SAN FRANCISCO — Biologist Shayle Matsuda is San Francisco State University’s 2014 recipient of the California State University Trustees Award, the highest student distinction within the CSU system.

Every year, the CSU Board of Trustees selects a single student from each campus for the honor.

Matsuda, who is doing research for his master’s thesis and is seeking to graduate in the spring, has been named the Trustee Emeritus Murray L. Galinson Scholar for extraordinary public service to his home, university or to the global community. Yet Matsuda appears to be serving all three.

Shayle Matsuda
Shayle Matsuda

“I do a lot of science communications,” he said. “I also am trying to help grow a network of Bay Area young researchers who come from many diverse backgrounds.”

Matsuda has spent more than a decade working with young people — particularly minority and at-risk youth who are under-represented in the science and research fields — and is the host of Science, Neat, a public event devoted to exhibits and discussions. His research focuses on nudibranchs, the marine mollusks often labeled sea slugs.

“Nudibranchs are great organisms to study,” he said. “They’re beautiful! I could talk about them forever.”

The Chicago-area native traces his interest in marine biology to a scuba-diving trip in Thailand. “I remember so exactly descending for the first time in this new world,” Matsuda recalled, describing the experience as “better than my wildest imagination. I became fairly certain that I wanted to pursue marine biology.”

He volunteered to work in the field where he could while making up the hard-science classes he had not taken as a UC Santa Cruz undergrad. “The more people I met in the field, the more connections opened up,” Matsuda added.

Most important was the connection with SFSU Professor of Biology Robert Patterson, who suggested that Matsuda reach out to the California Academy of Sciences. Once there, “I was hooked.”

Matsuda now runs a youth program at the Cal Academy and is a graduate assistant in its invertebrate zoology and geology departments.

Matsuda says two other life experiences have influenced his decision to study science: He has survived cancer and is now in the process of gender transition. “My coming of age in terms of gender and as a scientist has extreme parallels through my entire life,” he said. Receiving the Trustees’ Award has a “big, life-changing aspect to it that allows me to do things that are valuable and important and finish my degree. … I’ve had the opportunity to acknowledge that being transgender is actually helping me be a better scientist.”

Among Matsuda’s fellow winners of CSU awards this year are individuals who have faced abandonment, homelessness, illness and other challenges on their way to becoming academic achievers as well as leaders on campus and off. The $140,000 in scholarships awarded by the CSU trustees this year is the highest ever in the history of the program.

“Through the generous support of our donors, many of whom are first-time contributors to the Trustees’ Award program, we are able to help these scholars create a bright and successful future,” said CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White.

For Matsuda, the support is more than merely financial. “The fact that CSU has my back as transgender is phenomenal,” he said.

To see a brief video of Matsuda talking about nudibranchs and diseases research, click here.

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