Saturday, December 4, 2021

Public Health, Private Corporations and Moral Conflicts: Get to know Prof Mao Suzuki for YNC Community Connect #2

Story | Lily Chen (she/her), Contributing Reporter
Photo | Provided by Prof Mao Suzuki (she/her)

Date of interview: Sep. 1, 2021
Interviewer: Lily Yunrong Chen
Interviewee: Prof Mao Suzuki
Department: Social Sciences (International Relations)
Email: ​​mao.suzuki@yale-nus.edu.sg 
Profile: https://www.yale-nus.edu.sg/about/faculty/mao-suzuki/

Q: I know that a lot of professors have had the experience of living in different countries. Would you like to share with me about where you have lived?

A: I’m originally from Japan. So I spent most of my life in Japan, I did my undergrad, master’s, everything in Japan. And then when I decided to go to grad school, I went to the United States, because [for] my field, international relations, US gives a very good training. So I lived in the United States in Los Angeles, where I did my PhD, and then I finished my PhD this May. So, I moved back to Japan to spend some time with my family, and then came to Singapore.

Q: You mentioned that you went to university in both Japan and in the US. How was your university experience?  Do you have any “life advice” for students at Yale-NUS?

A: Well, it depends on where they’re thinking of going. t I think what is important to keep in your mind is that no place is perfect. Any society has pros and cons. 

For instance, while I was in Japan before I moved to the United States, that’s the only country I knew as a living environment. I have traveled to 20 countries or so, so I knew some other countries, but I didn’t live there. Always nice to do some adventurous stuff, but as a living environment, Japan was the only one, so I couldn’t compare and I couldn’t really appreciate a lot of aspects of Japanese society back then. 

But once I moved to the United States, these two societies are so different, both regarding almost all aspects of their culture and professional life and everything. I came to appreciate, for instance, how Japan was safe and clean as a living environment. 

But at the same time the US has something else to offer. The educational system is totally different, and students are encouraged to speak up whenever they want, and their opinion really matters, whereas in Japan it’s more hierarchical, professors talk, and students never talk unless the professor asks them to talk. So it’s very different. 

Q: Your research interests are focused on global health, public health policy, international development, international organizations, global governments and non-state actors. Would you like to elaborate a bit more?

A: My field of research is international relations or international political economy, usually located in the Department of Political Science in the United States, but here it’s more interdisciplinary. But what I substantially study is global health.

When I say I study Global Health, I’m not studying the science aspects of global health or how one infectious agent transfers from one to another. I study how global health issues are governed by the international community, so that’s where international relations kicks in. My research focuses especially on how non-state actors—agents other than government like civil society organizations or multinational corporations, or even the United Nations—are sometimes competing and sometimes cooperating to address many different global health issues. Probably right now COVID-19 is the easiest example to understand.

Prof Mao Suzuki during her PhD in California

Q: How did you get into it? Have you been interested in it since you were in middle school or something like that?

A: There is a story. I did my undergrad in sociology, so I was not in the field that I’m studying right now. When I finished my undergrad, well I always liked to do study or research, so I also considered going to grad school, but at the same time, while I didn’t have money to pay for that, and I also felt that working in some private sector for a few years would be good, because that’s [working for an organization is kind of a mainstream of society].

So I got a job in a very big multinational company in the healthcare sector. I think it’s okay to say the name, I worked for Johnson & Johnson—that’s one of the vaccine producers of COVID. I was selling medical products for medical doctors, and that job was not really a good fit for me. Because that really brought me moral conflicts, in my mind—that on one hand I have to sell the product, and those products were not really good ones, but still I have to promote them, because that’s my job, but at the same time I could sometimes see, for instance, the patient’s family waiting outside of the surgery room with anxious faces, and I walked in front of them and [went] into the surgery room and asked the doctor, “Hey, can you please use our products?” 

Mentally, I couldn’t accept that, and I came to wonder, I was working for a big company and the company says we are contributing to the health of the world. But is it really the case? I came to wonder how come it is allowed to aggressively sell not-so-good products. It’s not illegal for sure, but how can we manage that kind of conflict between the logic of the market and really good things like improving human health? 

That’s kind of the starting point of my current research. I came to wonder, for instance, how international regulation deals with multinational corporations’ activities in the health sector, and how, if those multinational corporations are so powerful, how do they affect international policy-making. Like the World Health Organization’s [policies] certainly are affected by multinational corporations, sometimes. So, I came to be interested in that kind of topic and then I quit the job and started my grad school.

Q: In terms of adapting to Yale-NUS, one thing that is for sure memorable is the announcement regarding the merger of the College. What was your immediate feeling when this announcement was made? Were you angry, sad, or upset?

A: Upset, probably. It took me a while to understand what’s happening to me. It’s really because the announcement was made on Zoom, and I was by myself in my room, and if the announcement was made in the performance hall and other people are sitting besides me, I could kind of sense, oh, okay, this is really bad, people are angry and should I get angry, that kind of cue. But I was by myself and so I was like “oh, what does that mean…” So I got pumped and was trying to understand what’s going on.

Q: Choosing to be a professor at Yale-NUS, what does a liberal arts education mean to you?

A: I think it’s a place to open up your mind and eyes to various possibilities, and it’s a very invaluable time for students to think about what you can be for the rest of your life. You can change, as you will learn and get familiarized with different fields of study. And it’s not only about academic life, it’s more about human development. I’m not from a liberal arts college, so that’s kind of my take, as a newcomer to this environment. 

Prof Suzuki Mao in Japan (cherry blossom)

Q: Now we can move on to some fun questions. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you ever see yourself being a professor?

A: No. I never imagined being a professor. Well, when I was a child I didn’t even know there was such a profession. I think my first dream job was… what’s the English term… someone who makes a book for children, like the drawing kind of book, because as a kid everyone liked drawing and also kind of thinking some stupid stories (laugh). 

Q: Coffee or tea?

A: Green tea, any kind of Japanese green tea. And also I like Taiwanese/Chinese green tea, oolong tea. I like coffee too. When I started my PhD I overloaded coffee on my nervous system and I got a bad stomach so I decided not to have too much coffee and I [switched] to tea, and honestly tea tastes better and may be better for my nerves.

Q:  If you have a time machine, would you go back or would you go to the future? 

A: Go back. Well, there are several reasons, one is that, probably it’s good not to see what’s gonna happen in the future, for better or worse, it’s gonna ruin my experience, so I don’t need to see what’s going to happen to me or to the world in the future. There might be no world… (laugh) 

Another thing, I like history, I like cultural stuff as well, I’m interested in knowing how all the things that we’re enjoying right now came about. It’s maybe scary, but at the same time it [would] be fun to travel back in time.

Q: Do you like oceans better or mountains better?

A: Oceans. Maybe it’s because I am from Metropolitan Tokyo area in Japan, but I’m not from the “Tokyo Tokyo” area (not downtown Tokyo), [where I’m from] is like landlocked, so I didn’t have access to the ocean when I was a kid. I was so jealous of other people, because Japan is an island, everyone has easy access to the ocean, but I didn’t, so I was so jealous, and probably that made [me prefer] living by the ocean.

Prof Mao Suzuki at National Museum of Singapore

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