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Biology Olympians in the University of Tokyo’s School of Science

Round-table Discussion

September 1, 2021

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Why did these International Biology Olympiad medalists choose to study in the Faculty of Science and Graduate School of Science?

They’re talented not only in biology, but in chemistry and physics too!

――Let’s begin with some self-introductions.

Yuta I graduated from the Department of Biological Sciences and then entered the graduate department, where I’m studying in Professor Tsukaya’s Laboratory of Evo-Devo Plant Biology. I’m researching the mechanism by which leaves twist as they turn towards light.

Saori I graduated from the Department of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology and joined the Iwasaki Laboratory in the Graduate Department of Biological Sciences, where I’m researching left-right asymmetry in snakes. The research focus of the Iwasaki Laboratory is bioinformatics, and students are free to choose their own research topics. I just love snakes (laughs)!

Tomoyuki I followed the same path as Saori, and I’m in the Iwasaki Laboratory too. I’m interested in the mechanism of evolution, and I’m using computer analysis to learn about how the morphology of organisms has evolved. I love fossils, so I use them as a subject for morphological analysis of organisms.

Kazuki I also graduated from the Department of Biological Sciences and entered the Graduate Department of Biological Sciences, and now I’m working in the Uemura Laboratory, which is officially called the “Single Molecule Genetics Laboratory.” Our main research focus is the dynamics of single molecules or single cells using various types of microscopes and other measurement techniques. I’m studying the dynamics of immune cells.

Campbell’s Biology, recommended by the Biology Olympiad. It is also used as a university textbook. Saori divided it up into five parts to make it easier to carry.

――When did you all participate in the International Biology Olympiad (IBO)?

Tomoyuki I competed with Saori in the 21st Olympiad in Korea in 2010, and then again with Yuta in the 22nd Olympiad in Taiwan. The other two won gold medals, and much to my shame, I won silver twice in a row!

Kazuki I was in the 23rd Olympiad in Singapore in 2012, where I also won a silver medal. The event was held in Asia in consecutive years around this time. The 20th edition was held in Tsukuba in 2009.

Yuta The Biology Olympiad is to be held in Nagasaki in 2020, the same year as the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Saori entered the International Chemistry Olympiad, right? And weren’t you also a candidate for the International Physics Olympiad?

Saori I competed in the International Chemistry Olympiad held in Turkey in 2011, where I won a silver medal. I made it to the final round for the physics event in Japan, but as the selection schedules overlapped for both chemistry and physics, I had to choose one, so I chose chemistry.

――Wow! You’re a real all-rounder!

◎ Competing and deepening friendships with high school students from all around the world

Medals won at the Japanese and international editions of the Biology Olympiad. The gold medal shines brightest. Saori’s medals from the chemistry and physics Olympiads are also seen here.

――Tell me about the International Biology Olympiad. What’s it like?

Yuta High school students with an interest in biology gather from all over the world to compete in theoretical and practical examinations in biology. The subjects of the questions are wide-ranging: animals, plants, molecular biology, and ecology.

Tomoyuki In the practical examination, you’re judged not only on your experimental skills, but also on whether you can formulate a plan, proceed efficiently, and how you consider the experimental results. Dissecting spiders or frogs, classifying plant and insect specimens, molecular biology experiments; it’s all there. You need a wide range of knowledge and skills.

――How many countries and students take part?

Saori Fifty-eight countries or regions participated in the Korean event. Only four people from each country or region can compete in the IBO. Recently, the number of participating countries or regions has increased to nearly 70, bringing together more than 250 high school students. The event also draws teachers from each country or region, so the final head count is huge.

Tomoyuki Students who want to participate in the IBO have to pass through three rounds of selection examinations at the regional and national levels. When we were high school students in around 2010, there were more than 2,000 examinees from across Japan. That number is increasing every year, and apparently there are now about 3,500.

――Are the examination questions in the IBO in English?

Kazuki The questions are originally in English, but they’re translated into the languages of the participating countries, and they’re structured so that the answers don’t depend on the language; for example, by choosing symbols. This is to prevent differences in English proficiency from affecting grades.

――What did you get out of participating in the IBO and how did the experience feel?

Tomoyuki Another major purpose of the Olympiad is to encourage exchange among high school students of the same generation who aspire to learn science. The national competitions take place over four days and the IBO over ten days, so there’s plenty of time to get to know each other. At the IBO in particular, it took some time to translate the problems, so during the event the students went sightseeing and played cards and games at night to deepen their friendships.

Saori It was a great time. I also had a lot of fun at the International Chemistry Olympiad.

Kazuki I have fond memories of fun times with the other competitors, although I wasn’t very good at English. I knew then that I wished I could speak English better. All the non-native English speakers, including those from Asia, spoke better than me, and I thought “Oh no!”

Cell Cycle is a board game created by Tomoyuki. The game helps you learn about the biological cell cycle as you play. He took it to the IBO, where he forged friendships with high school students from all over the world.

◎ Why do IBO medalists choose the University of Tokyo’s School of Science?

――What were your impressions of interacting with the world’s top high school students at the IBO?

Saori I thought that the level in the Japanese competition was higher than that at the international event. I attended Sapporo Nishi High School in Hokkaido, and I felt lonely there because there wasn’t anyone around me in the sticks who I could talk to in depth about my hobby of science (laughs). When the 80 students who passed the qualifying round gathered in Tokyo for the finals, I was thrilled that there were so many people who I could talk to about biology! And I was also surprised to meet students who knew more about biology than me.

Yuta It’s like the joy of finding kindred spirits. I’m from Funabashi High School in Chiba Prefecture, and I thought I didn’t belong in the same world as students who attended prestigious schools like Tomoyuki’s La Salle, Kazuki’s Komaba High School at Tsukuba University, and Kaisei.

Tomoyuki And that wasn’t the case at all? (Laughs)

Yuta It might not sound right to say so, but it was a big thing for me to realize that we were all actually on the same level as high school students. The Biology Olympiad was also the reason why I decided to aim for the University of Tokyo.

――While we’re on the subject, why did you all decide to enroll in the University of Tokyo? After meeting your peers from around the world, you could have chosen to go abroad.

Kazuki It’s certainly true that people who have participated in the Olympiad tend to study abroad. Of the four of us who participated in the Singapore event, two went to overseas universities. US universities in particular place a lot of importance on extracurricular activities in their admissions processes, so earning a medal in the Olympiad is a huge boost. I thought about studying abroad, but gave up that idea because I hadn’t prepared and my English wasn’t good enough. Since I wanted to do basic research, I thought that the University of Tokyo would be the best option in Japan.

Tomoyuki I also wanted to do basic research in biology, but I knew almost no-one else like me, so I felt lonely too (laughs). There are many students from La Salle at the University of Tokyo, but in the science field most want to study engineering or medicine, and only few want to be researchers. I treasure the fact that I have made friends through the Olympiad who also love biology. When I was choosing a university, my first thought was that I wanted to study biology with the people I made friends with at the Olympiad, and that naturally led to the University of Tokyo. I chose the Department of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology because I like computers and I do programming for a hobby, and I felt that learning to use computers was definitely the way to go in the future. As I had studied the fundamentals of biology in preparation for the Olympiad, I was looking for a different approach.

Yuta I’d never thought about studying abroad, but my dream at the time was to become a researcher. When I talked to people about my career options, they all agreed that I should go to the University of Tokyo. There were other universities that I could have gone to with the recommendation of the Olympiad, but I was inspired by my fellow participants, and so I aimed for the University of Tokyo half-expecting that I wouldn’t get in . After looking at various faculties and departments in the biological field, I settled on the Department of Biological Sciences, as it seemed to offer the environment I was looking for.

Saori I had my sights set on a local university until I went to the Olympiad. There, I met students of the same age from Japan and all over the world, and I realized that I’d set my horizons too narrow. I learned that there were many Olympians from the chemistry and physics events, as well as from the IBO at the University of Tokyo, so I decided to enroll here and enjoy the Tokyo life to the fullest (laughs). I chose the Department of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology because I liked biology and because the opportunity to study programming in depth appealed to me.

◎Reinforcing the message that “The University of Tokyo is the place to be for research”

――What’s best about your classes and research?

Saori It’s great to be able to systematically learn the basics of arts and sciences in the first and second years at the Komaba Campus. Once you decide on a department and begin your research, you don’t have time for anything other than your specialty. I think it’s a great system overall.

Yuta Since I started my research in earnest at graduate school, I have begun to reflect on the meaning of “The University of Tokyo is the place to be for research.” We’re blessed with funding, we have excellent research facilities and daily practical activities, and our teachers are also willing to train researchers. It’s also encouraging that we are surrounded by many other aspiring researchers. When I talk to people from other universities at academic conferences and summer schools, I’m reminded again and again how fortunate I am. In the Faculty of Science, classes in other departments are also accepted as credits, so that’s another bonus.

Tomoyuki We’ve built relationships where we can talk about our research and inspire each other. The curriculum of the Department of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology is a blend of the best elements of the Department of Information Science and the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry. Information-related classes are taken with students in the Department of Information Science, and biology-related classes are taken with people in the Department of Biophysics and Biochemistry. At first, the topics in the information science component seemed boring, but as I solved them, I realized what I needed to know. It turned out to be a great subject after all.

Kazuki Right now, I’m examining single molecules or single cells under the microscope, but it was a valuable experience to have the opportunity to learn about living organisms in the Department of Biological Sciences. You can undertake anatomy activities at the individual level, or do practical marine activities and fieldwork with others. In the department, I was able to learn all about the hierarchy of organisms.

◎ A wide range of knowledge needed to absorb fast-moving fields of study

――Tell us about your future career prospects.

Tomoyuki I’m a researcher through and through. I want to learn more about the mechanism of evolution.

Yuta I’m also an aspiring researcher, but my field may not necessarily be biology.

――Why so?

Yuta The reason I wanted to do research in the first place is that I enjoy learning. Although my day-to-day research is fulfilling, there’s a limit to what we can learn from it. Understanding the mechanism of leaf twisting is a new discovery, but it doesn’t drastically change the way we see the world. Rather, we may be able to change the way we look at the world itself through a philosophical approach. This is what’s beginning to exercise my mind now. As I’ve engaged deeper with my research through the doctoral program, my ambitions have grown (laughs).

Saori I will start to work after completing my master’s degree. I love living things, but I think I’m better suited to keeping them as pets while working, than to studying them. I have received a tentative job offer at an IT company, where I would like to make use of my knowledge of the analytical methods used in my research.

Kazuki I’m thinking about going on to do a PhD. I’d like to become a basic researcher in some area of academia, but I’m still thinking about the specifics of what kind of researcher I want to be and in which field.

――Have you ever thought about getting a job?

Kazuki I undertook internships at companies, in part to learn more about society. I thought it wouldn’t be right to cut off any options without learning more about them. After visiting a number of companies, I firmed up my resolve to become a researcher.

――Finally, what messages do you have for students who are about to choose their career paths?

Saori Learn to master the fundamentals of mathematics and physics while you’re at the Komaba Campus. You can’t fully grasp either without giving them sufficient time.

Yuta I agree. It’s often mistakenly thought that you don’t need mathematics to study biology, but in reality it’s needed a lot, so you shouldn’t be afraid of it. Take linear algebra for example. It’s very abstract and I was wondering what it might be useful for, but it turned out that I needed linear algebra to solve differential equations, and statistics textbooks were written in the language of linear algebra. If you study only biology because you like biology , you’ll run into trouble later on.

Tomoyuki I feel the same as you. Now that there’s a growing demand for interdisciplinary studies, it’s a good idea to branch out into a wide range of fields that are likely to be related to your research.

Kazuki English is important, too. You should definitely start on that as early as you can. The other thing is not to narrow down your options based on your own preconceptions. As I was thinking of going on to do my PhD, I also looked into job openings. If you lay out all the options on the table before deciding, you should be able to be more confident in making the right choice.

――Thank you all so much.

Interview and text: Masatsugu Kayahara
​Photography: Junichi Kaizuka

Originally published in The School of Science Brochure 2019

MIKAMI Tomoyuki
1st year doctoral student
Born in Hiroshima. He graduated from La Salle Senior High School in March 2012. In April the same year, he entered the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo. After graduating from the Department of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology, Faculty of Science, he entered the Department of Biological Sciences, Graduate School of Science. He loves fossils and wants to use bioinformatics to shed light on the mechanism of evolution.
KURIHARA Saori
2nd year master’s student
Born in Hokkaido. She graduated from Hokkaido Sapporo Nishi High School in March 2012. She entered the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo in April the same year. After graduating from the Department of Bioinformatics and Systems Biology in the Faculty of Science, she entered the Department of Biological Sciences in the Graduate School of Science. She expects to complete her master’s program in March 2019. Of all living things, she loves snakes the most.
Kazuki Yoda
2nd year master’s student
Born in Tokyo. He graduated from the Senior High School at Komaba, University of Tsukuba, in March 2013. In April the same year, he entered the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo. After graduating from the University’s Department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science, he entered the Department of Biological Sciences in the Graduate School of Science. He completed his master’s course in March 2019 and plans to go on to complete his PhD. Researches single cells by microscopy.
OTSUKA Yuta
1st year doctoral student
Born in Chiba Prefecture. He graduated from Funabashi High School in March 2012. In April the same year, he entered the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo. After graduating from the Department of Biological Sciences, Faculty of Science, he entered the Department of Biological Sciences, Graduate School of Science. He is studying the mechanism of movement of plant leaves, and likes not just plants but all living things.
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