Here is a common exchange with people I just met:
“Where are you from?”
“No, I mean, where are you really from, like where did you grow up?
“No, you know what I mean. Like, where were you born?”
“No, I mean where are your parents from? What kind of Asian are you?”
“Washington, DC, but they moved here from Indonesia. Is that what you mean?”
“Ah, but your English is so good, and you don’t have an accent at all!”
This is a familiar conversation for many Asian Americans; rooted in an assumption that our Asian face means we are a foreigner and will inherently have communication or cultural issues.
I’m a first-generation Indonesian American, and yes, my last name, Tedjasaputra, looks impossible to pronounce (it’s phonetic, try it). My father emigrated here from Indonesia to pursue a higher education, which to our family, was the American Dream. From day one it was a struggle as he did not know a single person here and struggled with the language. To make things even harder, my mom died from cancer when I was 14, leaving him a single dad to raise four kids on his own.
Ultimately, my father’s pursuit of higher education and a better life here in America inspired me to become a scientist, and my success is his success story. I am the first and only member of my extended family to earn a Ph.D., establishing a research career studying how the heart and lungs work together during exercise in patients with chronic lung disease, and later as a professional scientific communicator.
At first glance, my career path seems standard compared to other biomedical research scientists. I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Biology at UC San Diego, followed by a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology at San Diego State. Then, a six-year Ph.D. program in Physical Education and Recreation at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta Canada. My academic training was capped off with a postdoctoral fellowship in Pulmonary Physiology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. This is 15 years of hard training familiar to most in the biomedical sciences. But I then pivoted after my postdoc to complete a two-year AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowship in Washington, D.C. at the National Science Foundation in the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. Now, I am the Director of Scientific Communications for the American Lung Association.