susceptible to because of their genetics.
There are just so many different career opportunities. It’s not just going into academia and doing research. If individuals across the nation could have access to that type of training, they would be able to leverage it into a job that they enjoy.
The ultimate goal for any scientist is to be able to help the public understand what science can do for them, to give them a basic knowledge of the science, so that they can make informed decisions about their life and their health.
We really have to do a better job, and we’re working on that at the NSF.
[OnlineEducation.com] A 2020 UNESCO report found that 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women, and in the US and Western Europe, it’s only slightly higher at almost 33 percent. What do you think could be done to address this and encourage more women to enter the field? What advice do you have for aspiring women leaders in genomics?
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] I think part of our problem has been that many areas of the world are not connected to the Internet in a robust way. Broadband is not available in all places in the United States, and women have historically had more responsibility outside of their careers in terms of family. I feel like the pandemic has provided more opportunities for women who can’t travel, who can’t go to meetings all the time—to participate in them and contribute to them. And I think that we’re going to see more women stepping into [leadership] roles.
But I should say that one of the amazing things that happened was that Mary Clutter, in the early 70s, she had just become the assistant director for biological sciences at NSF. She put out a staff memo to biology saying that the biological sciences would not support workshops and conferences that did not have representation by women or individuals from underrepresented groups, either as speakers or organizers. And it changed everything.
At the time, only men were involved at those higher levels of organization and giving seminars. Because NSF would not fund provide funding for the conferences, it was really the carrot that made organizations start to invite women. In fact, there were men who actually said, “Well, we do have women. We’re talking about their research.” And Mary would say, “Why can’t they talk about their research?”
It was a bold move, and even The Washington Post decided to highlight that in a piece. NIH soon followed with the same [policy], and I think that that made all the difference…
You would be amazed at how many women, early career investigators, and individuals from underrepresented groups are now giving talks.
[OnlineEducation.com] It highlights the importance of speaking up.
[Dr. Diane Jofuku Okamuro] Exactly, and taking that risk…Obviously, Mary was going to get a lot of pushback, right? To this day, she is credited with moving that needle for women at the time.