Acknowledging those in the AAPI community who have made significant advances in the field of public health.
Getting to know the AAPI Engagement Committee Executive Sponsor & learn about how HHS is meeting the needs of the AAPI community.
Celebrating the accomplishments of our colleagues and leaders who are breaking barriers every day.
Preparing the next generation for career development in biomedical research.
Every May during Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month and throughout the year, we celebrate and focus on diversity, inclusion, and leadership to advance the AAPI community. This year, our attention turns to having real conversations with each other. Join us along the journey as we recognize strong leaders who have made significant advances in the field of public health and are focused on empowering the next generation of leaders, are recharged in our mission to support, retain and advance AAPIs at NIH, celebrate the reach and accomplishments of our colleagues and leaders who broke through barriers and faced down challenges, and finally, prepare the next generation to be reactive in their personal and career development.
Join our AAPI Strategist, Caroline Goon, MS, MBA, in conversation with powerhouses here at NIH who are breaking barriers for the AAPI community.
Tam Vo, PhD (He/His/Him)
Genetics Branch, CCR, NCI, NIH
Tam Vo, Ph.D., pronouns he/his/him, is currently a Visiting Fellow at the National Cancer Institute in Dr. Natasha Caplen’s group. His project focuses on dissecting the biophysical characteristics of protein-RNA interactions that regulate the expression of oncoproteins in Ewing sarcoma cells. Tam earned his Ph.D. in Biophysical Chemistry at Georgia State University in 2019, where he conducted his dissertation project on drug discovery and development for various diseases, including cancers. Outside of research, Tam is active in multiple NIH Fellow interest groups. He is the Co-Chair of the NIH Science Policy Discussion Group and the NIH Career Development Subcommittee of the NIH Fellows Committee (FelCom). Tam is interested in the role of science in global health, diversity, and inclusion. He is also an endurance athlete who has completed several IM 70.3 courses, half marathons, and 10K runs.
Tam Vo, PhD, shares his views on dismantling stereotypes, debunking the “model minority” myth, and why he is so passionate about diversity and inclusion.
If I were to ask you to dismantle one stereotype that people may have when they first see you, what would that be, and why?
For the longest time, Hollywood has portrayed Asian Americans as the dorky, intelligently awkward, and emotionally monotonous sidekick to the main protagonist (often a white cisgender male). Princeton University psychologist Susan Fiske and collaborators have published numerous research articles dissecting the prejudice, stereotypes, and discriminations against minorities. Her studies found that Asians are perceived as intelligent but indifferent1. I want to debunk the theory of “model minority,” where Asians are perceived as hard-working and successful in life. The “model minority” concept is harmful to the Asian community living in the United States and all over the world because while we are a collective community, each person comes from a unique background and different culture. Mainstream media has reduced our identities down to a single dimension that misses the mark on the richness of all the countries and cultures that AAPIs are from.
You talked with me about the “American Dream” and what you thought it would be before immigrating to the United States. How have you risen above the inevitable disappointment that life throws at us to harness success in your own definition?
Before I relocated to the US, my perception of American culture was shaped by international TV channels, such as VH1 and MTV. I thought it would be exactly like what Miley Cyrus sings about in her songs – fame is easy to come about, people live fabulous lives, and partying is the typical scenario. However, when I stepped off the airplane in Jackson, Mississippi, I was shocked. Having spent four years in a small town in Mississippi opened my eyes to a lot of issues beneath the glamorous portraits that television and pop culture perpetuates in its messaging. I witnessed discrimination and racism – people would tell me to go back to where I belong (and sadly, most of them had the wrong country as I am neither Thai nor Chinese), and others would make comments about my skin color. This was a tough time of transition for me, but I was glad to make friends that were supportive and welcomed me with open arms.
What is it about diversity and inclusion that you are so passionate about? What is one thing you hope to achieve?
I hope to show people that we are not the stereotype portrayed by Hollywood, but we are humans with different personalities, struggles, and emotions, just like everybody else. Currently, I am actively looking for a role model in leadership that looks like me. When we look around, there is significant AAPI representation in STEM, but very few are in leadership positions. I hope to continue to raise awareness for AAPI representation and to combat stereotypes, one step at a time.
What is something that you have accomplished here at NIH (so far) that you are proud of?
I serve as Co-Chair for the NIH Science Policy Discussion Group and the Career Development Subcommittee of the NIH Fellows Committee. One of my main tasks is to organize various panel discussions where we invite experts in the subject matter to converse with our members. I help promote diversity and inclusion in STEM by encouraging my colleagues and guest speakers to incorporate their gender pronouns in their titles. We also invite guest speakers who are from marginalized and underrepresented groups to speak with the NIH trainee population. With these small gestures, we have created a momentum that leads to better diversity in STEM for future generations where individuals from all communities feel welcomed.
1Cuddy, A. J. C., Fiske, S. T., & Glick, P. (2007). The BIAS map: Behaviors from intergroup affect and stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(4), 631-648. doi:10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1681
Richard Aragon, PhD
Director, Division of Data Integration, Modeling, and Analytics
National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Richard Aragon is the Director of the Division of Data Integration, Modeling, and Analytics at NIGMS, National Institutes of Health (NIH). In this capacity, he leads the Institute’s planning, analysis, evaluation, and risk management activities as well as oversees all of its legislative and congressional affairs. Richard earned a B.A. in Neurobiology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from George Washington University Medical Center, conducting postdoctoral research in Molecular and Cellular Oncology at Georgetown University’s Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is both a Scientific Executive and a graduate of HHS’ Senior Executive Service (SES) Candidate Development Program with lifetime OPM/QRB certification.
Richard Aragon, PhD, reflects on his upbringing in Hawaii, talks about building the capacity and passion for public service in his community, and how he’s harnessed failure in his life to take risks and achieve progress.
Growing up in Hawaii, and raised in an environment and culture that embraced diversity, what was the biggest shock when you moved to the continental USA?
The greatest shock I experienced was the seeming difference in professional and personal culture between the continental U.S. and Hawaii. In Hawaii, one’s profession or work served as a means to be able to live and enjoy the different aspects and opportunities afforded by life, meaning that people worked so that they could live. The reverse seemed to be true in the continental United States. From my personal experiences, individuals in the continental U.S. appeared much more attached to and defined by what they did for work titles, locations, grades, etc. While all of these things are certainly understandable (one has to make a living, after all), it does also highlight the differential location in which one chooses to place one’s own emphasis: are you an individual that utilizes your profession as a means to live a better life or an individual that lives to simply do work? Each individual has the complete power to answer this question for himself or herself based on his or her own unique perspective and situation, but I also know my own answer to it. My profession is a part of who I am, but it by no means defines me as an individual. Similarly, from the cultural perspective, respect in Hawaii is earned predominantly based on the manner in which one treats others, regardless of background, income level, educational attainment, or other similar considerations. You earn respect, and you do so based mostly on how you treat other people, especially those who might not have had similar opportunities to you.
Reflecting on your own identity, have you ever felt that you did not belong? How did you create a common frame of reference to reconcile this?
The answer to this question is, painfully, yes. I try not to dwell on the subject very much, and I certainly don’t discuss it with people because I don’t believe such a discussion to be either productive or worthwhile, but I do remember the very first time I experienced the feeling of not belonging. I was in the second grade, and I was viewed differently from other students (my peers) because I came from a small island in the middle of the Pacific. I remember being asked in elementary school, for instance, to take additional placement tests relative to those taken by other students because I was viewed differently (perhaps not having the same command of the English language, for instance). I also distinctly remember my mother trying to shield me from this experience by telling me that the school just wanted to be sure that I still knew how to speak English properly (which, of course, I did). I didn’t realize it at the time, but she was attempting to shield me from being treated differently, as most parents would want to do in a similar situation.
Currently, I attempt to create a common frame of reference among people by appealing to what at the lowest common denominator unites us all: our humanity. For instance, rather than benchmarking against titles, income, grade levels, etc., I instead attempt to benchmark against the activities I participate in today, this week, this month, this year, next year, and so forth...particularly to the extent to which such activities help alleviate the burden of others. In my opinion, this philosophy of understanding service above self is what it means to be in public service. This understanding is what it means to be a part of the NIH and why I am here. The NIH’s mission knows no gender, race, class, or any other such factor; the mission not only noble, but it is also almost purely humanitarian. I consider it a privilege to work for and within an organization that is both humanitarian and aligned to my own personal and professional values, principles, and beliefs.
Failure can be a powerful driver for learning and driving transformative change. How have you harnessed this in your life to take risks and achieve progress?
This question is an excellent one. The first thing is to understand that failure can be a very powerful instructive medium. It is usually in moments of failure that we as human beings learn and grow the most. So, by being so afraid of failure and being so risk-averse, are we not, in fact, impeding or inhibiting our own individual and organizational growth? The key is to learn from our shortcomings, from our mistakes and failures, and, by definition, to use such experiences to better ourselves both individually and organizationally. A means by which one can apply this principle is by exercising calculated risk-taking. I should mention that taking risks in this way does not mean acting in a haphazard fashion. Rather, it means applying thoughtful, analytical decisions and actions based on both learned past experiences and an understanding that nothing innovative or transformative comes without taking a certain degree of acknowledged risk. If we want to bring about a positive individual or organizational change, then we are going to have to assume a certain degree of risk and likely confront challenges in the process. But that is also how we grow. The means by which we confront challenges and failures do not build character as insomuch as they reveal it.
Our passions are often part of our legacy. What is an important part of your life’s work, thus far, that you want us to know about?
Someone recently asked me how I define success. I define it by one’s actions and ultimately by what one leaves behind—whether or not what you leave behind represents something that is fundamentally better than the way things were when you first assumed control of them. One of the things we can and do leave behind is people, those whom we touch or influence on a day-to-day basis, either as colleagues or individuals that work with or for us. Therefore, mentorship, teaching, collaboration, and communication represent an important part - perhaps the most important part of my day-to-day work. This work can take the form of developing, analyzing, sustaining, evolving, and propagating processes, programs, and initiatives that combat disease, poverty, ignorance, and inequity. In essence, those things that differentially affect our humanity; but more importantly, this work takes on building that same capacity and passion for public service in people. Thus, I tend to view the staff who work in my Division as future leaders and change agents who will one day lead and mentor their own groups of people. That is how positive organizational and societal change occurs best—from within. If you’ve ever been to HHS Headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., you will notice (upon walking in) a quote on the left side of the building attributed to Hubert H. Humphrey that states that any society can ultimately be judged by how it treats three specific groups of people: 1) those at the dawn of life, 2) those at the twilight of life, and 3) those in the shadows of life. Namely, the young, the elderly, and the sick or infirmed, respectively. I’m a firm believer in the perspective encapsulated by this quote. The manner in which we operationalize the treatment of these three groups will not be through programs or initiatives; it will be with and through people. After all, are programs or initiatives not groups of people having similar aims and objectives and organized so as to best achieve them?
Jothi Dugar C|CISO, CISSP, HCISPP
Chief Information Security Officer
NIH CIT, Office of the Director
Jothi is a leading cybersecurity executive who knows what it’s like to be the only female executive in the room for over 25 years. She is a catalyst for change, inspiring transformational leadership as a holistic wellness specialist and coach, author, international public speaker, and a mom of three. Jothi embodies the duality of merging the eastern world of wellness with the western world of corporate leadership. She is passionate about empowering people to take charge of their minds, lives, and health.
Jothi Dugar, highlights her journey in STEM as a woman of color, how she challenges people to think differently, and why we all should fall in love with chaos.
How would you characterize your journey of being a woman of color in STEM (i.e., challenges of being a woman in STEM, lessons-learned from this process?)?
Graduating in Electrical Engineering; being only one of two women of color, especially as an Indian American, then working for the U.S. Department of Defense for over a decade, and working in the male-dominated field of cybersecurity, I have truly had quite a career journey, AND I wouldn’t change any of it!
I grew up as an only child with strict parents. I learned to be strong, independent, and to be able to take care of myself from a young age. I always believed in myself and that I could get through anything in life and break the barriers when something seemed impossible. Being a young, minority, female leader in a male-dominated space definitely came with challenges. I felt like I had to prove myself constantly to everyone, even after I had gotten the job. I was looked at as inferior by my subordinates, management, or even peers until I managed to find my own inner confidence and voice and learned to value my self-worth to be able to speak up.
Once I learned to speak up for myself in a professional yet confident manner and use my voice for the highest good of all the women in my area of work, I knew nothing could come in my way of achieving my dreams.
What is an accomplishment that you are proud of, and why?
One of my biggest accomplishments is actually creating the first-ever health and wellness program for the NIH CIT and OCIO. Being a holistic wellness practitioner and coach, I realized all too well the toll of burnout and being overwhelmed in the technology and cyberworld. I had to do something to help everyone become aware of natural and effective techniques and tools they can use on the job and at home to manage the chaos in their life.
I started it solo, taking care of everything from scratch to develop the program and facilitate the sessions. However, soon, due to the popular demand of the program and the needs of staff, this became quite popular and gained a lot of recognition from management and by other institutes as well as other government agencies. With my unique skill set being a cyber leader and a wellness coach, I am able to speak the language of the people I am helping, and really resonate with the pain they are feeling. I am also able to provide them with simple and effective strategies to be happy, healthy, perform better, and gain more success in their lives.
How do you challenge people to think differently?
Everyone is unique in their own ways, yet we are all connected. Every person comes with their set of experiences, journeys, stories, culture, skillset, etc. I have found that it is not fruitful, nor is it beneficial for me or others to try and change someone into being who I’d like them to be. However, what I have learned is that you can influence others by first building rapport and trust with them. Now, once you are in a position of influence, you must exercise goodwill and good intention by being empathetic towards the needs, opinions, and fears of others. You need to also be able to communicate effectively what your own needs, opinions, and fears are, and at times, you must be willing to show vulnerability and authenticity. However, it does not need to always be a decision of “their way” or “my way.” There is a “third way” that you and the other person can brainstorm together and develop without trying to change one another.
You talk about, “falling in love with chaos,” how do you harness this in your personal and professional life to make an impact in your community?
Chaos is truly your best friend. It follows you around everywhere you go and even becomes part of you. Have you tried pushing it away, ignoring it, avoiding it, or pretending it doesn’t exist? I’m guessing that didn’t work out too well. I help people harness the power of chaos as their superpower to become authentic and powerful leaders that can take on anything in their life. Through my life journeys, I have found that there are indeed different types of chaos, as I like to call them – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. By being able to recognize the type of chaos that may be going on around you or within you, you can take charge of your life, understand your role in the chaos, and harness the chaos to thrive, not just survive.
Janice Lee, DDS, MD, FACS
Clinical Director, NIDCR
Deputy Director for Intramural Clinical Research, NIH
Dr. Lee received her DDS and MS in oral biology from the UCLA School of Dentistry and her MD from Harvard Medical School. She completed her general surgery residency and oral and maxillofacial surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital, following which, she was a post-doctoral fellow in NIDCR. She subsequently joined the faculty at UCSF, where she rose through the ranks to become a Professor of Clinical Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and was recruited back to the NIDCR, where she is now the Clinical Director and Chief of the Craniofacial Anomalies and Regeneration Section. She has received much recognition for her work on behalf of clinical researchers, including leadership roles in the UCSF Academic Senate and Chair of the Faculty Council, a Champion of Diversity award from UCSF, and the Alan S. Rabson inaugural lecture at the NIH. She was among the few women in the country chosen to participate in the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine Program (ELAM). In September 2020, she was appointed as Deputy Director for Intramural Clinical Research to support clinical research and clinical researchers and clinicians at the NIH.
Dr. Lee brings expertise in surgery as well as outstanding translational research and will continue her pioneering studies on craniofacial developmental anomalies and bone regeneration.
Finally, Janice Lee, DDS, MD, FACS, talks about her experience growing up in Canada and the culture shock of coming to the US, and how she is making a difference encouraging the next generation of women considering a path to become a surgeon.
Tell me a little bit about your upbringing.
I was born and raised in a suburb of Toronto, Ontario. My parents are from Korea; my father’s family is from North Korea, and my mother’s family is from Seoul, South Korea. I grew up speaking English and French but hearing Korean at home. My parents were the traditional Asian parents (complete stereotype, really), except that my father insisted that his four daughters had to become professionals. I have both a DDS and MD (I guess I really couldn’t choose) and received my oral and maxillofacial surgery training at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. My first real job was as faculty at UCSF, where I spent 11 years. And then, I was recruited to the NIH in 2013.
Growing up in Canada and the Korean community in which you were raised, was there anything that surprised (or shocked) you when you came to the United States for school?
Yes, in Canada, the idea of an ecumenical community was broadly accepted. It was very common to see the mingling and co-existence of many racial and ethnic groups. I didn’t necessarily feel or think of myself as “Asian.” Coming to the US for undergrad, I was surprised to see racial and ethnic groups hang out separately. There were groups based on race, and this segregation was eye-opening.
Is there a problem with asking, “Where are you from?”
Growing up, I just thought, “I’m from Canada.” As an adult, I now know that the question is really, “what is my Asian background.” Am I Chinese, Korean, or Japanese? It doesn’t seem to matter that I speak perfect English without an accent and that I’ve never been to Korea (or any part of Asia, for that matter). It’s not a problem, but it does get old when folks assume that saying “hello” in a number of Asian languages to see which resonates with me is a way to “connect” with me. My Korean is pretty limited, and I don’t sound Korean, so I often chuckle to myself. But I’ve accepted that people are trying to find something in common or a way to connect. Bear in mind that Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese also ask me, “Where are you from?” It’s as if knowing that I’m Korean will somehow change their perception of me or create a framework in which I fit.
What is one of the ways to make a difference and encourage the next generation of women who are considering the path to becoming a surgeon?
What I’ve decided to do is be open to questions from young women who are remotely interested in surgery. I also seek out the female students who are interested, giving them encouragement and providing any information I can offer.” I am honest about my passion for surgery and honest about some of the difficult choices I’ve had to make because of my career. I will share things such as what it’s like to be the only woman on a committee or what it’s like to be a mom and have a career to let them know it is possible. And I try to make myself available to give lectures to students so that they can see a woman surgeon. When they see me, they know it’s possible.
As a leader and visible role model to other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, how do you embody leadership in all that you do?
I frequently emphasize teamwork and remember to give credit to those who’ve helped us reach our goals or added to our success. Being able to bring out the excellence and strength of various members of my team is so critical.
And, as a leader who is visibly female and Asian, I weave in my own experiences to show that these experiences have contributed to who I am today. Everyone has a story to share, and I think bringing these narratives also helps people connect and hopefully encourages them to see the leader and potential in themselves.
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The AAPI designation encompasses over 50 ethnic or language groups, including Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. Here at NIH, all month long, we celebrate our workforce that is comprised of AAPI future leaders that are making a difference.