A chance encounter
My father is a doctor and my mother's a nurse, so I had the chance to read some medica books when I was in high school. I felt that biology is a big world with a lot of mysteries and I wanted to know why the human body looks the way it is today, which is why I majored in it.
For me, biology is a field that is in the middle of art and science. For example, I find arbitrarily memorizing or labeling things to be a mainstream practice of biology, but this can become confusing because sometimes there are no rules in it, or at least the rule is not so obvious to be mentioned in class. This is why I'm interested in finding potential principles in biology, which is one of the major aims of evolutionary developmental biology.
Evolutionary developmental biology, also known as evo-devo, is an interdisciplinary field that combines evolutionary biology and developmental biology. It essentially looks for evolutionary principles through embryos.
When I was an undergraduate student at Tsinghua University, I happened upon a European conference in evolutionary biology, and became fascinated with the field. I started looking for labs that specialized in it and I came across a book by Naoki Irie, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences of the Graduate School of Science.
His book, which was about tracing evolutionary history in the embryonic period, was really intriguing and thought-provoking so I decided to see if he was accepting new graduate students. I emailed him and started preparing for the GRE Biology Test, which was required at the time by the Department of Biological Sciences. I also applied to some graduate schools in the United States. In the end, I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a MEXT Scholarship Student under Professor Irie’s supervision.
From textbook Japanese to application
I learned Japanese from a young age after my family visited Japan. My mother enrolled me in a Japanese language school in Macau and I eventually passed N1 of the JLPT. This is why I was able to come across Professor Irie’s book, 胎児期に刻まれた進化の痕跡 (Taijiki ni kizamareta shinka no konseki). Luckily, it was an easy read as Professor Irie tried to explain his discoveries in a way that laymen can understand.
However, I still had some culture shock when I moved to Japan five years ago. It was very difficult to actually speak the language, especially when it came to specialized terminology because I was only familiar with reading in Japanese.
When my lab mates and I had to explain something in depth, it gradually became a mix of Japanese and English. I also had to buy reagents from companies or order mice for experiments all in Japanese. However, I had a good lab mate who taught me how to order mice step by step in Japanese. Attending symposiums also helped me kind of learn many of the basic terminologies in the field as well.
After two to three years it finally got much easier. Now I'm more comfortable using Japanese in my daily life and use it in all sorts of situations — not just for ordering food like when I first arrived!
Persisting in the study of evolutionary biology
My PhD research was to further expand a concept in evolutionary biology called derivedness, which stems from a very similar concept called conservation. People have been ambiguously using the two concepts together for years. Nobody ever pointed out the differences, but I felt like this was something that we needed to clarify.
I believe this is an essential idea that was missed in evolutionary biology, which is why I really stuck to the project, even when it got very challenging and my supervisor suggested that I try something else. He was supportive but I think he also wanted me to graduate on time.
It took four years of trial and error from the beginning of my master's degree before we finally sorted out the differences between the two concepts and developed a method to analyze empirical data. I used bioinformatic methods to analyze the data from embryos, but interestingly, this was something I had initially struggled with learning in my undergrad since statistics and math, especially in China, are very difficult. However, programming is an essential tool for us to understand evolutionary developmental biology through the big data that we collect. So I persuaded myself to try again after I started graduate studies here. It took quite some time to learn it, but now I can write code in R and Python.
I still remember at some point I had to debug and there was just one extra space within thousands of lines of code, but I successfully found it in the end. I had opportunities to present my findings at various conferences, and my explanation of this concept was especially well received by other biologists at the 2nd AsiaEvo Conference, where I received a student’s poster award. I also ended up writing a paper on it, which was published earlier this year.
Continuing to carve a path in the academic world
After I graduate this fall, I will stay in my current lab for another six months at least to do some more follow-up research. We are also starting a new project that I’m very interested in.
I will probably continue in academia and do a postdoc first. For the time being, I don't really have much intention to look for a job in industry. I want to eventually be a professor, especially as I want to help tweak the way biology is taught. As I mentioned earlier, biology education nowadays focuses too much on memorization and details but has seldom taught students to think with basic principles.
Japan is pretty good for evo-devo researchers so I will likely stay here. The Japanese government is supportive of a wide variety of basic research, including theoretical studies. This combined with the caliber of scientists here means that there is also a lot of evo-devo research output from Japan.
A supportive environment to focus on research
Overall, my experiences in the Graduate School of Science have been pretty good. It's a very supportive environment where you can always get help from other labs or professors if you have any problems.
My supervisor has always been great to work with and speaks fluent English. He always has my back. In terms of classes, I could ask professors to prepare slides in English if there was any content in Japanese and take one-on-one classes with them to understand the material. Now there is far more class material in English compared to back then, especially as there are more international students.
The University of Tokyo provides helpful services for students from abroad, such as the International Student Support Room, which offers counseling and advising sessions. The International Team in the School of Science, which typically helps international students with things like scholarships and visas, also takes care of us. I could talk with them as well as staff from the International Student Support Room anytime about any problems I had when it came to adjusting to the university and graduate student life when I first arrived. Support is the last thing international students have to worry about, so we can focus on our research.
A message for future applicants
There are many advantages to studying in Japan, in particular the Graduate School of Science, such as the excellent research environment and overall support. While you’re in Japan, you can also go sightseeing or visit museums in your free time. Earlier this month I traveled to Naoshima, which is known for its art museums. It was on my bucket list for Japan and I was grateful that I could finally go there. The art blending into the natural environment there is so beautiful.
However, the most important thing to keep in mind is to go after what you're genuinely interested in research-wise. Take the time to really explore what you truly want to know, because if you’re doing research you’re not passionate about, it’ll be unenjoyable in the future.
My current lab is doing work that fits my interests and I have many opportunities to find something new alongside my lab members. I wouldn't say I was very sure about what exactly I wanted to specialize in at the beginning of my graduate degree, but throughout all the years of studying, I am sure this is the field that I really want to stick to, and that I can.
※Year of interview:2022
Interview and text: Kristina Awatsu
Photography: Junichi Kaizuka