OIST welcomes ninth class of students

On January 15th, OIST’s ninth class was officially welcomed to the start of their PhD program, and encouraged to embrace the opportunities that were offered and rise to the challenges that lie ahead.

At the 2020 Welcome Ceremony on January 15, 2021, the OIST community welcomed 62 new students, from 18 different countries and regions – OIST’s largest batch of PhD students since the program began nearly ten years ago. The students were selected from a pool of 1126 applicants.

2020 was a challenging year to begin a PhD. COVID-19 forced the ceremony, which is usually held in September, to be moved to January. With international travel restrictions in place for most of the year, only about a third of the 62 students were able to start the PhD Program physically on campus. The others had to defer or begin the lab rotations online. When the travel restrictions were lifted temporarily, the Student Affairs Section worked efficiently to coordinate the visa applications and relocation processes and were able to bring 61 students safely to campus.

The new batch of students were introduced to their peers and the OIST community.

Several measures to allow for appropriate social distancing were put in place at the Welcome Ceremony and, although the crowd of attendees to the ceremony was significantly smaller than normal, it was livestreamed so that friends and family could watch from around the globe.  

In his speech, Dr. Peter Gruss, President of OIST, highlighted the many global challenges that the world now faces, and why scientists, students, and scientific research are so important at this time.  

“As our world continues to change at a rapid pace, we must continue to tackle many more grand challenges: climate change, providing sustainable energy, food and clean water to a growing population, and protecting our health as well as the Earth’s ecosystems. Education and research will be vital to this endeavor.”

“It is you - your generation has a crucial role to play. The future of our planet will rely on your creativity, intelligence, integrity, and responsibility. Today, we are on the brink of the fourth industrial revolution: many of the technological advances, breakthrough innovations and new jobs that we will require to carry us into the future do not even exist yet. You are frontrunners. You have the opportunity to explore new scientific territories and define the future of mankind.”

Dr. Peter Gruss addresses the class of 2020 at the 2020 Welcome Ceremony.

Dr. Gruss’s concluding words at the Welcome Ceremony were a message to the newest class.

“OIST will provide you with top research, education and innovation, and an entrepreneurial spirit. All of this gives you a sound basis for a life in science as well as a rewarding career. Now it is up to you – OIST’s 9th class – to embrace the opportunities that OIST offers and rise to the challenges that lie ahead. Our future depends on your success and dedication.”

OIST also welcomed 15 new members of faculty, whose areas of interest range from theoretical mathematics, to the evolution of life, to the behavior of cephalopods. Each faculty member introduced themselves and explained their research and background to the audience.

PhD student from the class of 2016, Ainash Garifullina, then addressed the newest batch on behalf of OIST’s Student Council. Ainash, the 2020 Executive Officer – Events on the Student Council, encouraged the students to celebrate their milestones and to make time for friends and family.  

“These are the people who will be happy to share your excitement upon your first conference talk, first publication, and finally your thesis defense. I know it might be hard to believe that now because it seems so far away, but you have everything to make it happen, and we’re here to support you, so welcome and good luck!”

Ainash Garifullina addresses the new students at the 2020 Welcome Ceremony.

The ceremony finished with a couple of traditional Okinawan performances performed by members of the OIST community. These included the use of sanshin, a well-known Okinawan instrument, by Chindami – the OIST sanshin group. 

The decision to conclude the ceremony with these performances was a very significant step in OIST’s relationship with Okinawa. It was made as part of an initiative called ‘Eedee,’ which means ‘working together’ in a local dialect of the Ryukyuan languages, the traditional languages of Okinawa. This initiative aims to encourage the OIST community to further embrace local culture and become an integrated part of society here. 

A traditional Okinawan performance at the 2020 Welcome Ceremony. Many of the performers were students and staff members of OIST.
Watch the 2020 Welcome Ceremony here.

At a glance: OIST’s 2020 student batch

  • 62 new students from 18 countries and regions
  • 30 female students, 32 male students
  • 13 students from Japan
  • The first student from Madagascar and the first student from Lebanon
The 2020 student cohort after the Welcome Ceremony on January 15th, 2021.

The 2020 batch includes the first applicant and student from Madagascar – Tojoarisoa ‘Tojo’ Rakotoaitina. Tojo previously completed a master’s degree in Japan and his decision to apply to OIST came from the emphasis on the multidisciplinary work, and the funding available to PhD students.

Tojo is particularly interested in artificial intelligence and data science. “There is still so much to discover in this field. As a PhD student, I have the opportunity to find new knowledge and to contribute to scientific research. I’m especially excited to work with a couple of the researchers here, who are well-known scientists in artificial intelligence.”

The new group also includes OIST’s first student from Lebanon – Sarah Zakhia, who found out about OIST through actively searching for PhD programs in Japan.

“I’ve always been interested in Japanese culture,” Sarah said. “OIST ticks all the boxes – there’s an abundance of resources, generous funding, and an international environment. I feel very privileged and lucky to be here. I’m also looking forward to learning Japanese and becoming integrated and contributing to the Okinawan community in some way.” 

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