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RIC Professor of Biology Lloyd Matsumoto Retires

RIC Professor of Biology Lloyd Matsumoto has served Rhode Island College for 34 years, and his stature – not in height but in reputation – has the power to lift heads when he enters a room.

Born in Hawaii of Japanese parentage, Matsumoto is foremost a teacher – some say a taskmaster. He tends to speak in a soft, gentle tone. Yet in the same tone, he is known to fire arrows of truth that surprise his listeners. Both his wit and his witticisms are delivered with the same directness as his unflinching eyes framed in round spectacles.

In one class, to explain why cyanide interferes with electron transport, Matsumoto lectured on “the proper way to die in the gas chamber.” Graphic explanations not only grab the attention of his students but provide lessons in biology that they don’t soon forget.

Sometimes his statements are enough to tickle himself. That’s when his smile emerges, broad enough to raise his shoulders and shut his eyes with laughter.

Matsumoto was not aware of how deeply he had imprinted upon his students until he faced a life-threatening liver ailment two-and-a-half years ago. For a year and a half he was on the waiting list for a liver transplant, rapidly become more and more enfeebled until he could no longer teach. Today his eyes moisten at the thought of four of his former students volunteering to give half of their livers in order to save his life.

Though the transplant he finally received in April 2016 was not sourced from a student donor, Matsumoto said his students’ willingness to sacrifice for him touched him deeply and will never be forgotten. Moreover, the method in which he received his transplant has become a major contribution to science.

Joining a clinical trial at Massachusetts General Hospital, Matsumoto became one of three patients to take part in an experimental method of organ transport. They were fitted with a liver that had been kept warm by an experimental transplantation device.

Normally a donor’s organ is kept on ice. However, when kept cold, blood supply to the organ is cut off and damage to the organ can occur, rendering it unusable. Many patients die while waiting for a usable organ. The hope is that by keeping organs warm, which speeds their return to normal functioning, there will be a reduction in the chronic shortage of organs for transplant in the future.

Assisting in the advancement of science is what Matsumoto does for a living at Rhode Island College’s Department of Biology. There, he prepares hundreds of budding scientists for future careers as physicians, dentists, veterinarians, science teachers and lab researchers.

A cellular/molecular biologist, Matsumoto began his career at RIC teaching an advanced undergraduate course in cellular and molecular biology until he realized that the students in this upper-level course were not as well prepared as they should be. That’s when he made the decision to teach BIOL 101: Introduction to Biology to ensure that first-year students had a strong foundation on which to build their academic career. Matsumoto enjoyed teaching freshmen so much that he never returned to teaching advanced-level undergraduates.

Professor Lloyd Matsumoto teaches in the newly renovated Intro to Biology Lab named in his honor.

When he was told that he is known around the department as a tough teacher, Matsumoto immediately agreed, “I am.”

“I have a certain standard and I am not going to teach down to students. It doesn’t work. Students know when you’re teaching down to them,” he said. “I teach students with the idea that they are my peers and that they have a responsibility.”

Their responsibility, he said, is to make use of all of the information and guidance he gives them, which means being disciplined enough to study and focused enough to sustain study throughout the course. He believes there has been an erosion of standards in high schools over the years in terms of discipline, good study habits and perseverance.

This Spring Semester, 25 out of 50 of his students failed their second exam, and out of the 25, 10 earned a 0. You might say it was “an initiation” of sorts. Former students 20 years prior recalled a similar experience after a “Matsumoto exam.”

Ross McCurdy ’98, M.Ed. ’02, H.D. ’16, said, “After taking my first ‘diabolical’ Matsumoto exam in Biology 101, I wanted to beat my head against the blackboard but settled with kicking the tires of my trusty 1976 Ford rock-and-roll van.” McCurdy and a few of his classmates would later record a version of the song “Margaritaville,” which they renamed “Matsumotoville,” adding the words “looking for our lost GPA” to the chorus. 

However, both past and current students eventually come to see the benefits of his high standards. Kate Rua, who took his course in spring 2017, wrote to him, saying, “I just want to thank you for this semester. After the final exam, I finally realized why you make your exams so hard. I actually earned the grade I received by knowing the material and not just guessing. You have been, by far, the best professor I have had – both now and before.”

McCurdy posited that Matsumoto’s cosmic standards were part of a “mad plan to find undiscovered raw talent in his students and to launch them toward academic excellence and distinguished careers in the sciences. This has been his life’s work and he has achieved remarkable success, clearly evident in the stellar achievements of many of his students.”

McCurdy went on to become a chemistry and alternative energy teacher at Ponaganset High School in North Scituate as well as a pilot who set an aeroplane efficiency world record in 2016. He is a 2016 recipient of the RIC Honorary Doctor of Pedagogy and winner of the 2015 Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

Former student Kyle Kurek ’93, who worked with Matsumoto in the lab on research and co-wrote a major paper with Matsumoto as an undergrad, became director of the Pediatric Pathology Fellowship Program and pathology instructor at Harvard Medical School. He was recently hired by the University of Calgary in Canada to raise their medical school to a world-class status. And there are numerous other success stories among Matsumoto’s protégés.

Many of his students have also benefitted from his lifelong support of talented students who lack the financial resources to complete their degree.

Toward the end of her first semester, biology major Esohe Irobar ’16 faced a financial crisis. She had run out of funds to pay for her second semester at RIC. She contemplated moving back home to Washington, D.C. to attend a cheaper in-state school, but Matsumoto gave her a reason to stay.

“First he checked my academic profile to make sure I was worth fighting for,” she said. Irabor entered RIC as an honors student, having graduated third in her class in high school with a GPA of 3.98. As a freshman at RIC, she was inducted into the 3.5 Society for academic excellence and was made a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. She also became a member of the Gold Key Society, serving as a host and ambassador for the college.

Irabor was worth fighting for.

Upon Matsumoto’s recommendations, she was awarded a merit-based Presidential Scholarship that pays a minimum of $2,000 per year for up to four years of study and a STEM Scholarship that offers up to $5,000 per year.

“I’m very grateful to Dr. Matsumoto,” she said, “and I feel fortunate to have come in contact with so many other RIC faculty and staff who are as concerned about my well-being as they are about my education. That’s not something you find everywhere.”

As a faculty member, Matsumoto has been equally dedicated to the Department of Biology. At a fundraising dinner attended by his former students, Matsumoto raised $40,000 to renovate the biology lab. In 2016 the lab was dedicated in his honor and named The Professor Lloyd Matsumoto Intro to Biology Lab.

He and his wife also established the Lloyd and Terri Matsumoto Endowment for Biology to support faculty and student research. Two grants of $3,000 each will be awarded to two students in their junior and senior years to engage in faculty-directed research. Monies will be used to fund lab supplies and any other need related to their research. The endowment is now at $75,000.

This year a new student-athlete award was established in Matsumoto’s name. It will be given annually to senior student-athletes with the highest cumulative GPA.

And he is regularly invited to lecture at Central Falls High School in the classroom of one of his former students David Upegui, ’97, M.Ed. ’03.

Upegui left the field of lab research to teach biology at Central Falls High School and became one of only 13 science teachers in the country awarded the 2013 Amgen Award for Science Teaching Excellence. He has consistently credited his mentor, Professor Lloyd Matsumoto – an academic leader, fundraiser, promoter of science and teacher who has made a huge difference in the lives of his students:

“For me, he has been so much more than a professor. He has been my mentor, my defender, my advocate and my friend. As a professional, I often channel him when I teach my students. I quote his words and tell stories about him because that is who he is – a person who marks people forever, a living legend.”

Page last updated: June 06, 2017