Science Challenge 2015

OIST hosted its first Science Challenge workshop on March 9-13 with 22 undergraduate and graduate students from Japan and abroad.

From March 9th-13th, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology hosted its first OIST Science Challenge workshop, organized by OIST’s Graduate School. Twenty-two undergraduate and graduate students, selected from a large pool of applicants from Japan and abroad, spent an immersive week to learn more about the graduate school experience and to network. On the last day they individually presented on the theme 'Where will science lead me in the future?'

Many finalists had arrived at OIST on the fence whether to pursue a Ph.D. program or to move on to jobs in industry. At the workshop they received tips from current students about choosing a graduate school that was the right fit.

"A Ph.D. program is not a prison sentence for five years," said Jeff Wickens, Dean of the Graduate School, during the inaugural talk. "At OIST we encourage our students to have a balanced lifestyle." He stressed that the spirit of OIST was not measured in the number of hours put in during the week or publishing a set number of papers, but on making a fundamental contribution to knowledge.

During their week-long stay the finalists attended talks by OIST scientists and experienced hands-on science, depending on their interests, ranging from electron microscopy and to superconductivity.

The challenge was also a place to experience what it means to be a scientist beyond doing science. OIST English instructor Tom Holland helped fine-tune everyone’s presentation skills for the final presentation and in a separate session showed them how to field tough job interview questions. In a different talk, staff scientist Dr. Larisa Kiselava in the OIST Biological Systems Unit discussed the career trajectory leading to her current research on microbial fuel cells, and about juggling the duties of a scientist and a mother along the way.  Dr. Youhei Morita, Associate Vice President of Communications and Public Relations discussed his career transition from high-energy physics to science communication and urged the workshop participants to also actively communicate science during their careers, since with the opportunities offered by the web they now have the platform to do so.

The final presentations covered a wide spectrum of scientific thought ranging from innovative applications like air curtains to contain second hand smoke within smoking areas, to bold speculations such as neutrino beams for interstellar communication.  

A persistent theme was doing sustainable science and aligning research practices with nature – like recycling scallop shells which produce mountains of waste, or using bacteria that naturally facilitate chemical reactions in order to avoid toxic chemicals byproducts.

"We were really impressed with the quality of the presentations,” said Dean of Faculty Affairs Ken Peach, one of the judges. “Even a lot of working scientists don't manage to communicate this well in such a short talk. But what impressed me most was the passion. Did the students believe in what they were saying? Did they get the adrenalin rush? This was the deciding factor."

The winner was Yumeno Koga, a freshman in Life Science at Waseda University. Her vision for the future was understanding natural evolutionary mechanisms and tailoring genetic engineering practices accordingly. Her prior experience in an international competition of synthetic biology for undergraduates (iGEM) also worked in her favor.

During the week the finalists mingled with the OIST community both socially and academically. They got to spend time with research units aligned with their personal research interests.

“I wasn't confident about applying to Ph.D. programs, especially foreign ones where English is the medium of instruction, but I think OIST is a great place to apply because of its international community,” said Naoya Ishizaka, one of the finalists, a first year Master's student in Chemistry from Nagoya University.

Overall the 2015 challenge was very much a cross-cultural experience with participants from Japan, USA, Poland and Indonesia.  OIST will host another Science Challenge in 2016. 

“We hope the OIST Science Challenge becomes an international event for science students worldwide," said organizer Seika Kyoda of the Graduate School.

By Joykrit Mitra

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