23 Aug 2013

Act Beyond Borders Because We Can Change the World

On August 9, the 12th Nature Café took place in Tokyo with participation by undergraduate and graduate students from areas including Tokyo, Okayama, and Tohoku. This science café series, organized by the Nature Publishing Group, invites top-class scientists to discuss different topics from a global point of view. Co-hosted by OIST, the event this time took place at the Sony Computer Science Laboratory with a panel talk, “The International Imperative――What do you need to compete in the global society of 21st century?" The panelists were Kiyoshi Kurokawa, Academic Fellow of the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies and an OIST Board of Governors member, Hitoshi Murayama, Director of the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe, Hiroaki Kitano, President & CEO of Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Inc.
and OIST Adjunct Professor, and Yoko Yazaki-Sugiyama, OIST Assistant Professor. They all shared their thoughts on what young people, who aim to pursue an international science career, will need in order to compete and survive in our modern globalized society. Yukiko Motomura, editor at the Mainichi Shimbun Science and Environment Department, served as a moderator.

“Will Japan ever change? No, we ourselves must change.” These were the words Kurokawa said at the outset of his talk, in which he discussed the importance of reconsidering and understanding Japan from an international perspective, especially in tumultuous times like today.

Showing a photo of a foggy desert at dawn, Kitano underlined the importance of going out to the field, “The water vapor from the sea builds a dense fog over the Arabian Peninsula. If we can find a way to gather this fog, this will be a big step towards solving the region’s water problem. One can only find this out by actually being in the field, ” he said, emphasizing the true meaning of social activity and economy that can be discovered at first hand. He also shared with the audience his belief that we all need to “Act beyond borders, because we can change the world.”

Yazaki-Sugiyama acknowledged, “I myself am still on the search for ways to survive in our globalized society.” She then introduced her research at OIST, explaining that her team is trying to understand neuronal mechanism for regulating a critical learning period using zebra finches. Using an analogy of swimmers, Yazaki-Sugiyama said, “Just as the competition between swimmers leads to world records, and hence the development of this sport, once an outcome of scientific research is shared with the world in publications and presentation at conferences, that result receives acknowledgment, earning the researcher an opportunity for a new exchanges.

Under a provocative theme "Why I hate Japan," Murayama talked about the differences between research environments in Japan and the United States. Having lived in Germany from the sixth to the ninth grade before enrolling in the International Christian University High School in Japan, the University of Tokyo, and the University of California- Berkeley, he had a lot to compare. He said the U.S. is a very open society and encouraging to young researchers, while there is a perception in Japan that diversion from the main track would ruin one’s career. Citing a case in which one research institution was completely shut down without prior notice, he also spoke of the instability and the strong link between politics and science in the U.S.. Murayama also introduced an episode on global collaboration in which he wrote up a paper overnight with a relaying effort with his colleagues in Europe and in the U.S., to beat a rival’s paper on a similar subject.  Participants were entirely fascinated by his talk and often burst into laughter. Speaking from his experience as Kavli IPMU director, he pointed to various obstacles in hiring excellent researchers across the world, such as obtaining financial support for foreign students and concluding a difficult housing contract. He warned, “If the people in this country do not accept and appreciate cultural and ethnic diversity, Japan will drop from the global stage.”

There was also a big surprise. Mr. Joi Ito, director of MIT's Media Lab, joined the panel discussion as a guest speaker. “The rapid growth of the Internet and computer technology has brought down the cost of pioneering new frontiers in research and industries, attracting outstanding engineers.” he said. “Japan has long cherished craftsmanship with a good balance between science, engineering, art and design. MIT Media Lab hires and supports very unique researchers who would otherwise be ostracized at other institutes. Japan should build a laboratory with a similar initiative,” he concluded.

The event ended with a casual social get-together. The participants surrounded the panelists, actively asking questions about studying abroad and future career building. "Beyond my expectation, ""An opportunity to rethink what to pursue in my life," and "Better than university lectures” were some of the comments by the attendees. The event was also a valuable opportunity for OIST to exchange views and opinions with enthusiastic students.

By Youhei Morita

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