Celebrating Women Making History at MPFI: Naomi Kamasawa “The Pioneer”

This post is part of our Women’s History Month series of features spotlighting some of the women making history at MPFI.

March 18, 2021
Dr. Naomi Kamasawa

Max Planck Florida is home to cutting-edge technology that allows our scientists to visualize parts of the brain in ways that have never been seen before. One of the notable facilities available at MPFI is the Electron Microscopy Core, run by Dr. Naomi Kamasawa. In recent years, the EM core has gained international recognition for its advanced imaging techniques and has forged partnerships with leading companies to give MPFI the ability to work with new tools and equipment before they are commercially available anywhere else. In this sense, Naomi is a pioneer in the field of EM, and her expertise is sought after by research institutions and universities all over the world.

But growing up as a child in Japan, Naomi didn’t know what she wanted to do for a career, she was only certain of what she did NOT want: to be stuck in an office making copies and tea for male colleagues, as was typical for many women at the time. After graduating from Japan Women’s University in Tokyo, Naomi worked at a chemical company for two years, where she worked with DNA to screen cells for medical production but found that she wasn’t passionate about it. “It was an ok job but I wanted to go back to study biology, specifically living cells that are moving and changing their shape.”  She decided to return to university to earn her Ph.D.

While pursuing her degree, Naomi came upon electron microscopy, an imaging technique that allows scientists to create highly detailed images of minute biological samples, such as cells, neurons, and synapses. She began studying EM at the urging of a friend. “My friend told me ‘it is a plus to gain a unique skill for female scientists to survive.’ I didn’t think about it too much, but she taught me EM basics from zero and I started.” From there she found ways to apply the technology in neuroscience and began to fall in love with the beauty of the images as well as the information they revealed. “Beauty is truth,” she was told by a professor, a saying that remains with her to this day.

One of the hallmarks of Naomi’s approach to EM is working side-by-side with researchers to better support their projects. Recently a collaboration between MPFI’s Fitzpatrick Lab and the EM Core resulted in a paper in the prestigious research journal, Nature and a companion paper in Microscopy and Microanalysis. These papers were a result of techniques developed by Naomi’s team to combine other Light Microscopy with EM, which enabled researchers to not only develop a highly detailed 3D model of a neuron but to capture how that neuron fired in real-time. “This workflow using the serial block-face SEM was one of my dream projects that I talked about when I first interviewed with MPFI in 2010.  This work could not be possible without having my current EM team.  I am so proud of myself that I could make this team!”

Building teams is another talent that Naomi has brought to her role at MPFI. Despite the complexity of their work, Naomi has taken on students at all levels to work on her projects, giving them the opportunity to learn about EM firsthand, much like her friend did for her many years ago. Mentoring has its challenges, but Naomi has had many of what she calls “proud Mom moments” seeing her team succeed. It also helps her prioritize through delegation. “At some point, I noticed I could not do everything I wanted. Instead, if I can transfer something knowledge to other people, they may do things I want to do, or may do even greater things.”

As a woman in science, Naomi says she feels lucky to have been supported throughout her career, both personally and professionally. She offers this advice to anyone considering a career in science: “Trust your gut feelings. When you are not sure, one step forward anyway (if you don’t like the way, find another). Have fun with what you are doing.”