Toward Bold Science

Keith Yamamoto, leader of the world’s largest general scientific society, remembers his Iowa roots.

Written by Mike Krapfl | Image by Barbara Ries, UCSF

Keith Yamamoto

You’re a Des Moines native?

“I was born in Des Moines — at Methodist Hospital,” he said, dressed casually in a purple polo for a Zoom call from his office in Genentech Hall on UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus. He grew up on Des Moines’ west side, at 57th Street and Forest Avenue, not far from Roosevelt High School.

Keith Yamamoto (’68 biochemistry) worked his way through Roosevelt in the early 1960s, his father encouraging him to go on to college to become a scientist. Yamamoto remembers reading about DNA, proteins, messenger RNA — all kinds of discoveries that started as ideas in the heads of scientists.

“I was hooked,” he remembered thinking, “I want to go do that. That’s really amazing.”

So, off he went to Iowa State. (“I was not very brave. I went 35 miles north.”)

During his first day on campus, Yamamoto and his parents, the late Verlin and Dee Yamamoto, met his faculty advisor, the late Jack Horowitz, who served as chair of the department of biochemistry and biophysics in the early 1970s. 

“He was just a terrific guy,” Yamamoto said. “He was very respectful. He was smart and energetic, and I started working in his lab right away. I just loved it.”

Yamamoto remembers talking with Horowitz about science. He remembers being immersed in a “well-established science environment.” He remembers advice about graduate school and launching a career in science. (He’d do all that himself as an established scientist and mentor. More on that later.)

So, after a sophomore-year flirtation with majoring in English to be a creative writer, Yamamoto kept at his science studies, earning a bachelor’s of science in biochemistry and biophysics in 1968. Next came graduate studies at Princeton University in New Jersey. Then it was west to UCSF as a postdoctoral fellow, and subsequent recruitment to the university’s faculty.

He built a lab and a group dedicated to understanding the signaling and gene regulation activities of receptors within cells. Along the way, he accepted an array of campus leadership positions, including department chair, executive vice dean of the school of medicine, vice chancellor for research, director of precision medicine and vice chancellor for science policy and strategy.


Yamamoto was elected president-elect of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in May 2022. Founded in 1848, AAAS is affiliated with more than 250 scientific societies, serves 10 million people, and publishes the journal Science.

He served one year as president-elect, is now serving as president, and will serve one year as immediate past-president.

Yamamoto reacted to his election by posting a few agenda items to his Twitter account (@kryamamoto): “I am honored to become the new AAAS president-elect. I look forward to bringing a renewed focus to scientific literacy, diversity, and impact to the organization.”

Sudip Parikh, the CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science journals, said Yamamoto has had a “broad and deep” impact on American science policy.

“His is a legacy of breaking down barriers to make science and its outputs more accessible to everyone — which is exactly what the theme of his presidency is intended to highlight and pursue,” Parikh said. “AAAS and the entire scientific enterprise are better off because of Keith’s leadership.”

Sam Hawgood, the chancellor and a distinguished professor at UCSF, praised Yamamoto’s election by noting his scientific work in biology and medicine, and his experience in science policy at federal and state levels.

Hawgood added: “He understands the many roles that scientists play in society. And he is committed to advancing diversity in science.”

One role that Yamamoto is passionate about has roots at Iowa State, where Horowitz modeled what it takes to mentor aspiring scientists. A faculty mentor later in Yamamoto’s career — Bruce Alberts, who Yamamoto worked with at Princeton and UCSF — encouraged Yamamoto to help improve science education by guiding young scientists and encouraging a little scientific courage.

Yamamoto has picked up that torch in a very public way.

Institutions and their faculty leaders “should value teaching, mentoring and successful trainee career trajectories,” Yamamoto wrote in a letter published by Science in March. They shouldn’t “focus on research output over mentorship because publications bring in grants.” Nor should they push “conservative, pedestrian projects that align with the risk aversion of funders.”

Rather, Yamamoto’s letter concluded, faculty leaders should remember, “Students choose to do science because they aspire to achieve something bold and amazing.”

Yamamoto likes to say the approximately 100 graduate and postdoctoral students who have trained in his lab appear to have done just that, offering as evidence the numerous awards recognizing the lab’s discoveries and Yamamoto’s own election to the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine. 


One of the perks of the AAAS presidency is establishing a theme for the association’s annual meeting. Yamamoto chose: “Toward Science Without Walls.” (The 2024 meeting will be Feb. 15-17 in Denver.)

A statement from AAAS announcing the theme says the meeting, “Will explore the consequences of barriers that currently fragment our community, separating us by discipline, approach, institution, nation, access, wealth, seniority, race, and gender. We will consider solutions, and envision a seamless ecosystem that would drive more innovative, equitable, rapid, open science and technology.”

By virtue of its size, scope and “convening power,” Yamamoto said AAAS can help scientists “find ways to tear silos down — or at least poke holes in them.”

In other words, Yamamoto said, “If we work together, better science will emerge.”

And better science is what the AAAS mission is all about — “Advancing Science, Serving Society.”

One way it does that is by annually electing scientists from across disciplines and around the world to be AAAS Fellows. Since 2000, 15 Iowa Staters have joined the elite ranks honored for their distinguished science.

That’s a good sign for the alma mater, said Yamamoto, who also has a 2001 honorary doctorate from Iowa State. 

All those AAAS Fellows “are a really good indication of the respect that Iowa State scientists enjoy across the country,” he said. “That makes me proud. That makes me happy.”