2018 Hiroko Nagafuchi

Hiroko Nagafuchi
Hometown in Japan: Tokyo
University in Japan: Waseda University
Major & School Year: Biochemistry, B3
Host Advisor: Prof. Jeffrey Hartgerink, Dept. of Chemistry
Host Lab: Hartgerink Research Group
Research Poster (PDF): “Characterization and Histological Investigation of a Biofunctionalized Multidomain Peptide”

Why TOMODACHI STEM @ Rice University?

The opportunities that TOMODACHI STEM provides are invaluable to me as a female STEM student. One important reason is that it is an indispensable chance to gain cutting-edge research experience in America, who is at the forefront of chemical biology research, my field of interest. Rice University carries a high number of ambitious students and researchers who make top echelon scientific advances, and the horizontal and vertical connections are robust due to the low student-faculty ratio. These, along with the diversity unique to the U.S., create a vibrant community where scientists can conduct interdisciplinary research. This is critical to scientific advances and attractive for a young student seeking for discussions and advice. Through the research experience at Rice University, I hope to acquire the fundamental skills and acumen necessary to pursue a Ph.D. and a global career in scientific research.

I also look forward to actively interacting with students and faculties and joining activities to explore a university in U.S. Through this, I can obtain a detailed insight into the lives of graduate STEM students in the U.S. and connect with young researchers with similar interests. The program also supports numerous company and organization visits, which is extremely important to Japanese female students in science and engineering. The reason is that they allow the investigation of work environments for women in science in the U.S., where there are much fewer gender disparities compared to Japan. I hope to deepen my understanding of issues that women in science face, which I want to employ in making positive changes for female scientists in Japan.

Goals

  • Solidify my English abilities to communicate effectively and professionally in academic settings.
  • Communicate and interact with as many people as possible.
  • Be curious and enjoy the research experience.

Excerpts from Hiroko’s Weekly Reports

Week 01: Arrival in the U.S.

Houston Mural Tour: A mural seen at the Houston Graffiti Building. ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

When I first arrived in Houston, I could not wait to see the city and Rice University, and to get hands-on experience with research. Houston is an enormous city and on our second day, we were able to see some of its vibrant street art scene. Rice University has a rather small campus and student population; however, coming from Japan, I thought the campus was huge especially for the number of students it carries. I was intrigued by the residential college system which we do not have in Japan. It seemed to create tight-knit communities around the campus, and opportunities to connect with people with diverse backgrounds as students are randomly assigned to colleges. The atmosphere in my host lab was also very different from what I had seen in Japan. In my host lab, practicality is valued; thus, everybody comes to and leaves the lab at times that are most convenient for them.  The relationships among the lab members as well as each lab member and the professor are very horizontal. I felt that regardless of experience or age, the opinions and work of every lab member is respected by everybody else in the lab.

Pappasitos Cantina: We enjoyed tacos, calamari, and fajitas. ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

During the first week, I realized that I enjoy the light and casual conversations that are very common in the States. However, I have always found it challenging to participate in discussions and articulate my opinions, which are also important factors of the American culture and these types of conversations occur frequently in laboratories. While in the U.S., I hope to take advantage of the equal and horizontal relationships between people and the numerous discussions happening every day. One of my goals for this program is to develop more confidence in my opinions and to become more used to expressing my thoughts. I also learned through the “Intercultural Communication in the U.S.” seminar that I have low self-awareness, which was something I never thought about or realized about myself. To compensate, I learned that I can take self-assessment surveys and self-reflect more often which would help me understand my strengths and weaknesses as well as behavioral styles.

We also had a seminar on “Designing and Developing a Research Poster” by Dr. Gayle Moran this week. This seminar was helpful because there were multiple examples of good and bad research posters. I am enthusiastic about making a poster, but am rather nervous about the presentation.  One reason is that the audience would be a diverse group of people and each audience member’s background knowledge about the research can drastically alter the presentation. I look forward to the second seminar by Dr. Moran to learn more about presentations and practice.

Columbia: The Apollo 11 Command Module “Columbia” at Space Center Houston. ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

On Saturday, I attended a concert by the Shepherd School Symphony Orchestra. They played beautifully and I enjoyed being amongst the supportive and enthusiastic audience as well. I am thrilled by the amount of artistic and cultural experiences available at Rice and in Houston, and hope to explore more of them in the next three weeks. Other activities I did over the weekend were eating at a Tex-Mex restaurant, roller-skating in Discovery Green, and visiting Space Center Houston. It was surreal to actually see many of the spacecraft that I had seen in history classes. So far, I am enjoying the friendly and vibrant atmosphere in Houston, and am thrilled to have even more fun both in and out of the lab.

Initial Reflections on U.S. vs. Japanese Culture
One U.S. core value that has stood out to me this week is “taking charge/control”. The graduate students in my lab often disagree with the principal investigator (P.I.) and can freely articulate and discuss their opinions. Although not as common, I could see some Japanese graduate students doing this as well. However, what surprised me was that sometimes the graduate students would conduct an experiment that the professor did not approve of just because they think it might generate interesting or important results. They said that if these experiments work, they would show the results to their professor because he/she might change their mind. However, if the experiments do not work, they would simply pretend that they never conducted these experiments. I was surprised, because in Japan this would most likely be considered disrespectful to the professor. Even if a good result was obtained it would take a lot of courage to bring it up to the P.I. because the student would have disobeyed the P.I.’s instructions. This has made me realize that practicality is more important in America than it is in Japan. By being surprised, I noticed that I carry some of the Japanese core value of “Kata” in me, even though I am not as strong a follower of “Kata” compared to other Japanese people. It also shows that even though there are professor-student relationships in both America and Japan, they are more equal and horizontal in American society.

Another Japanese characteristic of mine is that I strongly dislike saying “no” or “I disagree”. I encounter this discomfort quite often in the U.S. as many Americans like discussions and are not hesitant to disagree with others. I have experienced this after arriving in Houston when two graduate students in the lab and I were talking. One of the students had gone to a seminar and was very impressed. He thought that the methodology explained in the seminar could potentially be used in future experiments of his own. However, the other student was not too optimistic; she disagreed that the technology would be useful to their lab in the future, and they had a discussion. I did not know enough about the first student’s research to truly understand the conversation, but if I did and had the first student asked me how I thought about the technology, I probably would have agreed to him. I believe that the Japanese core value of “Wa” is in play here. In general, I tend to show that I agree with people even if I do not actually agree in order to avoid the clashing of opinions. However, this can be seen as insincere in American culture and I should be more open to frank/direct discussions and expressing my opinions.

Question of the Week
The undergraduates at Rice seemed to have numerous opportunities to join campus activities, meet new people, and be surrounded by people with various backgrounds, but what about graduate students? Are there any events and activities for graduate students to get to know each other?

  • Yes, there is the Graduate Student Association at Rice, International Graduate Student Cultural Night, Intramural Sports, and many clubs and activities are also open to graduate students. One is the Wiki Women at Rice which is a graduate club for women in science and engineering.  The GSA also put together a team for Beer Bike where graduate students compete against undergraduate students. Graduate students tend to spend more time in the lab and often the friends they hang out with outside of the lab may be their labmates or classmates. They often have less time for clubs and student organizations/activities than students do in undergraduate life, but if there are things they are passionate about and want to pursue/participate in they do have opportunities they can take advantage of.

Preparing for Research in the U.S.
Before coming to Houston, I contacted my host professor who sent me three papers and introduced me to my mentor. The papers were difficult to fully understand, but I read through them a few times each to understand as much as I could. I also read a book about laboratory techniques and experiments surrounding proteins from my school in Japan. Something I did not do that could have helped to deepen my understanding was to summarize what I read, focusing on key questions rather than trying to understand every single detail. I was lucky, however, because on my first day Prof. Hartgerink gave me a thorough explanation about the research projects in his lab.

For my project, I will synthesize a Multi-Domain Peptide (MDP) with biomimetic sequences and investigate whether it would show bioactive responses when subcutaneously injected in mice. My amazing mentor, Doug, showed me around the lab and introduced me to the other lab members on my first day as well. Because I am new to research and am not used to scientific terminology especially in English, I had to ask a lot of questions, some of which I had to ask a couple times. However, Doug was very patient with me and kindly answered all of my questions. He also suggested that I talk individually to all the graduate students so that I get to know them and their research. This has helped tremendously in not only understanding everybody’s research projects, but also in getting to know why they became interested in their current projects and in interdisciplinary research. Talking to graduate students has definitely helped me make my future goals more concrete.

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Week 02: First Week at Research Host Lab

A view of the Medical Center from the Rice University Stadium parking lot. ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

I am at the lab from around 8-9 am to 4-5 pm each day. This week I learnt to take a few different spectra on my hydrogel samples. I start these first thing in the morning which gives me time to conduct other experiments while the instruments are running. For example, I have stained mice tissue section samples while waiting for the spectra. I have also started to synthesize a peptide consisting of 25 amino acids through solid phase peptide synthesis. At lunch, there are often classes or lunches to attend, for example the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS) English Conversation class. I am at the Bioscience Research Center (BRC) which is located at the end of Rice University campus, so it takes me a little over 1.5 hours to go to, attend, and come back from events during lunch. It is, however, a good exercise and refresher to walk to these events especially with the recent sunny and warm weather in Houston.

Using English in the laboratory is unique because there are many scientific terms being thrown around which required some time to get used to. I can communicate well enough to conduct my experiments, but I should keep reading papers and textbooks to be even more comfortable with the English used in the lab. As for speaking skills, one of my goals is to expand my vocabulary. Reading and listening to English is always easier than speaking and writing for me because I must first input information into my brain whether it be English skills and vocabulary or scientific knowledge, and then be able to output them in my own words. At Rice, I speak more English than I do Japanese which definitely contributes to strengthening my speaking abilities; but, I also realized that I should learn more vocabulary to express my thoughts more precisely.

Last week, I learned that I have low self-awareness in the “Intercultural Communication in the U.S.” seminar. After reflection, I realized that this may partly be due to my living in the U.S. through high school. It took some time to adjust to life in the U.S., which was expected. I was surprised, however, to find how uncomfortable and difficult it was to adjust back to life in Japan when I moved back to for university. I still struggle in both cultures to communicate, albeit less so today, which I now realize is partly because my interpersonal style and core values are based on mixtures of both the U.S. and Japan.

Cows at the Houston Rodeo ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

Outside of research, I attended a Zumba class at the Recreation and Wellness Center, a dinner with the Society of Women Engineers, and a seminar by Prof. George Hirasaki in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. I also went to the Houston Rodeo, a farmers market, and the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The experience that Prof. Hirasaki and his parents and grandparents had as Japanese immigrants to the U.S. was quite different from the experiences that I had known about of Japanese Americans. I was amazed to see the strong connections he had with Japanese history even though his family had been living in Texas for more than three generations.

Research Project Update
My project is to characterize a Multi-Domain Peptide (MDP) with biomimetic sequences and investigate whether it would show bioactive responses when subcutaneously injected in mice. I will also synthesize a peptide that could be used for future work.

MDPs are a nanofibrous material that self-assemble through non-covalent, intermolecular interactions. Most MDPs created at the Hartgerink lab have charged termini, a hydrophobic layer and a hydrophilic layer. Through hydrogen bonding, MDPs link to create nanofibers, which then form a hydrogel after cross-linking.

This week, I have been working mostly on characterization, in addition to some histology and synthesis. For characterization of hydrogel samples, I used circular dichroism (CD) and infrared spectroscopy (IR), and rheology. The spectra obtained from the first two will confirm that the synthesized MDPs have the beta sheet secondary structure. In general, the rheometer is used to measure physical properties such as torque, strain, and viscosity. Rheology allows me to see that my hydrogel samples liquefy when shearing force is added. Next week, I will focus more on histology. I will use Haemotoxylin and Eosin (H&E) staining and Masson’s trichrome staining, as well as immunostaining on the mice tissue samples. I will also continue to synthesize my peptide. In addition, I will start graphing my CD, IR, and rheology graphs.

Question of the Week
Why central air conditioning and why so cold??????????

  • Yes…. This is a very common question that all Japanese students have each and every year. I wish there were a better answer but it just is the way it is in the U.S.  Indoor air conditioning is almost always set at a freezing temperature. Conversely, U.S. students who travel to Japan in the summer for research always complain that the indoor air conditioning is too hot/not set cold enough and they are sweating just sitting at their office computer.  For more on this, see the section on Air Conditioning – It’s Always Freezing Indoors in the U.S. under our Weather in the U.S. section on the Life in the U.S. Resources page.
  • Keep in mind too that most of the year in Houston it is very hot and humid.  January – March is typically the nicest part of the year. So, while the indoor A/C may seem excessive to you right now, for most of the year and in particular June – September the temperature outdoors is much, much hotter.

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Week 03: Interview With a Female Researchers

Hiroko and her mentor Nicole at the Final Poster Session.

Nicole is a graduate student in the Hartgerink Lab. She is not only one of my mentors, but also a bright and passionate scientist (her paper just got published‼) and I was very interested to know more about her background and future goals.

 

 

 

The research at Hartgerink lab is based on chemistry but very interdisciplinary. So, my first question was, “were your undergraduate studies related to the research that you are pursuing now?”
As an undergraduate student, Nicole initially was a premed. However, life as a premed student was very competitive and stressful. She often witnessed cheating, and by her second year, was not happy with the people around her. She then decided to pursue a chemistry degree because she liked the faculty and teaching assistants, while also keeping her biology major because many of the classes overlapped with the chemistry requirements. Around the same time, she decided to go to graduate school over medical school and one of the reasons was that graduate students get paid, which is one of the largest differences between Japanese and American graduate schools. I understood that she had a strong background in chemistry, biology and medical science that prepared her for her graduate studies, and that it is very much related to her research today.

Why Rice?
When considering graduate schools, she was still interested in biomedical sciences. Out of the schools that she got accepted to with her fiancé, she decided on Rice because the Texas Medical Center (TMC) is right next to it. Today, she is a student of the chemistry department, but conducts experiments using mice and collaborates with scientists at the TMC for her research.

What is your intended career path in the future?
She hopes to work for a hospital doing research.

Do you have any international experiences? How is working with international students and researchers?
Although Nicole does not have study/research abroad experiences, many of her collaborators are international students. For example, there are a couple international students in the Hargerink Lab. She has also mentored a few undergraduate students including a Japanese student from the Nakatani RIES program. Working with international students and undergraduates has helped her to become more aware about how she is explaining her research to others. Outside of research, she often travels to Mexico and understands Spanish.

What is it like being a woman in STEM?
The environment surrounding women in STEM in the U.S. has gotten much better. At Rice University, the female to male ratio is close to even, and there are many female professors and mentors. She did not see as many female professors at her undergraduate school especially in the chemistry department, and had only two female science teachers in high school. However, the U.S. is becoming increasingly focused on providing more opportunities and funding to minorities and women. She has not felt deterred from pursuing science for being a woman.

She also likes that there are more programs today for kids to visit labs so that they get more exposure to the STEM field early on. For example, Sarah, one of the members of the Hartgerink group, runs a Scouts for Science program, and invites children to give a tour of the lab. Her advice for young female scientists is to get out there, take action, and find out what you want to do.

Reflections on Interview

Visiting the Houston Museum of Natural Science ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

I was surprised to know that even Nicole, a strong, very intelligent, and passionate student struggled to find what she wanted to do as an undergrad. She did well in multiple areas, and I thought that the interdisciplinary and collaborative environment at Rice University complements her strengths. Even though I knew that interdisciplinary and horizontal collaborations among researchers are more common in the United States than in Japan, it was still interesting to find out how interdisciplinary research is conducted. It is also very different from Japan that a student can pursue both a chemistry and biology degree, and then join a research group in a chemistry department and conduct experiments on animals.

While talking to Nicole, I also realized that many people I have met at Rice University are multilingual or have some understanding in languages other than English. I thought that this diversity was unique to the U.S. I was also intrigued by the “Scouts for Science” program. I believe there are multiple programs similar to that in Japan, but I do not think there are many of such programs led by students. I would like to know more about programs like “Scouts for Science”, and possibly start one when I go back to my home university.

Other Activities at Rice This Week

Lunch with Dean Matsuda ~ 2018 TOMODACHI STEM

This week was spring break for Rice University, and campus was very quiet. However, we had a couple seminars lunch with Prof. Seiichi Matsuda, the Dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. Prof. Matsuda’s story was very inspiring. During the first two years of his undergraduate studies, he wanted to pursue vocal music. He soon realized how competitive it is to pursue music, and switched his major to chemistry from his junior year. After graduation, he worked as a laboratory technician, which did not satisfy his curiosity towards science. So, he went to Harvard University because he lived in Boston, and went to see chemistry professors one by one. One of the professors agreed to have him in his laboratory, and after working there for a while, he went to graduate school. Not only did I relate to his story as I wished to pursue music a few years back, but also, I was inspired by his courage and passion to directly go talk to professors. Even though he did not start out as a science student in undergrad, he is now a professor in research at the interface of chemistry and biology, and is a dean for all graduate students at Rice, which is incredible.

Research Project Update

Ninhydrin test for solid phase peptide synthesis. Ninhydrin reacts with primary amines to produce a purple/blue color. Can you see the peptides? ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

This week, I have characterized my hydrogel samples using circular dichroism, infrared spectroscopy, and rheology. The first two proved that my hydrogels, consisting of multidomain peptides, have a beta-sheet secondary structure. Rheology showed that when shearing force is added to the hydrogels, they liquefy. I obtained graphs that show these hydrogel characteristics, which also have trends according to the percentage of a biomimetic peptide called E2 mimic. I have also stained dorsal tissue samples of mice with E2 mimic hydrogel implants. They showed no biological responses that we hoped to see, but that was somewhat expected. I have been synthesizing a peptide that also includes the same MDP sequences and biomimetic sequence. However, I have added a longer spacer between those two. This may help the mimetic sequence to promote the biological responses that we hope to see. I have been manually synthesizing this peptide and made a mistake during the process. I may or may not have been able to successfully synthesize one of the amino acids. However, I was lucky because the amino acid was a part of a spacer in the peptide sequence. I will conduct a mass spectroscopy on the peptide my final week to see if I was able to synthesize the intended peptide. Stay tuned to find out if Hiroko was able to synthesize her peptide 🙂

Question of the Week
I wanted to go listen to live jazz, which I was able to do this weekend. However, I was surprised to find out that there were very few places that offered live jazz music, even though Houston is such a big city. This got me curious, what kind of music is popular here?

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Week 04: Research in the U.S. vs. Research in Japan

At the BRC with my fellow TOMODACHI STEM participants ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

In my lab at Rice University, students have mutual respect for each other. They respect the P.I. and the P.I. respects the students’ opinions as well. When people disagree, they have discussions which are mostly seen among students. When a student disagrees with the P.I., they often first talk to other students in the lab to expand their perspective. The professor in my lab was easy-going and it seemed like the students were comfortable talking to him as well when they have problems. I think that efficiency is valued in the U.S. in terms of academic research. Students’ are free to go as long as they can make good progress. One of the most important jobs of professors is to obtain grants, so it makes sense that they value efficiency and that the way a lab is run is dependent on making enough progress to write solid papers and obtain substantial funding. Efficiency is also a core value of American culture. Although Japanese research groups must obtain their funds partially through grants, the culture in labs are very different. At my home university, most labs have “core times” which tells students what time to come and leave the lab. “Core time” exists for a few reasons, but it can be inefficient sometimes. Long hours are often viewed as hard work and has a positive connotation.

With my research group at the final poster session ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

This week, we also had our final poster presentation. The poster presentation was an hour and a half long, but felt like 30 minutes. There were a couple important lessons I learned about presenting using posters. One is that visuals are important. My mentors and I were discussing that as much as people say “don’t judge a book by its cover”, how a poster looks matters quite a bit. It is the first thing that the audience sees, and it is good to have “pretty” pictures, graphs, or colors that catches their eyes. There mustn’t be too many or too little words, pictures, and graphs. It was interesting to see many of our posters ended up looking similar with blue color schemes even though we did not have templates. Another is that one must show their enthusiasm. Showing enthusiasm is important because it engages and attracts the audience. Even though most people are excited about their research, it takes practice for some, including myself, to show their passion to other people.

Some Texas Bluebonnets, the Texas state flower, in bloom at Rice campus ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

I saw that towards the end of the week, Rice campus was very lively because it was before Beer Bike. However, this week mainly consisted of finishing up my research project and creating the poster. I did go to the Japanese language table for the second time. I was yet again impressed by the Japanese language abilities that the Rice University undergraduate students had. We also visited Dow Chemical the day after our poster presentation.

I will miss the beautiful campus and kind people at Rice. The weather was very nice while we were there and I already miss it as I am writing this report in Philadelphia.

Question of the Week
How are students trained to write laboratory reports in the U.S.?

  • Often, this is a part of the required classroom-based labs that are attached to certain key courses in each major.  However, how to keep a good lab journal or write a good lab report is often something that isn’t given a lot of attention to by professors and graduate students. Since they have been doing this for so long, it is second nature to them and, sometimes, they forget that undergraduate students who are new to research may not know what a lab journal or lab report is.
  • Also, different labs have different expectations for what a lab journal or lab report should look like and how it should be kept (paper vs. online).  For example, if you are doing computational research, you’ll likely have an online or shared electronic document that you use rather than a traditional paper notebook. So, it depends on your lab and what your PI/professor’s preference is.
  • We include some information on keeping a good lab journal (which is the first step to writing a good lab report) on our ‘Doing Research’ page.

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Final Research Poster Presentation

Host Advisor: Prof. Jeffrey Hartgerink, Dept. of Chemistry
Host Lab: Hartgerink Research Group
Research Poster (PDF): “Characterization and Histological Investigation of a Biofunctionalized Multidomain Peptide”

Hiroko Nagafuchi and Prof. Jeffrey Hartgerink

My research project title was “Characterization and Histological Investigation of a Biofunctionalized Multidomain Peptide”. My host professor was Prof. Jeffrey Hartgerink, and my mentors were Nicole and Doug from the Hartgerink Lab. The goal was to characterize and investigate biological responses of a hydrogel made of biofunctionalized multidomain peptides. Multidomain peptides are β-sheet peptides with charged ends and a hydrophobic and hydrophilic side which self-assemble to form nanofibers. Nanofibers entangle and form hydrogels which have various biological responses, such as cellular infiltration, when injected into the dorsal skin of mice. These hydrogels can have numerous biomedical applications, for example, assistance in wound healing. By adding a biomimetic amino acid sequence to a multidomain peptide, we hoped to see an increase in the biological responses to the hydrogel.

I used five samples with different percentages (0, 1, 10, 50, 100 %) of the mimetic peptide in the hydrogel. To characterize the hydrogel, I used circular dichroism spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy, and rheology. To conduct histology on the dorsal tissue of mice injected with the hydrogel, I used hematoxylin and eosin staining. The hydrogels showed stronger beta-sheet structure when the percentage of the mimetic peptide was low. They also showed strong recovery after shearing force was added to liquefy. We found that adding different amounts of the mimetic sequence only created slight differences between the samples. However, I must do quantitative investigation to make conclusions. As for future work, I synthesized a peptide that creates more space for the mimetic sequence to move around. We hope that this will allow more cells to bind to the mimetic sequence, and to increase cellular infiltration.

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Week 05: Science & Technology Policy Study Tour

This week, we visited Philadelphia, PA, Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, and Howard University in Washington DC. We were also able to visit various organizations, such as the U.S. Japan Council, JAXA DC, the Department of Energy Office of Nuclear Energy (DOE), and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

Street in Washington DC with full moon ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

One of the activities that I enjoyed was the Clifton StrengthsFinder Assessment that we took at Lehigh University. The assessment provides information on one’s top five strengths. The five combinations are different for each individual; the chance of getting the exact same combination as someone else is one in 33.4 million. It was interesting to not only find out my own strengths, but to also hear about other people’s. Some had strengths in strategic thinking, and others in building harmonious relationships or leadership. This test would be interesting to take with different groups of people, such as a lab group. It would helpful to see each member’s strengths, how best to work with one another, and to be an effective, successful team.

The discussion we had with a physics graduate student, Pheona, at Howard University was insightful. She talked about conducting collaborative research, working under an associate professor, and life as a graduate student. I found out that there are a few differences between working for an associate professor and a tenured professor. For the former, his/her success is the students’ success and vice versa. Thus, the professor is heavily invested in his/her students’ success. For example, Pheona said that her professor helps her find funding and research opportunities for her.

The visit to DOE Office of Nuclear Energy was exciting as well. I was surprised to see how much they care about STEM education and outreach. They work with universities to provide fellowships for students in STEM, especially nuclear energy. Many opportunities are offered for undergraduates to work in their national laboratory. They are also concerned about educating young students in elementary and middle school. It was encouraging to see multiple women in leadership positions and to see leaders with strong scientific backgrounds. I hope to work in an environment like that, where there are as many female leaders and workers as there are men, and science and STEM outreach are valued. Diversity brings excellent and unique ideas, and I was able to experience such diversity during my stay in the U.S. I want to remember the overall environment that I experienced and hope to find graduate school labs and jobs that have such atmospheres.

Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

Through this program, I learned how to “sell myself” which is a topic that Japanese schools rarely cover. It was uncomfortable to talk about what I am good at and what my strengths are, and I believe most of the participants felt the same way. However, it is important to know what skills and strengths I have and how I can use them. Japan is very different from the U.S. In Japan, I do not need to be extroverted or stand up for myself as much as I need to in the U.S because it is a mostly mono-ethnic country where most people have similar thoughts, behaviors, and culture. During the last week of the program, everyone developed and used an “elevator pitch”. It is a short, concise way of “selling oneself”, and is extremely useful. I would like to continue practicing in both English and Japanese.

Washington Monument and cherry blossoms ~ Hiroko Nagafuchi

We also had some free time to explore on our own too. The Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia was vibrant and exciting. We saw many kinds of food, and we ate cheese steaks. We also visited “The Goose” in Lehigh Valley and ate cheese steaks again. In DC, I visited the National Mall and a few Smithsonian museums such as the American History Museum, the Natural History Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum, and the National Air and Space Musuem.

Question of the Week
How are students trained to give presentations throughout the grade school system in America? Why are presentations valued so much especially compared to Japan?

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Final Report

The TOMODACHI STEM program was an incredible self-development opportunity as an aspiring researcher, student, roommate, and a person.

The four weeks spent at Rice University was essentially my first research experience, and naturally, there were numerous “firsts”, such as planning experiments, analyzing data known to no one but me and my mentor, and creating a poster. I gained specific skills and I must say, being able to write down “solid phase peptide synthesis, circular dichroism…” under the “skills” section in my resume is pretty satisfying. The final poster presentation was also a “first” for me. In terms of academics, the most important thing I learned about overall was interdisciplinary research. I am a chemistry student at my home university and my host lab belongs to the chemistry department, but a large portion of the research that we conducted required knowledge and experiments in biology in addition to chemistry. We even made a couple trips to the Texas Medical Center (TMC), which is a rare opportunity for a chemistry student. To experience first-hand the potential that collaboration and cross-disciplinary research have was incredible. It proved to me that I can contribute to society through medical approaches in the future utilizing my knowledge in chemistry. This dynamic collaboration and interdisciplinary research was not only new to me, but also rare to find in Japan. Although it can be difficult to conduct inter-disciplinary research because it often requires certain equipment and collaborators in proximity, I believe that Rice University, especially the BRC had one of the most optimal environments for it. This experience as a whole galvanized me to study multiple academic fields and to always try to think outside of the box.

Conducting research required so much more than experiments and reading papers. Combined with the seminars and activities that we participated in, the program helped me to become more outgoing, eager to learn, and aware of “differences” in various ways. We were able to ask questions to professors, graduate and undergraduate students, employees at a large company, a Japanese immigrant professor, experts in communication, those contributing to U.S.-Japan relations and collaboration, and Houston locals such as our shuttle drivers… the list goes on and on. It was nice to have several intelligent friends with me at most times who asked interesting questions that I wouldn’t have come up with myself. Each person that I talked to was so unique and “different” from me in multiple aspects: culture, work and life styles, field of expertise, academic and personal background, etc. Learning of such “differences” is not just eye-opening – it plays such a significant, vital role in the discovery of one’s passion and life and career goals; especially for an undergraduate student like myself. After spending five weeks in the U.S., my area of academic interest has become more focused, I learned that there are a variety of career paths for STEM students, and I started to think about where I stand in society as a Japanese and a female STEM student. This is one important reason I recommend students to participate in the TOMODACHI STEM program.

After immersing myself in American culture for five weeks and being the most outgoing, extroverted, and perhaps obnoxious version of myself, the first couple weeks back in Japan were like going through the looking glass. Life in the crammed city, monotonous lectures, and the ceremonious culture was very uncomfortable at first. It felt so odd that no one in class speaks up. I noticed all the fads – so many people wear the same clothes, backpacks, and hairstyles. People don’t do small talk. I could sense the very strong desire to fit in. However, I quickly adapted to the Japanese culture again; I don’t speak up as often as I did in the U.S., and I tend to follow what others are doing without giving much thought. It is so easy to go with the flow and be influenced and effortful to stand out, especially in Japanese culture. Because of the experience I had in the U.S., however, I believe that people, even if introverted, should be able to speak up and be open when necessary because doing so opens up numbers of new possibilities. I often wonder whether young Japanese people feel the same way as I do. Maybe they do, but do they feel the strong necessity for discussions and more diversity in our lives? Without stepping outside of his/her own world, it is difficult to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of an individual and his/her culture, and the best means of improvement. This is another reason that I believe the TOMODACHI STEM program is perfect for Japanese students; as a part of a predominantly mono-ethnic country, we must see cultures foreign to us. The program provides STEM students the opportunity to do so through multiple aspects including STEM and research, which is so rare. Even living with a roommate from the same country and culture required changes and adjusting (good changes – I think I became more compatible as time passed and I owe a big thanks to my roommate, Ayako, for being so fun and patient with me J).

In essence, the TOMODACHI STEM program was so much more than just a research internship, and I truly hope for more students to participate in the program and for more programs like this to exist in Japan and the world. One final question I have about the U.S. is “how do Americans tend to think about broadening their perspectives by going outside of their own country, as we did in this program?”. For example, are American students encouraged to study aboard?

 

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Tips for Future Participants

The most important preparation is for the research – read papers and textbooks as much as possible. I think I struggled with this because I started reading scientific papers with material that I wasn’t familiar with; maybe I should have read through a couple easy textbooks first. The kind of preparation that I believe will help you make the most out of this experience is to read and write a lot, be curious, and try to be knowledgeable. These take a long time to achieve, and I am working on it too; in fact, I think that every human being should continue to work on these throughout his/her life. It’s a constant effort, but these will help you ask better questions, gain important knowledge, and thus maximize your experience in the U.S.

I would say the following will be convenient to bring with you or buy when you arrive in the U.S.: a Brita water filter pitcher, a small cutting board, Tupperware, and instant foods. Other than that, participate, try new food and activities, and have fun!

  • Program Tip: Most of these items can be purchased inexpensively at Target or Wal-Mart or grocery stores in the U.S.

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