Flying over islands and a continent chasing leaf development

  • Asuka Kuwabara
Figure 1

With my best friend/colleague at the University of Sheffield.

Figure 1

Lunch time with my colleagues in the canteen at ETH Zurich.

It has been more than five years since I started my research life in Europe. I arrived in the University of Sheffield (UK) in 2007 as a postdoctoral fellow and last year I moved to ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich). After receiving my PhD in 2003, I took almost four years to realise that I should have taken a post-doc position to further carry on my research. Thus the position in the University of Sheffield at Professor Andy Fleming's laboratory was my first post-doc position. Nevertheless, although I did not have an official research position during the four years just after completing my PhD, my daily life had been completely occupied by heterophylly.

Heterophylly is a unique phenomenon which is shown by certain types of water plants that change their leaf shape/form depending on their living environment. Interestingly, many water plants are able to grow either under water (that is why they are called "water" plants) or on land. In heterophyllous water plants, the leaves produced under water have totally different shapes from those formed on land. I was interested in how plants know if they are under water or on land and how they can change their program of leaf development. I had mainly focused on the physiological aspects of this phenomenon during my Master and PhD courses and later I noticed the control of cell division pattern during leaf development had a key role on the heterophyllous change of leaf shape. While I guessed that the pattern of cell division might be controlled by well organised gene expression networks (this is the biological regulation), I had no idea how the change of cell division pattern could influence the final leaf shape. The main problem behind this is a mechanical regulation. Since plant cells have cell walls, all the cells in a leaf are tightly connected to each other, thus they cannot move within a leaf. Moreover, newly formed cells are inserted in the middle of such an "almost stuck situation" and are expanding. These cells must be pushing each other while they are growing and keeping the flat leaf structure. As such a process could not be explained in an intuitive manner, I realised how important the mechanical regulations are.

At that time my supervisor, Professor Toshiyuki Nagata, was about to retire from his position as professor at the University of Tokyo. This meant I needed to find a new place for my further research on leaf development. I remembered that Professor Andy Fleming of the University of Sheffield, whom I had met in an international conference held in Vienna, was interested in both gene and mechanical regulations. I wrote an e-mail explaining my research interests and asked him if he could host me with an independent fellowship from Japan. Luckily he found my project interesting and managed to provide a research funding from the EU for me, in addition, I managed to win an independent research fellowship from JSPS. As a result, I gained an opportunity to be a post-doc for four years in Sheffield, a northern city in the UK. I changed my plant material from the water plant to a model plant, Arabidopsis; however, I continued to work on the control of cell division pattern during leaf development. The mechanical regulation of leaf development was much more complicated than I expected, nonetheless it widened my research experience for the direction of computational analysis.

Although language and life style in Japan and in the UK are totally different, both countries share several interesting points in their cultures, since both are "island countries." In both countries, first of all, official policies and practical solutions (Tatemae and Hon-ne in Japanese) should be appropriately distinguished and implemented. This means people should read between the lines appropriately at all time. Next, polite language is extremely important both in Japan and in the UK. When I was in Japan, I had heard that there is no polite language in English; however, this information was totally wrong at least in regards to the UK. I learned a series of "nice expressions" to express my disagreement in a (relatively) polite way.

On the other hand, one of the things I had never experienced in Japan was the social class. Although the social class in the UK no longer "officially" exists, I could feel the remaining atmosphere of the British social class even in the University life. Particularly, during the official coffee time in our department, people always sat in the invisibly designated areas; the areas for professors, post-docs, students and technicians were invisibly but clearly distinguished.

Although I thought I had improved my skill to use "nicer expressions" to express my opinion, particularly to show my disagreement, I think I could never be an expert in this field. I guess this might partially be attributable to my PhD supervisor, Professor Nagata, who spent a couple of years in Germany in his 30s. As a rational and logical way of talking was highly appreciated in Professor Nagata's lab in the University of Tokyo, all the scientific things had to be explicitly discussed in a strait forward manner there. It was a bit funny for me, but at that time I did not understand that it was a German way of discussion; I realised that after I moved to ETH (Switzerland).

Now I am working for Professor Wilhelm Gruissem, a German professor at ETH. In our laboratory, everything should be discussed in a very strait forward and clear way to avoid any miss-understandings and to promote creative collaborations. I was deeply excited when I realised that this is the research environment in continental Europe — though Switzerland is often called the isolated island of the continent — where lots of people from different parts of the world are cooperating toward a shared goal. I have been encouraged to pursue my own research interests and now I am allowed to try any kind of research attempts. In my current research project, quantitative growth analysis (which is my own specialty) and molecular biology (which is new for me) are nicely combined; I am excited and expect to find something very new to shed a new light on the understanding of leaf development.

I moved from one island to another island, then to the continent. I have chosen the places to go on my research project just by following my research interests; I believe as far as I have something to devote myself to, I could find a way to pursue it. Although it was not my first priority to live abroad, I can now say that I like the European life style very much. Its relaxed way of thinking might have allowed me to look back on my days in Europe in a peaceful and meaningful manner.


2011 Post-doctoral research fellow, Department of Biology, ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich), Switzerland
2007 Post-doctoral research fellow, The Department of Animal and Plant Science, The University of Sheffield, UK
2003 PhD in Science, Department of Biological Sciences, Graduate School of Science, The University of Tokyo
1998 BSc, Department of Biological Sciences, The University of Tokyo