2016: Yoko Amazaki

Amazaki, Yoko_PhotoMs. Yoko Amazaki
Hometown in Japan: Tokyo
Home University in Japan: Osaka University
Major & School Year: Chemistry, B3
Research Host at Rice: Prof. Jun Lou, Materials Science & Nanoengineering
Research Project Title: Study of mechanical properties of graphene oxide/polyacrylamide hydrogel (PDF)

Why Rice University?
I found this program the great chance to step forward to my aim to be involved in international affairs based on my studies. It will help me recognizing my advantages and disadvantages as well as exchanging my knowledge by talking to the student abroad face to face. I will do my best for research and will make my experience something new to the world in the future.

In this program, one of the goals I have set myself is to become more global. I believe that my most important learning aspect on the program will be the interaction afforded me with people from different backgrounds studying in the same field. It definitely will widen my point of view and will give me the idea of how to enhance relationship with new people from other places.

I am also willing to improve my English skills. I believe that speaking skills mostly improve when we express ideas convincingly as well as sharing and understanding that of others. The program will provide me the perfect environment where I use not only the daily life English but also the conversations and discussions about specific theme.

Lastly, I will learn as much as I can from the lab in Rice University. The research is pretty much different from what I’m going to do in Osaka University. There are not many chance that I could do research on different field, so I’ll make this experience something I can be proud of.

Questions I have About Research or Life in the U.S. – Prior to Departure

  1. The difference of thoughts and facing problems towards the research.
  2. University students’ daily lives
  3. The difference in classes (The way professors talk, what do they focus on etc.)
  4. Job hunting

Excerpts from Yoko’s Weekly Reports

Week 01: Arrival in the U.S.

It was the first time for me to land in Houston, and I could find numerous things that I have never seen and experienced just within my first week. I did not expect that so many cars running on the street and highways in vast Houston land unlike Japan where we have more public transportation.

I found Rice University so different from Osaka University, which I belong to in Japan, mostly because of the buildings. They are very organized and relaxing even though some are very old. The school tour helped me to understand a lot about how Rice University and its history. Another thing I found different was that they are so free to do everything in mixed culture, and professors and student are very close to each other. The biggest surprise was that there was a bar on campus where students and even professors can talk or discuss with some drinks on their hand.

In Rice University I found the system of the graduate schools more free and flexible in both research and campus life. Graduate students here have variety of ages and nationalities so their working hours depends on their life styles. There are no students having two advisors from different labs in Japan.

Prof. Kono’s introduction of research and graduate study was full of information I wanted to know and was very valuable. We do not have so many chances to hear frank opinions about universities abroad in Japan so I didn’t even know that masters and PhD are often connected and the graduate student in the US are economically independent. He clarified and made us understand the advantages of studying in the US and gave us the idea of what we would need to do if we actually apply to the graduate school in the United States.

Brunch with Keiko Kato and some of my fellow TOMODACHI STEM participants. - Yoko Amazaki

Brunch with Keiko Kato and some of my fellow TOMODACHI STEM participants. – Yoko Amazaki

Some Rice students from Nano Japan program who I got to know during the party at Prof. Kono’s home helped us a lot to get used to life in Houston. Houston is a huge city and you cannot go anywhere without cars, but thanks to their help, we could go out to restaurants and malls on weekends. We also got to know about Texas food.

My mentor, a graduate student from China, who was much older than me, gave me so many ideas about research and what it is like as graduate student. Even though it was the first time for me to study this area and even doing my research, her advice improved my knowledge on this new field. She also shared the idea of what it is like to live in the United States and its difference from Asian countries.

Question of the Week?
How many undergraduate student choose to go to graduate schools?

  • This varies over time and there is no set statistic or report that shows directly answers this question for Rice students.  Some students enter Rice as freshman planning to go to graduate school but then change their mind and decide to apply for jobs in industry after graduation. Other students have no desire to go to graduate school at first, but over time change their mind and apply for graduate study right after they graduate from with their bachelor’s degree. Still others may work for a few years after graduation (or even decades) and go back to graduate school later.  Depending on the field there are also many part-time or evening graduate programs so some people work full-time and do graduate study at night. It is much more flexible than in Japan and since students may go to graduate school at any time and at any school throughout the U.S., their undergraduate university may not be able to easily track or get complete/good data on how many of their alumni get a graduate degree.  Oftentimes, individual departments, programs, or schools report on alumni achievements. Click here to read more on graduate study in the U.S.

Research Project Update
I am in Prof. Jun Lou’s research group in department of Material Science and Nanoengineering, and my mentor is called Linlin Cao, PhD graduate student in her fourth year. My professor was so busy that I could not see him until my second week at Rice. It was pretty hard for me to catch up with what my mentor was doing because I have not started my research project in Japan yet, and the topic in this lab was brand new for me. Linlin is so kind that she taught me most of the things she is doing and answers whenever I do not understand. We learned how to use FT-IR, which was also helpful as I have never used it before.

My research project is called “Study of mechanical properties of graphene oxide/polyacrylamide hydrogel”.  In this project, we synthesize hydrogels and analyze their mechanical strength. Hydrogels are crosslinked polymer network with large amount of water, existing in plant and animal tissues usually providing support against mechanical loads from surrounding components. They are also widely used to the applications such as contact lenses, wound dressings and actuators in soft machines, which require hydrogel to maintain its form over time. However, due to the large amount of water, the mechanical strength of hydrogels is usually too low for a lot of applications. To overcome this difficulty, there are some ways to improve mechanical strength of hydrogels such as double-networking, incorporating with inorganic materials, and crosslinking. Here, we use nanomaterials to improve the mechanical properties of hydrogel. During the first week in the lab, I assisted my mentor on synthesizing hydrogel made from polyacrylamide crosslinked with graphene oxide, conducting mechanical test and calculating mechanical energy. Fracture energy is the energy needed to advance initial notch by a unit area at the deformed state and is dependent from natural defects in hydrogels.

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Week 02: Critical Incident Analysis

It was not the first time for me to spend long period of time with people from other cultures, so these two weeks were something that resembles my days in Europe, where I faced difficulties with people from many cultures. This incident includes not only the food, the environment but also the difference in the way people think and express themselves, how they behave and how they accept other people.

Our trip to NASA! - Yoko Amazaki

Our trip to NASA! – Yoko Amazaki

Most impressive difference between Japanese and foreign student is the amount of opinions they speak out loud, and it appears notably when we have discussions. The best place I could experience the cross-cultural communication in this program was in the weekly English class. We have many people from different cultures and countries, for instance Turkey, China, and Brazil, of all ages between 20 and 30. The class has a discussion style on the topics from newspapers including political criticizes, women’s standard, and relationships. Because of its diversity, we share and listen to so much information about our respective mother countries in our own ways and that represents unique colors of each cultures. When we talked about women’s standard and future, women from Turkish talked about the detailed history of how they tolerated the caste system while girls from India and China shared us how it is like to have babies in the countries with world’s biggest populations. It is valuable to hear frank opinions from the people actually concerned to the problems.

In addition, the is a great diversity in the ages among the students. There were many students in graduate school were around thirty years old and some of them even had their children. Japanese graduate students are very young compared to here in the US because it is normal for them to attend graduate school as soon as possible. One of the reasons for this is because we are not economically independent in both our master’s and doctorate degrees. There is also a presumption in Japan that the doctorate course only exist for those going to academia, so people tend to quit their research after master course.

Question of the Week
What do people in Texas think about garbage?

Research Project Update
I researched and read articles related to my mentor’s research project for most of the time this week. This task is to help me understand and write a summary about the research project. I also assisted my mentor on synthesizing hydrogel with different conditions on crosslinkers and measured its mechanical properties.

One of the papers which I read discussed strengthening hydrogels using some kinds of crosslinkers, which title is “Multi-scale multi-mechanism design of tough hydrogels: building dissipation into stretchy networks.” It reviewed the intrinsic mechanisms of a wide variety of tough hydrogels including different kinds of polymers and crosslinkers, and the way to dissipate energy and maintain elasticity for designing tough hydrogels. They also discussed on fracture energy that is more adequate parameter to characterize fracture toughness of hydrogel than other traditional parameter due to its independency from natural defects and capability of its equations. It concluded that combining two sets of the mechanisms for dissipating mechanical energies such as fracture of polymer chains, reversible crosslinking of polymer chains, and maintaining high elasticity can guide the design of tough hydrogels in next generation.

I also assisted my mentor with synthesizing hydrogel, checking its composition, and measuring the mechanical energy. In the synthesis (it was the last sample she was going to make in her research), we used N,N’-Methylene-bis-acrylamide (BIS; chemical crosslinker) and graphene oxide (GO; physical crosslinker), the ratio of which was 8 to 10 and 5 to 10. The less it contains the BIS, the easier it tears apart. After calculating the fracture energy, we checked its composition by FT-IR.

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Week 03: Research in the U.S. vs. Research in Japan

No Report Submitted

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Week 04: Final Week at Rice University

The time passes so quickly that it is already the essay about final week at Rice University. What I will miss the most at the lab is my mentor, Linlin. She had never lived abroad before she came to Rice as a PhD student, so she shared what it is like to be in the US as a graduate school. She also shared me her thoughts towards women’s careers as a science person and that was also helpful.

The collaborations between people as well as departments have changed my view towards universities a lot. In the US, I met a PhD student who has two supervisors from different labs. Also, there was a professor who takes part in both science and engineering departments while in Japan, the buildings of each departments are even located in different campus. I found the US style more effective and productive to discover new things and theory than that in Japan.

Throughout the program changed my view towards the US graduate school and the importance of having PhD degree. I learned that PhD creates more possibilities on our careers as science and engineering students, compared to Japan where we tend to regard people with doctorate degrees as too specialized to specific areas, in other word, are inflexible to hire as researchers.

English class was one the most interesting experience during the stay in Rice. The class had a diverse group of people with different age such as 35 year-old Turkish woman and 19 year-old Brazilian girl. The class went on with reading and discussing on papers from New York Times. Each of the students had different points of view to each article, and as all of the students spoke so much about it, I had no choice but do my best to catch up with what they were saying. It was challenging, but a good opportunity to see the students actually in class.

The one-on-one research presentation practice also helped me. I could never understand how hard, and how important it is to make people from different areas understand the unique terms and complex phenomena in a short period of time. Making every people used to updated science technology is very important for improving the world although there exists many difficulties in terms of words and ways of speaking. As a science student I need to think about it more to contribute to the world.

As a whole, the time in the Rice University became a precious experience in choosing my close career as graduate student. I cannot thank you enough to those wonderful people who organized this program and helped me.

Potatoes as big as my hand at the Kroger grocery store. - Yoko Amazaki

Potatoes as big as my hand at the Kroger grocery store. – Yoko Amazaki

Question of the Week
What is the percentage of vegetarian, vegan, and fruitarian people in the US?

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Final Research Project Presentation

On Friday, March 18 all TOMODACHI STEM students gave a research project presentation at Rice University. To see a PDF of the student’s presentation click on the project title below.

Research Host at Rice:
Prof. Jun Lou, Materials Science & Nanoengineering

Research Project Title
Study of mechanical properties of graphene oxide/polyacrylamide hydrogel (PDF)

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Week 05: Science & Technology Policy Study Tour in Washington, DC

This week was for learning international science and engineering policy in Washington D.C. We visited different universities including Howard University and George Washington University, and places such as Smithsonian museums and the White House. We also had a joint program with TOMODACHI Initiative Women’s leadership Program.

The most helpful events was visiting Howard University and learning about the differences between universities in the U.S.. Howard University mainly had black students because of its history of education for African-American people after the Civil War. This university was very different from Rice University in many respects. There was not only undergraduate and graduate students but also kindergarten and middle schools in Howard University because they believe the importance in early education. They are putting effort in medical studies for disease such as AIDS and HIV for people who are unable to afford expensive medical treatments.

The most enjoyable event was visiting White House. I loved the exhibition of the old photos of former presidents and their families as well as their beautiful belongings such as tableware and furniture.

At the joint session with women’s leadership program, I was interested in the talks of women who has their own career as scientists. There was a Chinese-American woman in the discussion who I was most interested in. She received three different PhDs from science and medical fields, and now works for the government. What made it most interesting was that she has a similar background to us of given her birth in China from her Chinese parents although she works as an American now for the American government. I’m thinking of getting a job in a foreign country so she was the one who could probably answer my questions. Other talks including TPP negotiations and Japanese women working in the US were very new for me and I thought that was good to listen to as well.

In my free time in Washington D.C., I went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and hung out in Georgetown. The museum had all the stuffed animals and creatures that I had never seen before so I enjoyed exploring around there a lot. My most favorite exhibition was the preservation of coelacanth in formalin. I knew the existence of this fish for a long time but I never seen the real one, so it was very impressive. Walking around Georgetown with students from our program was another fun event to get closer to each other even more.

Now I really miss all the people I met, and I can never thank you enough to those who helped me thorough the program. I appreciate to all the encounters and will never forget this precious experience.

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Final Report

I have learned so much about the graduate schools in the United States, and the lives of the students during the TOMODACHI STEM program.

My family are mostly concerned about me finding the concrete career as soon as possible. Important point that I would share with them is the reliability and importance of getting a PhD in the US, and that I can be independent economically. Getting a PhD degree from famous schools such as Rice University could be attractive for companies as they would better understand your skills and would be able to create better career wherever you want around the world. So studying graduate school in the US can create more possibilities in my life and this would be what I would say to my family when talking about the program.

When talking to friends, I also would say about how worthy it is to acquire PhD degree as it is time for us junior and senior students to think more about our futures. Japanese students tend to follow the created path of going the master course because they think it is the “normal” and “safest” plan for easy life. This also means that they are giving up thinking and creating their own possible futures.

When speaking to professors in Japan, I would talk about the collaboration in the US between professors and even the departments. It was the first time for me to see any students who have two supervisors from different laboratories. Moreover, it is common for some professors to take part in two departments when appropriate. Breaking the walls between labs and departments and having more collaboration can bring us more chances to make better ideas and findings, and this is something that science and engineering departments in Japan should incorporate.

And finally, to employers, I would insist on the presentation skills of the American students. I definitely felt that they are focused more on how to make presentations interesting. One example is “90 second thesis competition”, where graduate students from many majors briefly explain their professional research to an audience who is completely new to the field. I was impressed from watching the talks. I also realized the importance of making people understand what your research really is, especially for science students for connecting ideas.

Through this program, I could reaffirm the value of studying in the US as a graduate student and it leads me to think seriously about applying. I plan to study in Japan for master’s degree, but I really have positive posture to look for interesting labs in the universities in the US too.

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