Episode 14: Yusuke Yokoyama

Nearly everyone I’ve interviewed so far has a healthy dose of “what if” in their background. But maybe no one more so than Yusuke Yokoyama, a star paleoclimatologist – geochemist – engineer – inventor at the University of Tokyo.

Yusuke with his Accelerator Mass Spectrometer. Credit: Yusuke Yokoyama

What if he hadn’t been a stellar athlete growing up in Japan? He might not have had such a good experience during his junior high school exchange in Tennessee, leaving him with a keen desire to go overseas again.

What if his high school hadn’t given students such a long leash? Maybe he  wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be inspired by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos …  or to explore careers in journalism and medicine.

What if his PhD program in Australia already had a state-of-the-art mass spec? Then he never would have had the chance to build a new vacuum apparatus for Tezer Esat’s homemade unit, or probably to land a job working on cosmogenic isotopes in California years later.

I realize that these musing verge on an academic origin story trope — everyone has random twists along the way — but the chance occurrences came fast and furious for Yusuke, along with plenty of irony.

Although Japanese, Yusuke had a hard time getting a position back in Japan, at least in part because he had been gone for a while and wasn’t known in the hiring world, at the time a fairly insular affair. But that worked out alright in the end, as Yusuke’s experience interviewing at UC Santa Barbara totally changed his perception of how interviewing could be done. Twelve years ago, for example, Japanese universities did not routinely bring in candidates for interviews. Now, there is a formal travel budget, an extended interview process, and an effort to reach out internationally.

Yusuke’s career path, even in sea level research for which he is best known, had an unusual start. Initially he was interested in inverting the relative sea level variations of Jomon archaeological sites to get mantle properties, but this eventually led to a more direct interest in geochemical estimates of sea level, from corals in particular.

Coral collection always seems to bring problems. For Yusuke and his colleagues, the Gulf War scrapped plans for the collection of Last Glacial Maximum samples. And in Tahiti, the LGM was also elusive, leading instead to some fundamental insights on Meltwater Pulse-1A. It seems to me that Yusuke worked out his own expansive skill set, and then kept a keen eye out for opportunity.

We talk about learning Japanese drumming while in America and bringing some American “what have you got to lose attitude” back to Japan, not the least from his children’s temporary grade school in Houston, where the slogan was something like “We are risk takers”.

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