Dr. Kaori Sakamoto- Profiles in Diversity

Wellness & Wellbeing of Asian American Veterinarians

By: Kaori Sakamoto, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVP
Professor, Department of Pathology University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine
Director of Wellness and Wellbeing for the Association of Asian American Veterinary Medical Professionals (AAVMP).

When you were growing up did you encounter any Asian veterinarians? Did you particularly have any Asian female veterinarians to look up too?
I’m a bit of an odd story, since I grew up wanting to be a marine biologist, and never had any pets other than fish, since my parents didn’t want anything in the house that didn’t take its shoes off when it came in! As such, I didn’t really interact with any veterinarians, and I certainly never heard of any Asian ones. Through my veterinary schooling, I only recall meeting 3 Asian vets (one was Dr. Ted Mashima of AAVMC, who was doing a zoo medicine residency at NC State when I met him, the second was a clin path instructor named Dr. Ann Kwok, the third was a half-Asian anatomic pathology resident named Nikos Gurfield). There was one Asian pathologist,

Dr. Lin, who trained me at Purdue during my residency. I am currently only one of three faculty of Japanese descent here at UGA, and the only Japanese-American woman. There are several other Asian faculty scattered across the other departments, however.

You were recently named the director of wellness and wellbeing for the Association of Asian American Veterinary Medical Professionals (AAVMP), why is this issue so important to you?
This is such an important issue to me, because I hit rock bottom when I was pre-tenure here. I was working 80-hour weeks, had gastritis, insomnia, and was sick all of the
time, getting 5-6 colds a year that would turn into chronic bronchitis, so I was basically coughing all year. I knew that this wasn’t sustainable, so after I got tenure, I shifted my priorities and decided to make well-being a focus of my work here. I don’t want anyone here to have to go through what I went through to figure that out. I also know what it’s like to fail and to be stressed, anxious, depressed, and suicidal. Sharing this with folks helps them to see that there is hope, as I came out the other side. My goal as the Director of Wellness and Well-being for AAVMP is to share some of the work we’re doing at UGA with folks at other universities and in practice.

You also co-founded the Bulldawg Support Network. What is this initiative and why was it created?
This is a peer support network that I founded at the CVM based on an organization that I was a part of at Cornell University during my PhD training there. We are trained
by our embedded counselors how to recognize signs of stress, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation in our peers, as well as what resources are available at UGA and in our community, so that we can guide them towards these resources. Our counselors are often booked two weeks out, so it’s important to have this available as a front line. As peers, we also have a better understanding of what it’s like to be a vet student, graduate student, vet tech, staff, faculty, etc., so we can provide an empathetic listening ear. Our program differs from Cornell’s in that we invite anyone who wants to train and volunteer into this organization. At Cornell, we were hand-picked, with only one representative per sub-population (ie. one vet student per class, one grad student, etc.).

There has been an increase in Asian xenophobia and bigotry since the beginning of the pandemic/Have you or anyone else you know experienced this?
I am grateful to have not experienced this, since, as a veterinary pathologist, I am one step removed from interacting with clients. I have been made aware, however, that some Asian vet students and house officers in the teaching hospital have unfortunately been on the receiving end of hateful remarks from clients. As a result of these incidents, under the leadership of our Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, we are incorporating more training on how to recognize and deal with micro-aggressions, as well as how to be a better ally in these sorts of situations, in our professional development curriculum.

What do you wish your colleagues knew about practicing medicine as a minority in a white dominant profession?

“I would ask, for the sake of the Asian vet students I am helping to train, that folks pay attention to how they treat and support minorities in their practices and other places of veterinary work. I’ve had graduates reach out to me, because their colleagues refuse to learn how to pronounce their name correctly. If you see a client verbally abusing a minority colleague, imagine how you would feel in that situation and try to act in a way that you would like to be aided.”

Have you had any negative experiences with colleagues where you were discriminated against because of your race/ethnicity?
To be honest, I’m not really sure. As an Asian, we are often considered the “model minority,” which, as a student, I was quite proud of, but now that I’m learning more about where that myth comes from, I realize how it was created to segregate the various minority groups and pit us against each other. Furthermore, it has a crushing effect on Asians, because the expectations for academics are so high that many of us struggle with Imposter Syndrome, trying to live up to it.

Have you had any negative experiences with clients where you were discriminated against because of your race/ethnicity?
Again, I am a step removed from clients, but if you consider referring vets our clients, I would say no, so thank you, all of you wonderful referring vets out there!

Is what ways does the profession need to evolve in regards to race/ethnicity?

‘I would love for our profession to better reflect the demographics of our society. I think many places of employment are afraid to diversify for the sake of “fit,” but many studies have shown that diversity strengthens any team. So, from a business perspective, it makes more sense to hire diverse personnel. You will also attract more clients.”

Do you feel like you can show your true identity at work? If not what would that look like for you?
Once I achieved tenure, yes. Before then, the pressure to be productive in research, getting grants and publishing papers, was crushing. Shifting my focus to well-being and professional development of the vet and grad students here has made me want to get up and come to work in the morning. I also take better care my own physical and mental health,

How has this impacted your career?
Interestingly, this has only helped my career. Although I have shifted focus away from my own research, I am still involved with a lot of exciting research with collaborators as their pathologist. This has allowed me to still be productive in research, while enjoying my well-being and professional development work with the students.

What do you hope that the next generation of women and/or minorities in the profession are spared from that you’ve had to endure?

“I am hopeful that as we send more underrepresented vets out into the profession, there will be more role models for kids out there who want to become veterinarians. I never realized the power of having a role model who looks like you until I started an Asian Student Support Group here. “

Before COVID, we met monthly at my house to talk about issues they’re facing over an Asian-related meal (for example, we made dumplings for Lunar New Year). When the anti-Asian attacks started, we had a Town Hall meeting over Zoom to discuss their concerns. I think it means a lot to them to see someone, who looks like them and is in a position to help, really listening to their concerns and acting upon them. I am hopeful that their bonding with me and with each other will give them the strength to stand up for themselves and speak their truth.

Any additional stories/experiences that you wish to share?
While the students are stressed and needing counseling more than ever, I am much more concerned now about our graduates. The stories I see on the Facebook group, Not One More Vet, are heartbreaking. We are trying to provide tools for well-being to the students, through the core curriculum and through a Veterinary Well-being Certificate Program, but that doesn’t help the folks who are already out there and struggling. A small group of us is working on getting programming and support out


Dr. Kaori Sakamoto is Associate Professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine and a board-certified veterinary pathologist. She received her DVM from North Carolina State University, did her pathology residency at Purdue University, and received her PhD under Dr. David Russell at Cornell University. Dr. Sakamoto has recently been named the director of wellness and wellbeing for the Association of Asian American Veterinary Medical Professionals (AAVMP). She also founded the Bulldawg Support Network—a voluntary peer support network open to all members of the UGA College community. Dr. Sakamoto is also a member of the GVMA Resilience & Well-Being Committee.

Taken from the 2021 fall edition of “The GA Vet” magazine.