When I was an incoming graduate student I was excited about the prospects of traveling and working abroad during my PhD. Because I had been exposed to many international students and researchers, who often came from interesting and rigorous backgrounds in their home countries, I knew that I wanted to experience the scientific process from the lens of another culture. I was intrigued when I heard about the National Science Foundation East-Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes (NSF-EAPSI), which is a summer program allowing U.S. graduate students to collaborate with researchers in the Asia-Pacific region. The program allows graduate students to choose a host researcher from any approved institution and propose a collaborative project that can be completed in a short summer stay. The host researcher must approve to host the student. The NSF and a funding agency from the host country (for example the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) are both responsible for reviewing the proposals, choosing the winners, and funding the student.
I started the application process by asking my advisor Kevin Mitchell if he knows any potential collaborators in one of the seven countries which are listed in the NSF-EAPSI program. He knew some researchers in Japan, so I started by reading their papers and trying to think of a collaborative project. The project I proposed was to compare two methods of computing chemical reaction rates in classical Hamiltonian molecular models—a method using lobe dynamics (Mitchell, Physica D 2009) which I had been working on for my PhD thesis work, and a method using transition state theory (Komatsuzaki and Berry, Journal of Molecular Structure, 2000) on which my host researcher, Tamiki Komatsuzaki at Hokkaido University, was an expert. The two techniques are both approximations that use a surface-of-section and compute enclosed volumes or areas, and there was no known analysis comparing when each of the two methods work best. The proposal writing and application process was a fruitful experience in itself, and allowed me to begin exploring interesting new projects and collaborating with Tamiki Komatsuzaki and his group member Hiroshi Teramoto at Hokkaido University, and his collaborator Mikito Toda at Nara Women’s University.
Before hearing back from the grant, a collaboration was formed. Prof. Komatszuaki invited me to visit his research group in February 2016. Hokkaido University is located in Sapporo, which is the largest city on the island of Hokkaido, known for its natural beauty, amazing food, and harsh winters. The two-week trip was full of new scientific and cultural experiences. I was greeted at the airport and accompanied by Hiroshi Teramoto on the train trip to my apartment. He and other group members were responsible for showing me around on nights and weekends, taking me to the Yuki Matsuri or snow festival, an excursion to Mt. Moiwa, which is rated as having one of the best views in Japan, and the onsen which are Japanese hot springs. The Japanese are enthusiastic about their amazing festivals, beautiful landscapes, and especially their hot springs. One Japanese researcher told me, “if you don’t go to the onsen, you have not been to Japan!” I was grateful that my hosts made certain that I experienced some of the great things that Sapporo had to offer, and I viewed their enthusiasm and insistence on doing so as a unique form of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality. Nights and weekends were full of new food, drink, views, and experiences, while days were jam-packed with research discussions and projects.
Shortly after the two-week trip in February I heard back that I was approved for the EAPSI program. Although the program was only 10 weeks, Prof. Komatsuzaki was kind enough to extend my stay by one month using his own funding. I spent a large portion of my stay in Japan presenting my research work to others and hearing about their own research work, and I was surprised by the extent to which collaboration was encouraged and even almost enforced. I was sent on research visits several times where presented my research at Nara Women’s University, Tokyo Metropolitan University, Waseda University, and Hitotsubashi University, while also being given the chance to hear about the research happening in all the respective groups I was presenting to. When I was at Hokkaido and I wasn’t traveling, we often had visitors who presented their work and also listened to us present ours whenever there was a common interest. This experience greatly helped me in preparing for my PhD defense. In our research group, the days were often left open and flexible for meetings and discussion, and a good portion of research work was done on nights and evenings. In addition, nights and evenings were spent having work dinners which often entailed entertaining a visitor.
The structure of research groups in Japan is very different from the United States. The lab is headed by a full professor whose job includes accruing and allocating funding, hiring all other group members, approving of all the projects and papers that come out of the lab, and inviting visiting researchers. The associate professor is second-in-command and is responsible for running the lab at a more hands-on level, often doing most of the final review on publications as well as keeping an eye on the progress of all the researchers in the lab. A variable number of assistant professors are responsible for advising students on a day-to-day basis, and are generally responsible for having enough expertise on specific projects to help the graduate students move forward, in addition to having their own projects and writing their own papers. Post-docs, graduate students and undergrads play a similar role as in the United States, only the hierarchical system in Japan provides much more support. As a graduate student, I had several people above me that I could ask for advice. At the same time, however, I was expected to utilize my own curiosity in finding projects that interested me, unlike in the United States where my advisor played a greater role in steering the direction of my research. Although both research cultures often complain about emphasis on funding rather than curiosity, I found that the Japanese were much better at emphasizing curiosity on a day-to-day basis while still being able to maintain funding goals.
The research culture in Japan has sucked me in for another two years (a discussion of the food and social culture that reeled me in warrants of an article on its own). After completing the summer program, I quickly realized that the rate at which I improved as a researcher was much faster in Japan than it had been in the United States. This may be due to many reasons, but I attribute it mostly to the fact that it was something I wasn’t used to. Putting oneself in an unfamiliar situation is one of the best ways to learn and improve oneself. Although my final goal is to remain in the United States for my permanent research career, my current postdoctoral position in Prof. Komatsuzaki’s lab is meant to continue that accelerated rate of growth that I experienced on my first two trips to Japan. I recommend the research experience abroad to all researchers who are looking to immerse themselves in something new.