By Elliot Owen
Bay Area Reporter
Each year, the California State University Board of Trustees awards one student from each of its 23 campuses the CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement. The award, a coveted accolade designated for those demonstrating exemplary academic performance, personal achievements, community service, and financial need, is the highest student distinction within the CSU system.
This year, LGBTQ community member Shayle Matsuda is San Francisco State University’s honored recipient.
Matsuda is a graduate student in the biology department at SFSU and a student researcher at the California Academy of Sciences where he studies nudibranchs, the soft-bodied marine mollusks sometimes called sea slugs. Originally from a Chicago suburb, Matsuda is of Japanese and Russian-Jewish decent, and a cancer survivor.
“The boundaries of my identities are complicated,” Matsuda told the Bay Area Reporter, “but I also want to throw ‘scientist’ in there. It’s a very big part of who I am, too.”
Matsuda’s commitment to diversifying the field of science through community engagement is largely behind him being named the Trustee Emeritus Murray L. Galinson Scholar, one of the many delineations of the CSU trustees’ award and given to those exemplifying extraordinary public service to their home, university, or global community. The winner receives a $6,000 scholarship.
A third year master’s student, Matsuda mentors marginalized high school students underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, and math fields through a California Academy of Sciences program. He’s also the creator and host of Science, Neat, a monthly interactive event hosted at El Rio for local scientists to connect with each other.
“El Rio is an LGBTQ community-friendly bar,” Matsuda said. “By bringing scientists of all varieties into that space, I’m bringing two of my really important communities together. Last year, we did a neuroscience event the same night the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were there. There’s a photograph of a sister wearing a purple glove and touching a real human brain. It’s one of my favorite moments.”
Aside from finding out in July about winning the trustees’ award, it’s been a significant year for Matsuda. While undergoing the award’s grueling application process this past spring, Matsuda was also experiencing the physical effects of being on testosterone for only three months.
“I was crashing and burning all the time,” he said, “and the application process required us to make a video about these things, get really personal. Trying to process something while you’re living it is really hard to do, but I actually think it helped me process what [physically transitioning] has meant to me.”
He also went to the Philippines in May to do fieldwork, attended the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference in June, and underwent top surgery in July after receiving word he’d won the trustees’ award. Then in August, he turned 33.
“It was really cool to wake up on my 33rd birthday, post-op, and on testosterone,” Matsuda said, “and feel like I was who I am for the very first time.”
Long road to affirmation
But the road leading to gender affirmation, a master’s degree, and institutional recognition has been a long one for Matsuda. It starts with the very first thing he remembers – having cancer.
“I was 3 years old,” Matsuda said. “I had childhood leukemia. They caught it early but I was in and out of the hospital for a year. It wasn’t necessarily that I was reacting to being a sick child, but to adults treating me like a sick child. Your alarm system goes off and suddenly you’re aware of not having all the time in the world.”
Matsuda attributes his generally ambitious passion about living to this early experience. For most of his life, if he wanted to do something it had to be done, as he describes it, “now, now, now.” There was never time to waste.
“I’ve had a very hard relationship with being able to see the future because all the time in the world was never something I felt like I had,” he said, “until now.”
For Matsuda, the ability to imagine a long life full of possibility is a recent thing. The shift, he said, is in large part due to his gender transition. All his life, he could never imagine growing into an old woman. Now, reimagining the aging process as a fuller and more authentic representation of himself is possible.
“I’ve always felt male, and I feel male now,” he said. “That’s where I fall and that’s how I identify. Suddenly, I can envision the future, imagine what it’ll be like to have a family. I feel comfortable and excited.”
As a child, Matsuda found solace in the sciences. He remembers wanting to be a marine biologist and spending hours at aquariums and museums. The concepts of “collections, history, and life” were fascinating to him. But Matsuda, still living as female, was deterred from studying science very early on, which, he said, is a very common occurrence. Convinced he wasn’t smart enough to study biology while completing his undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz, he decided instead to complete an environmental science degree emphasizing agroecology and water policy.
After graduating with honors in 2003, Matsuda worked as an outdoor educator for minority youth. Then, in 2007, he traveled. In Thailand, he was presented with an opportunity to scuba dive and therein laid the experience that would define his life’s direction.
“I remember very explicitly the rush and feeling of descending under the water’s surface for the very first time,” Matsuda said. “Our body biologically wakes up when cold water is splashed on our face. It’s a natural reaction humans have. Experiencing that reaction while descending into the crystal clear water into a beautiful world was like nothing I’d ever seen on TV. I had this really strong feeling of arrival, and wanting more.”
After that, Matsuda volunteered for multiple coral reef monitoring missions in Southeast Asia then traveled to Mexico to study coral reef species with an organization called Global Visions. Returning to the Bay Area with fresh direction, Matsuda started volunteering at the California Academy of Sciences while taking classes at City College of San Francisco to fulfill all hard-science prerequisites required to apply to the SFSU graduate biology program. By 2012, he was enrolled.
Winning the trustees’ award has been about more than scholarship money for Matsuda, although he’s happy about that part, too. For him, being recognized and celebrated as a transgender person is arguably the best part.
“Having the CSU system support me as a transgender student is huge,” Matsuda said. “I didn’t realize how deeply I needed that, how much I’d been pushing against the world to accept me.”
Being publicly recognized has also provided Matsuda with the opportunity to be intentionally vocal about his identity. Being out, especially as a scientist, is something he feels is a social responsibility.
“If you Google ‘transgender scientists’ very few come up,” Matsuda said. “As long as I feel physically safe, I feel an obligation to be visible because it’s important to have conversations with people, make connections, and expand perceptions of what scientists can look like.”
Matsuda will complete his master’s degree next spring, then plans to pursue a doctorate in evolutionary and marine biology.