The School of Science hosts students from diverse backgrounds, experiences, and majors. In this round-table discussion, we feature four exceptional students from different departments. Read about their research, student life, aspirations, and more.
▶Trivia: How many human skulls did one of the students investigate? Find out the answer later in the article.
Let’s start with self-introductions.
Ziyu Ye: I am from China. And I am a first-year master’s student at the Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences. I study climate dynamics and physical oceanography.
Yuka Oshima: I am a first-year Ph.D. student and a member of the Ando lab in the Department of Physics. I am developing gravitational wave detectors and searching for dark matter *1in the Universe.
Katherine Hampson: I am from the UK. I came here as a MEXT Scholarship*2 student to do just a few years of research, but I ended up going on to do a master's and then a Ph.D. in the Department of Biological Sciences studying anthropology. I defended my thesis last week, and I passed it.
Katherine Hampson: Thank you. Apart from doing research, I worked part-time at a bar and brewery; I make beer (laughs)!
Keisuke Nishimura: I am a second-year master’s student and a member of the Kato Laboratory in the Department of Computer Science. I study operating systems.
When and how did your interest in science start?
Katherine Hampson: I was always interested in science and history. So, the mix between science and history that you get with anthropology is why I like it. I did a double major in Anthropology and Japanese Studies at Oxford Brookes University, UK. Prof. Tim D. White, who wrote a manual on osteology (the study of bones), and Prof. Suzuki Hisashi, the godfather of Japanese anthropology, influenced my career.
Keisuke Nishimura: I started programming during high school because I wanted to develop games as a hobby. But I realized that creating games is difficult and requires basic mathematics and computer skills. So, I have been pursuing science and learning basic skills. Now my major is computer science.
Yuka Oshima: I have been interested in science since I was a child because my parents are chemistry researchers in industry. I loved science, especially astrophysics, and I wanted to be a researcher since childhood. I aspired to study astrophysics because of the scale of the Universe.
Ziyu Ye: If you ask schoolchildren in China, perhaps half of them might say they want to become scientists when they grow up. After middle school, most of them lose interest because they think that doing research is boring and difficult. But for me, it is difficult but not boring. After high school, I chose geophysics as my major; the more I learned, the more I enjoyed studying it.
Katherine and Ye, what kind of exposure have you had to Japan before coming here?
Katherine Hampson: I studied Japanese during my undergrad for four years and spent a year as an exchange student in Tokyo.
Ziyu Ye: I like Japanese culture and manga. “Bocchi the Rock!” is my favorite manga. I also played Japanese games with my Chinese friends.
Did you have any preconceptions about Japan before coming here, and how did that change after living here?
Katherine Hampson: I visited Japan a few times before moving to Tokyo. It is more convenient than I thought; as I am a night owl, being able to go to the convenience store at 2 am is nice.
Ziyu Ye: Before coming to Japan, I thought everyone here is into anime and manga. But after I moved here, I realized that it is not true. Also, the people here are kind, and everyone around me is quite friendly. Some friends even took me to an Izakaya (a Japanese-style bar) for Nomikai (an after-work drink party).
Yuka and Keisuke, what are your experiences speaking English to international colleagues?
Yuka Oshima: In my experience, it is important to ask questions and not hesitate to speak in English. My presentation was decent at my first international conference, but I could not answer well during the Q&A session. Since then, I learned to proactively clarify their questions, instead of keeping quiet when faced with communication issues.
Keisuke Nishimura: I am also shy. I want to say something, but I hesitate (laughs). Even now, I am a bit scared about my English-speaking skills (laughs). But I realize that expressing something is important because I cannot convey my thoughts if I say nothing.
Ye and Katherine, how comfortable are you with speaking Japanese?
Ziyu Ye: I talk to my friends about games in Japanese. But I sometimes do not understand technical words in Japanese because I did not learn them in my language class.
Katherine Hampson: I know that feeling. When I came here, I was pretty good at Japanese. But obviously, you don’t learn technical terms in a language school. My lab mates use technical terms in Japanese, so I had to learn the names of bones and how to read archeological reports in Japanese. It is difficult to learn Japanese and do research; it takes time.
Ziyu Ye: Sometimes you can manage without knowing Japanese. At restaurants, you can just point to the pictures of food and ask (laughs).
Why did you choose to study at UTokyo and the School of Science?
Keisuke Nishimura: In my case, my lab was the most suitable one for my interests. My supervisor is an expert in the field. So, it was an easy decision to join the School of Science, UTokyo.
Yuka Oshima: In my case, the reason is simple. The University of Tokyo is Japan’s top university. I dreamt of joining UTokyo since my childhood. Furthermore, the liberal arts style system at UTokyo meant that I did not have to choose a major immediately, which was very attractive to me in high school. I ended up choosing the School of Science because of my interest in astrophysics.
Ziyu Ye: My reason is the same: UTokyo is Japan’s top university, and it was my first choice. But I did not know if I could pass the entrance exam. A friend of mine from my high school in China also wanted to study in Japan. So, we both decided to apply for UTokyo. We are both studying on the Hongo campus and are roommates now.
Katherine Hampson: My field is relatively small. I was interested in studying medieval Japanese bones. UTokyo held the bones and has the best scope to study them; so, it made sense to apply to study here. Also, I had lived in Tokyo before and loved it here.
Tell us about your current research.
Keisuke Nishimura: My research is about operating systems. For my master’s thesis, I am trying to implement an operating system for self-driving cars. Self-driving cars use a lot of sensor data, and they must process it quickly. If the system takes longer to process the data, the car may crash. Of course, safety is very important. So, my goal is to build a safe and fast operating system for self-driving cars.
Yuka Oshima: In the Ando laboratory, our goal is to detect gravitational waves from black holes and other astrophysical sources. We are working on developing gravitational wave detectors. The detectors utilize laser interferometers; so, I typically work with lasers, mirrors, electronic systems, and so on. We also work on the search for dark matter, which is a mysterious matter that fills the Universe. We use similar techniques for both the detection of gravitational waves and the search for dark matter.
Ziyu Ye: I study the connection between two climate phenomena: El ninõ*3 and the Indian Ocean dipole*4 . El ninõ is a climate pattern defined by the unusual warming of the water surface in the Pacific Ocean. The Indian Ocean Dipole forms when the sea surface temperature becomes anomalously warm in the western equatorial Indian Ocean and cool in the southeastern equatorial Indian Ocean. Studying the connection between them will help us better predict the weather.
Katherine Hampson: I work with human skeletons that were excavated at a site in Kamakura in the 1950s. They were found in strange burial pits—mainly heads and body parts, and a few whole bodies. The remains were mainly of males and had signs of trauma. So, a team that studied 300 skulls concluded that they may have died in a battle. But they had only worked on a small portion of the bones. Also, recent excavations in the area showed that it may have been used as a burial site throughout the medieval period because of large amounts of remains found in the surrounding area, many with no signs of trauma. I investigated why and whether there were other reasons for their deaths. I studied around 777 skulls and investigated their age, sex, and the presence of weapon-related trauma. My results show that the answer is more nuanced than we thought.
Tell us about your study-abroad visits and fellowships.
Keisuke Nishimura: I went to France for three months this summer. I met my mentor on the internet when I participated in a project promoting open-source software development. After that, I contacted her, and she accepted me as a visitor at the Institut national de recherche en sciences et technologies du numérique (INRIA). It was an excellent experience for me. I noticed that in-person communication was good for building relations with team members.
Yuka Oshima: In the summer of last year, I went to Italy to present my work at an international conference. At the conference dinner, talking to Ph.D. students from all over the world was exciting. After the conference, I visited a lab near the conference venue and gave a seminar, where the members of the host lab asked some tough questions. I learned a lot from the conference and the seminar on this trip.
Katherine Hampson: One of my undergrad teachers recommended I apply for the MEXT scholarship to study bones in Japan. I applied but failed the first year because it was quite competitive. But I applied the next year and ended up getting it and doing my master’s degree here. I could also extend the scholarship to my Ph.D. It was hard to turn down the opportunity to get paid to do a Ph.D.! I was lucky to get it and am thankful for it.
What are your future career aspirations?
Yuka Oshima: First, I want to get my doctoral degree in the next two years. After that, I want to continue pursuing science. Furthermore, I currently share the wonders of the Universe through outreach activities aimed mainly at high school girls, and I hope to continue to do so.
Ziyu Ye: I want to do a Ph.D. after completing my master’s. After that, I do not have any plans yet. Maybe I will continue as a researcher in academia or industry.
Keisuke Nishimura: I also want to do a Ph.D. after completing my master’s. I want to continue researching, but I do not have concrete plans yet. I want to do programming.
Katherine Hampson: I have some thinking to do (laughs). There are some opportunities in academia as a postdoc. I am also planning to get married. So, I need a break, especially considering the pandemic and my recent thesis defense.
Any advice for other students who are about to choose their career?
Yuka Oshima: Keep all your options open. Do not fixate on one specific path. Be open to opportunities.
Ziyu Ye: Spend more time learning fundamental mathematics and physics.
Keisuke Nishimura: I agree with Ye. A basic understanding of computer science will be very useful. Learn the fundamentals.
Katherine Hampson: Talk and meet people outside your field. It might help you in your studies and it is important to make connections for the future. Keep a broad mind and try to meet as many people as you can. Ganbare (Hang in there/Keep going).
Thank you all, and good luck with your future endeavors.
*4 the Indian Ocean dipole
The interview is edited for brevity. All the interviewees approved the final version.
▶Trivia answer: 777 skulls!
※Year of interview:2023
Interview and text:Ravindra Palavalli-Nettimi
Photography: Tomoki Hirokawa