When I was an undergraduate student at McMaster University, I got an email from the university administration about a program at the University of Tokyo called Global Science Course (GSC). At first, I dismissed it as the program was in Tokyo — I never really considered the possibility of leaving Canada. I was also hesitant because GSC only offered a strictly chemistry course while I was studying chemical biology at McMaster. But my parents surprised me by saying, “Why don’t you try applying? It’s the University of Tokyo, one of the highest-ranking universities in Japan. Don’t think about whether you can get in, just try. What’s there to lose?”
I never thought I would get in and I had no idea I would come here. But then while I was working in a lab during the summer, I got the GSC application results via email and found out that I was accepted!
Since I had visited Japan on family vacations, I already had some idea of what it was like here before moving to Tokyo for GSC. But of course, coming here on vacation and actually living here are two completely different things. Japan is also a lot more rooted in tradition compared to Canada. I remember talking with my other GSC peers and they had a much harder time in the beginning getting used to the culture and the language. I'm sure I had it a lot easier than them because at least I'm half Japanese. I kind of know the language and the culture, so I was used to it in a sense. I still have problems, though, because I look Japanese and my name is Japanese, so people here assume on the spot, “Oh, she must speak perfect Japanese!”
Adapting to the School of Science in GSC
Under GSC, university students from outside of Japan transfer into the third year of undergraduate studies at the School of Science. After completing two years in the program, they graduate with a bachelor’s degree from UTokyo. During the first half of the first semester on GSC, all new students take classes together so that we all have the same basic chemistry knowledge before joining the Japanese students in the following semester. There were only five of us in the program, so it made us a very close-knit group. It was a good chance to meet people and gain close friends from around the world.
In the second semester we had classes with the Japanese students. In the beginning, it was a little difficult to get to know and talk with them, but once you start your bachelor's thesis and join a lab where you have more opportunities to interact with other students, you get a better feeling of the atmosphere at the School of Science and what it's like to make new friends in Japan.
One of the things that I appreciated about GSC was that for the first half of the semester, they let you do a rotation around different labs in the Department of Chemistry. This gave me a good idea of what kind of chemistry was being done and the labs I could choose from when it was time to do my bachelor's thesis. It helped a lot in deciding what kind of chemistry I was into and what I wanted to pursue if I was going to go down the graduate school route.
Finding the right research fit in GSGC
When I was in my last year of GSC, I was looking into other opportunities as well as considering going back to Canada. But I liked the people here as well as the multicultural atmosphere of the Goda Lab, so I decided to stay and continue on to a graduate program offered at the School of Science called the Global Science Graduate Course (GSGC). Professor Goda stresses that he welcomes diversity and believes that having minds from different countries would not only enhance research, but also the environment of the lab. There's cutting-edge research everywhere but at the end of the day, the University of Tokyo won me over.
The Goda Lab focuses on developing serendipity-enabling technologies and high-throughput single-cell analysis methods. In the last two years, we developed a system called intelligent image-activated cell sorting. What's great about this technology is that it allows for high-throughput cell sorting based on cellular morphology. We want to diversify its application, and I'm one of the members working on that. In the future, we want to use it for high-throughput genetic screening and are collaborating with some other labs to try to accomplish this.
I was actually working on a different project until last September but was transferred to this team due to my background and interest in chemical biology. The current plan is that I will continue this line of research during my Ph.D.
Abroad in Japan during a pandemic
The pandemic has definitely been stressful. If I were back in Canada, I would have gone home and been with family, whereas here in Japan I'm just kind of alone in my apartment. My parents are worried, of course, but this is the age of the internet and we can do video chat so that has helped a lot.
Being stuck at home was an awkward time since you still need to report to your supervisors about what you’ve been doing, but you also can't do in-lab research, so I mostly read papers. I wasn’t able to enter campus for almost a good two months, but since I ended up changing my research project, my timeline wouldn’t have changed much. If I was continuing my previous project, I would have been set back.
The Goda Lab is lucky in the sense that we have more space than other labs. We have multiple offices and multiple work areas. Around the time when restrictions started getting lifted and people were allowed back in the lab, we made sure to only have a certain amount of people in each room, but having more space helped more members get back to their research sooner.
Thinking about the future
In the beginning, I thought maybe I would pursue a career in academia after graduating from GSGC. However, a lot of my peers, not just in Japan but also in Canada, are graduating and finding work in industry. This made me think that I may first want some work experience outside of academia after my PhD, and then make a decision based on that.
The prospect of staying in Japan for longer is nice since living here fits me in terms of my personal hobbies, such as art, video games, and anime. Before the pandemic, I found myself going out every weekend, whether for shopping, just walking around, or for hitting an arcade. In terms of the work environment, it's one of those things where I don't think you can really know until you experience it, which I have yet to do.
Words of advice
If you want an international experience, then I would definitely recommend both GSC and GSGC. Going to another country and being in a program that brings in people from around the world really broadens your perspective. This experience has been an eye-opener in many different respects.
If you are serious about coming here, understand that it is a big step moving to a completely new country. You will have a lot of support, but at the end of the day, you're on your own. You also have to be open-minded and flexible. Not just in terms of accepting the cultural differences of the students around you but also the educational system or the way they do classes here in Japan in general, so keep that in mind when you're applying. However, I feel that if you decide to come to the School of Science, it will be worthwhile regardless of whether you have a good or bad experience because either way, you'll learn a lot. The fact that you took that first step and tried will go a long way for your future.
Interview and text: Kristina Awatsu
Photography: Junichi Kaizuka