Science Project for Ryukyu Girls

Female high school students from Okinawa participated in a workshop aimed at fostering their interest in science, providing support for their career choices and building a network of like-minded peers.

A dedicated group of thirty students, all female and from Okinawa high schools, participated in a two-day workshop on March 25-26 that aimed to foster their interest in science and to help them in building a network of like-minded science students. The workshop Science Project for Ryukyu Girls, jointly organized by the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) and the University of the Ryukyus, with support from the Okinawa People's Council for the Promotion of the OIST Graduate University, was specifically designed to support gender diversity in science.

While the annual workshop took place a few times in the past, students from Miyako island and Ishigaki island also participated this year. “It is not easy for them to make friends on the mainland Okinawa island,” said Emi Hokama, one of the organizers and administrative staff in the OIST Diversity Section. “At this age, these girls have to choose their future careers, and sometimes they do not have enough friends to discuss their options.”

The students spent the first day of the workshop at OIST and it was a day full of activities. Prof Amy Shen, head of the Micro/Bio/Nano Fluidics Unit at OIST, engaged them in a hands-on seminar titled ‘How do soap and detergents work’. The seminar enabled the student in directly exploring the concept of surface tension, while introducing them to the molecular mechanism behind cleaning product.

High school students from Okinawa experimenting with surface tension
High school students from Okinawa experimenting with surface tension.

“I think it’s important to show them that women can be scientists, and to offer them role models with which they can relate,” commented Prof Shen. “I also consider part of my responsibility is to educate the younger generations.”

Yuki Yamauchi, OIST’s Community Relations Section staff, took the students for a tour of some laboratories. The students visited the Neural Computation Unit, which focuses on highly adaptive robots with emotion-like regulatory functions, and the Marine Genomics Unit, which studies, among many marine animals, Okinawan coral reefs. After the tour “the students had a sense of science in the making,” commented Yuki.

Yuki Yamauchi leads high school students from Okinawa in an OIST guided tour
Yuki Yamauchi leads high school students from Okinawa in an OIST guided tour OIST

Prof Hidetoshi Saze, the head of the Plant Epigenetics Unit at OIST, presented the last seminar of the day, titled ‘Studies in Plant Genetics; What can we learn from genes?’. After his engaging presentation, Prof Saze introduced Mei Hiyane, an Okinawan female student doing a research internship with him. Mei encouraged the students to consider science as a real option for their career and concluded her speech saying “as long as you try to make it happen, it happens.”

Some of the students have already decided that science is what they will do. “I want to help many people in the future,” commented student Akiho Sakiyama. “I would like to become a medical doctor.” Another student, Misaki Shinzato, said: “I am interested in biology. I want to study Okinawa’s unique environment. Then, in the future, I would like to create bio-cosmetics.”

The day ended with an informal discussion with two graduate science students from OIST and two undergraduate science students from the University of the Ryukyus, in order for the participants to get a feeling of what it means to study science at a university level.

The following day, the students walked in the Yanbaru forest, located the northern part of the mainland Okinawa. Instructor Atsushi Takashima, from the Subtropical Field Science Center of the University of the Ryukyus, helped them in the ecological exploration of the natural environment.

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