2018 Miho Sakuma

Miho Sakuma
Hometown in Japan: Yokohama
University in Japan: Tokyo Women’s Medical University
Major & School Year: Medicine, B4
Host Advisor: Prof. Amina Qutub, Dept. of Bioengineering
Host Lab: Qutub Systems Biology Lab
Research Poster (PDF): “3D Living Neural Networks: Analysis of Developing Neural Stem Cells”

Why TOMODACHI STEM @ Rice University?

First, by studying in the US, I will be exposed to various kinds of people much more so than in Japan and it will extend my horizon. Before I was born, my parents lived in Houston, Texas for about a year. Coincidentally, my mother studied English at Rice University. They told me that unexpected ideas coming from people from different countries always inspired their thoughts. I wish to have such exciting experiences at the same place with my parents. In addition, this would help me prepare for my career search in a foreign country. Many female professors in TWMU studied in the U.S. From hearing their stories in the U.S., I yearn to study abroad and work as a clinical doctor and a researcher in the U.S.

Furthermore, I would like to study bioengineering. My dream is to find the mechanism and medication of neurodegenerative diseases. Bioengineering field, especially nanomedicine and genome editing, would allow different approaches to treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. My major is not engineering or physics, but medicine must collaborate with them if we discover new treatments and findings. In Japan, medical students have little chance to meet with students in other fields because their curriculum is much different from others. During this program, I would like to communicate with researchers in other fields, who work for medical issues with physician scientists. After that, it is important for my future research that I will keep in touch with the researchers and friends whom I will meet during this program. Also, I would like to promote interdisciplinary collaboration on medical research fields by sharing my experiences with medical students in Japan. This action may also have influence on engineering and physics students.


  • I will study skills and techniques, which I have never used in daily experiments in Japan, at Department of Bioengineering in Rice University.
  • I would like to communicate with and make many friends who are from various countries and exchange each other’s opinions and cultures.
  • I hope to know how researchers in the U.S. work, especially women. For example, working hours, motivation and lifestyle.
  • I promise myself to improve my English communication skills, and to be able to convey my opinions to others in English more precisely.

Meaning of TOMODACHI STEM: Post-Program

What is the meaning of this program for me? The best meaning is that my future dream was changed through this program. Before I left for the U.S., I would have liked to engage in basic neuroscience in the future. But, Ph. D researchers have more advantages in scientific field than M.D. Ph. D researchers. Basic research is so attractive, but I began thinking about what my advantage in my research field is. I will become a medical doctor. Medicine uses many imaging technologies, like X-ray, CT, MRI, tissue and endoscopy. In the Qutub Lab, I learned imaging algorithms. Typically, medical students in Japan don’t have imaging knowledge, which makes my experience unique. Also, I noticed that the U.S. research projects are bigger than most in Japan. If I introduce this to Japan, Japanese medical science fields may become better. These ideas arose in my mind while I was in the U.S.

Furthermore, I became more confident. The Intercultural Effectiveness Survey, which we took during the first week, said that I should have more confidence. In the U.S. every speaker said, “Do you have any questions?” and several students always asked questions about the lecture. I too came to very naturally ask some questions in each lecture. Back in Japan, I started studying a clinical clerkship at hospital. It is very different from Japanese style classes, more similar to what I experienced in the U.S. Students should learn clinical medicine on ourselves. In a positive way, I feel comfortable asking more questions than some of my other team mates do. In addition, my confidence encourages me to visit other countries. My interest in international opportunities has become stronger and stronger and I feel this is a desirable goal to have. Now, I hope to live abroad in the future.

The message I want to share with potential applicants is that the TOMODACHI STEM program will widen your future possibilities. I wish you could have such a precious experience too.

Excerpts from Eria’s Weekly Reports

Week 01: Arrival in the U.S.

It is Houston! from a car. ~ Miho Sakuma

This is my first time to study abroad but, prior to departure, the TOMODACHI STEM program participants kept in touch with and shared information with each other. It was so helpful that my fears about this program gradually disappeared. We met at Narita Airport and talked a lot. Arriving at George Bush Intercontinental airport, I felt the humidty and warm air and could smell coffee from the nearby Starbuck’s. It was like early May in Japan. The first shop I saw at the airport was the cafeteria. Every seat had an iPad for ordering. It was new to me. After successfully clearing customs and immigration, we met Sarah and Mei and went to the hotel. The taxi driver was Nigerian. We enjoyed talk with him. For a while, we could see tall buildings from the taxi. It is Houston! It made my heart jump. We saw Minute Maid Park, the Toyota Center, MD Anderson Hospital and TX Children’s hospital. I had to take their photos. There were few people in the town as that day was a Saturday. That evening, we went to huge supermarket, Target. I nearly lost my way, but I had a lot of fun shopping.

We enjoy Rice University campus life! ~ Miho Sakuma

On the first day at Rice University, we went through Lovett Hall arch called the Salleyport, a tradition for incoming freshman at Rice. We walked around Rice University Campus with a sophomore undergraduate as our student guide. The campus is much bigger than the campus of my university in Japan, the Tokyo Women’s Medical University (TWMU). After the tour finished, we attended some lectures. The most interesting lecture for me was about the graduate school system in the U.S. It encouraged me to think about pursuing an M.D./Ph.D. graduated degree in the U.S.The next day, we went on a Houston mural tour. It was a rainy and cloudy day, but we could see a lot of street art on the walls. This is so rare in Japan because such arts are strictly banned, and people usually hate them*. Almost all of the murals we saw popped and were very precise though some of them are eccentric. I am also interested in learning more about the many branches of Christian churches in the town because I attended a mission school previously. The day of the mural tour was a Sunday and I saw many cars parked next to the churches we passed. Most surprising for me was that some churches have waterfalls and fountains. Their scale is very different from the usual church in Japan. After the mural tour, we ate Texas BBQ with Coke. My stomach was filled with wild and juicy pork and turkey. It was very American!

On Sunday morning, we went to NASA. My dream in elementary school was to become an astronomic engineer. Though I changed my dream, space technology is still very exciting for me. During the tram tour, we went to the control center. I didn’t have specific feeling at that time, but I got it after I saw the movie at the museum. The movie showed space shuttle “Challenger” and “Colombia” horrible accidents. It reminds me of my memories about them. I was shocked about it when I saw the TV show in my childhood. Then, I noticed the fact that the drama had been in the Houston, especially at the control center. So, my visit to NASA became more impressive than just a sightseeing trip. Also, I was proud of that we heard the names of Japan or JAXA during the tram tour. I promised myself to get involved in worldwide projects the same as a Japanese astronaut or engineer and encourage younger people.

Someone wrote “GET WELL SOON” on the Texas Medical Center ground ~ Miho Sakuma

My first weekend in Houston, we went to downtown on Saturday. I went to a Tex-Mex restaurant that the hotel shuttle driver recommended. Tex-Mex is a mix of Texas and Mexican food. I had expected that Tex-Mex would be spicy and hot. However, it was juicy and not so hot. After that, I started walking around alone as I am not able to roller skate. I was a little sad, but was excited to go sightseeing alone. I could see very tall financial corporations’ buildings while I walked towards Museum District. Finally, I found the Heritage Society, where they preserved 19th century’s houses. They are so beautiful and nostalgic. I also listened to “Amazing Grace” from the ceremony, I don’t what it is, next to there. Seeing churches, I arrived at a METRO station. For the rest of time, I went to the Texas Medical Center (TMC). There is DeBakey Museum. I couldn’t enter, but I saw his name on the textbook! However, I found a choke art on the ground. It said, “Get well soon”. I realized the reality of the TMC; that it’s a hospital. Saturday night, we went to a classical concert. The performed songs derived from American rural areas. It reminded me of Heritage Society’s houses.

* Street art in Japan is starting to emerge though it is still less popular than in many cities in the U.S. and Europe. For more on the emerging street art scene in Japan see:

Initial Reflections on U.S. vs. Japanese Culture
During my first week in Houston, I noticed a number of times when I encountered experiences that reflected U.S. Core Values.   The first was that most conversations begin with a greeting.  This was very surprising to me.  I am used to only saying “Hello.” only to my friends in Japan. But, people in the U.S. say “Hello.” or “How are you?” all the time and to everyone; even strangers. I have heard that Americans greet each other like this in order to appear friendly and non-threatening. This has happened to me whenever I use an elevator, shuttle or town. In addition, efficiency is very important in the U.S. In most labs, there are not fixed working hours that each student must follow every day. My mentor told me, “I know the Japanese working style because I was in Japan. This lab is so flexible that it’s up to you.” Also, I was surprised at the lab members’ short time working in the lab each day. All arrive at after 10:00 and go back home about 5:00 PM. Compared with Japan, I didn’t believe that! It means that results are everything in the U.S. and matter more than how many hours you stay at the lab each day.

Moreover, I feel that listening attentively is very important in the U.S. Everyone has asked me something about myself when they first met me. People in the U.S. hate silence so this helps them be very comfortable asking new people questions. This skill is so useful for me to understand others and to show respect. Therefore, I feel that greetings, efficiency, and being curious and asking questions are all U.S. Core Values I have encountered regularly.

During my first week in the U.S., I also had moments where I experienced aspects of Japanese Core Values in my reactions or thoughts about certain experiences.  First, “Sumimasen” is very useful in Japan. I hadn’t thought about “Sumimasen” very much until this program. In the intercultural communication seminar, I noticed that it plays a key role in Japan. “Gomennasai” is only to apologize for something I have done. “Sumimasen” can say that I cannot change what I have done, for example, “Excuse me for bumping into you on a crowded train” or for asking to get by you to get to the door on a crowded train. But I would not use “I’m sorry…” situations like this. Hearing it, everyone looks bothered. In the U.S., you can use ‘Excuse me’ but it is not used as often as Sumimasen in Japan.

In addition, Japanese are often ambiguous. Seeing Japanese people who have lived in the U.S. for long time, they are cool and sometimes I am a bit intimidated by them. I think they are not ambiguous and now seem very direct. At my host lab, I usually cannot help but answer with ambiguous phrases such as “maybe” or “but”. I will work hard to try to be more direct in my responses in the future.

Furthermore, earnestness is a typical Japanese characteristic. For example, you show that you are a hard worker in Japan by staying in the office or lab very long hours. Sometimes this even leads to  karoshi, or death by overwork. There are many Japanese companies’ products, such as Yamaha, Nikon, Canon, Toyota and Honda. I was surprised that many people in the U.S. know their names. The hard-working nature in Japan may relate to this fact. I am proud of this and I wish to follow in my predecessors footsteps. Therefore, I feel that “Sumimasen”, being indirect or ambiguous, and earnestness are a few Japanese Core Values.

Question of the Week
I saw advertising signs along streets. It seems that the number are more than in Japan. There are various signs, like TV show, FM, hospital and food as if there is no legal regulation. What types of advertisement are prohibited? Are there any monitoring system in the U.S.?

  • Remember, that in Houston everyone drives and we don’t travel by public transportation (subway) as much.  So, there are many advertisements along streets, called billboards, since when people are stuck sitting in traffic they look at the billboard and may be inspired to try that product. For similar reasons, radio stations have lots of commercials in between playing music since people may drive 30 minutes to one hour (or more) one way to and from work each day. Conversely, in Japan, I am often surprised at all of the advertising and flyers hanging from the ceilings in some of the subways in Tokyo and all of the many billboards on subway station walls. Stores also play lots of music and have bright lights or displays at major crossings, like Shibuya, to draw customers into stores when walking by or pull their eye upwards since many stores and restaurants may be on upper floors. I think the amount of advertising is similar in some ways but just the delivery of that advertising might be different in the U.S. and Japan.
  • Fun Fact: Billboards are not allowed in Hawaii, Vermont, Maine, and Alaska. Also, some cities and states have placed limits on billboards because they are seen as ‘visual pollution’ and to also not block the views.  You won’t find billboards in any national or state park for example.
  • Scenic America: Billboards and Sign Pollution 
  • Four States that Ban Billboards

Preparing for Research in the U.S.
While I was in Japan, Prof. Qutub recommended four papers for me to read that were written by her and her colleagues. I sometimes read English papers, as I am working at Pathology lab at TWMU, but there were some differences from the papers I usually read. Computational terms and formulas are not familiar to me but the incubation method is very near to my research project in Japan. Actually, when I started research, I almost made sense of what the lab members do in incubation area at my host lab. Most people say that methodology is less important than other parts. Interestingly, this was not the case for me. In addition, my boss in Japan advised me, “Don’t read only part of paper. Researchers who read only partial content of papers, often give up their research.” These words encouraged me to read all parts of papers. It was difficult for me to understand all of the contents, but it was fun to imagine what I can do in Qutub lab.

I also tried visiting other labs. First, I asked to Prof. Qutub if I could visit her clinical collaborator because I’m a medical student and I am interested in both basic medicine and clinical medicine. She said she would try to have me to have visit or shadow him during the second week. I also tried to make contact with a friend of my TWMU professor because she worked at the TMC in the past. My professor introduced me to two researchers at the TMC before I left from Japan. I met one of them during first week and spent a lot of time talking with them. Moreover, I learned I can attend TMC public seminars.

Therefore, I have two things that I recommend to other Japanese students. First, reading all parts of papers is so important to understand what the point is. If you don’t know what it is, you should search for it previously. If you don’t understand, you don’t care. The host lab members will advise you how to learn it even though it took some unnecessary time. Second, you should not hesitate to ask about visiting other labs. You should take advantage of this short internship period. Through these visits I could get more information.

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Week 02: First Week at Research Host Lab

I met three members of my lab on the first day. They were so kind and interested in the Japanese snacks I had brought. Kaki-pi is the most popular in my host lab. One of them advised me that every lab member was my mentor. Interestingly, he taught English in Japan few decades ago. He really knows a lot of Japanese language and about the areas and culture of Japan. I was happy, but I noticed the importance of asking about others’ background. Three members each come from a different country; the U.S., India and Hungary. It is impressive when we have time to talk about each culture. For example, we talked about which side of the road cars drive on. Through our conversations, my speaking and listening skills in English have gradually improed. I also noticed my or others’ speaking habits. I often use, “have to”, but each of people often use “you know”, “That’s good”, “amazing” or some other various phrases. I want to steal more and more English phrases from others.

Several days later, I attended the lab meeting. My host lab meeting is more talkative than in Japan. If someone ask questions during the presentation, the speaker will stop and explain about it until questioner makes sense of it. In addition, I knew that there are many people who are interested in various things and love collaboration. For example, I saw unfamiliar faces during the lab meeting. One of them is working mainly at a certain Texas Medical Center (TMC) lab. She is so friendly and doesn’t hesitate to collaborate because she loves her research. Furthermore, I also followed my professor when she met with a collaborator who is a physician scientist in the TMC. He is so kind that he allowed me to visit and shadow his clinic. But, a TB-Test was necessary for me to be able to visit clinical area so then I went to clinic at Walgreens. I was surprised that there is a clinic in pharmacy. Furthermore, the doctor rotates every day. I don’t know why, but my doctor worked only on Saturdays. I found many differences between the U.S. and Japan.

As mentioned above, I tried to ask many people whether I could visit and interview them. This is truly reflective of a Japanese proverb “Tabi no haji wa kakisute” whose meaning is that one should not hesitate during his trip. I had many “Tabi no haji wa kakisute” episodes this week. For instance, I visited three female Japanese researchers at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. All of them enjoyed their lives in the U.S. Especially, they noted that the working time is so much more flexible than Japan. This helps make it easier for female researchers who have young children. I also attended a couple of  public seminars at the Bioscience Research Collaborative (BRC) and University of Texas Health Science Center (UT Health). One speaker came from New York and the other came from M.D. Anderson. I knew that Houston is the one of the best and most innovative medical environments, so it brings people together. Why was I able to visit so many people? Because lab members usually come after 2:00! That is why I can visit labs at the TMC in the morning. Actually, I am making appointments with three or more people next week.

Rodeo starts soon! ~ Miho Sakuma

In addition, I had fun experiences out of the lab this week too. In lab, my mentor won the first prize at the 3MT (three-minute thesis) competition! Out of lab, we went to Houston Live Stock Show and Rodeo. The most interesting thing was the Mutton Bustin where children ride and try to stay on on a sheep while it runs. It was so cute! Since I’m 22, another day, I drank at Valhalla, which is the pub at Rice University. The beer was so fruity! During the weekend, we went to the Museum District. There are many beautiful drawings or sculptures which are made in various eras in Museum of Fine Arts Houston. I saw some familiar artist names, like VanGogh, Gauguin, Monet, Modigliani, Degas, Sisley, Renoir and Chagall. I am a little bit sad because there are only one or two drawings of each artist, but Mary Cassatt’s was the most impressive for me. These were so cute that she drew mother and child. Her drawing wa one of the most favorite drawings in the Texas.

St. Paul United Methodist Church ~ Miho Sakuma

On Sunday morning, my friend and I went to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. I studied at a Christian school for about one decade. It reminded me of my school memories and I prayed for the Tohoku disaster victims as it was March 11; the anniversary of the 3/11 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. The reverend talked about Houston flood victims and patients in the TMC. I noticed that Christians hope God’s rescue and pray for different things everywhere. I spent an amazing time there. After that, I went to Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Galleria Mall. We enjoyed testing cosmetics at Sephora. I was surprised that there were male employees too.

Research Project Update

I enjoy lab! ~ Miho Sakuma

My research project’s goal is to interpret 3-D neural stem cell development. Information of cell behavior and computational analysis method are useful when we propose new strategies for regenerating brain tissue for patients, like brain injury and autism. Lab members have already analyzed the neural network on two dimensions, but they have never analyzed three dimensions. So, I am trying to interpret 3D neural stem cell development.

First, I incubated neural stem cells first week. Then, I will take their photos while differentiate them to neuron. Finally, I will analyze which cell plays important roll or when the neuron network has the most active and efficient. Thus, I will conduct two methods, qualitative analysis and quantitative analysis. Each or both specialists in the host lab kindly taught me about my research project. I am also working on with an undergraduate student on same project.

I started to observe incubation and microscope technique this week. It was easy to understand because I am familiar with qualitative analysis, cell culture. On the contrast, I haven’t used qualitative analysis, programing so much. I spent a lot of time to learn how to write programs. The end of this week, I could write image segmentation and 3D graph creation program. I was so pleasant, but my programing skill is still weak. Moreover, shocking news came to me on the weekend. My cell split new flask died because I used different type of flask. I will thaw new cell tomorrow. My mentor wrote “Tough luck” at the end of his e-mail. It is a suitable phrase for me, isn’t it? I will try harder and harder next week.

Question of the Week
I went to clinic this week. I don’t know how the U.S. hospital system came to this system. What are main good points or bad points, such as about financial problems or location problems?

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Week 03: Interview With a Female Researchers

This weekI interviewed two female members of the Qutub Lab, Tien and Cecilia. I would like to write down their academic career background, career path, international experiences and thoughts of being a woman in STEM.

Tien and me at Qutub Lab ~ Miho Sakuma

Tien is a 5th year Rice University graduate student. Her project is modeling metabolic changes in response to radiation therapy in brain cancer. Before the interview, she showed me the Small Animal Imaging Faculty at Texas Children’s Hospital. It is so reasonable that researcher not only feed animals but also work at same clean area. In her master’s course, she mainly worked at the Qutub lab, but her Ph. D research requires her to work at other imaging labs. She prefers the Texas Medical Center (TMC) as it is convenient place to collaborate with medical researchers.

I asked about her background. Her parents are Vietnamese, but she grew up in Minnesota. She said that students who study hard can succeed under the U.S. educational system even if they are poor or immigrants. I felt that it is American dream. Her undergraduate study was at the University of Minnesota. The reason why she entered a graduate program at Rice University is that she loves research. Her goal had been to become a doctor, but she realized that she was interested in research since she worked in a research lab throughout college. I felt it is good point in the U.S. educational system because I know some medical students in Japan drop out from medical school. Now, she hopes to stay academia and go back to Minnesota after graduate study. She was also interested in my future dreams when I asked her future vision. We shared own dream each other. It was so fun!

Furthermore, she talked with me about women in STEM. Half of biology students in her incoming graduate class are female. Some female researchers succeed, such as Prof. Qutub. But, some people say that income inequality between men and women still exist in the U.S. So, some women attend the salary negotiation techniques seminar. She said that having strong female role models will encourage younger students to pursue STEM.

In addition, I asked about her international experiences. She said that it is easy to meet and work with people in the U.S. from various backgrounds. For example, she has collaborated with Indian, Brazilian and Japanese researchers. She said that the U.S. educational system is great because she can become a graduate students even though her parents are immigrants. I realized that the U.S. is foreigner friendly and a kind nation.

My second interviewee was Cecilia. She is a post-doctoral researcher in the Qutub Lab and came from Hungary. She is my first Hungarian friend. She worked in Hungary, France, the UK and now in the US. The Qutub Lab at Rice University is very diverse. Researchers and students come from all over the world. She had a similar experience when she worked in the U.S. at the University of Houston in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. In the UK, she worked mainly with British and European or South American researchers. In France, she worked mainly with French, Europeans or North Africans. In Hungary, she mainly worked with other Hungarians. What a variety of backgrounds they have! She likes to get involved in interdisciplinary and international projects. Traveling and working abroad opened up her professional opportunities and personally she has a better understanding of diverse cultures. In the meantime, she always has taken the opportunity to go home and she could even strengthen her relationships in her home country, Hungary.

She talked about her research field as she has changed her specialty. Her previous major was Mechatronics and Automation, but now it is Biomedical Engineering. Her undergraduate and master course was in Mechanical Engineering, especially Mechatronics and Automation because she liked Physics and Drawing. So, she mainly worked on projects in the aerospace and automobile industry after her undergraduate degree. But, she pursued a PhD in Biomedical Engineering because her attention was drawn towards bioengineering and it became a passion for her during her mechanical engineering studies. She has got involved in data science projects recently. Interviewing her, I was surprised at her changing majors and research focus. She also said 18 years old is too young to decide the one thing you will do for your whole future.

Her dream was to take part in scientific life and work in teams with people with different knowledge and backgrounds. She thought that mechanics was the basis of physics. She was fascinated by the physical laws of nature and human creation. She was often thinking about how we could imitate the life science in machines and how complex systems were built from the smallest bricks; from atoms and molecules to organisms that form shapes with functions. She wanted to understand not only the theory, but also to have ability in applications.

During her mechanical engineering industrial training she gained experience working in teams in Hungary and in France. She was responsible for various projects such as design, solving economic problems, lab experiments, working in plant, simulation, programming. All these experiences helped her to develop her organizational skills, communication skills, and autonomy. She had experience working with people from different nationalities which helped her to discover different cultures and provided more opportunities for personal and professional development. She pursued her PhD degree at the frontiers in life sciences, which opened up even more opportunity to work with people with different backgrounds in France and the U.S. Working on data science projects in the UK provided with a her similar experience where her peers have different academic training, from astrophysics, through biologist to engineering. She also worked in Hungary in a small research company as a research engineer. Currently, she is a post-doctoral researcher inthe Dept. of Bioengineering and she hope to have a research position in industry or launch a startup in the future which will require her to develop her entrepreneurial skills.

I also asked about her lab environment. The Qutub Lab has female and male researchers equally. This was almost same as Dept. Biomedical Engineering in other countries. However, working on mechanical engineering projects means working mainly with men, and less with women. This is also true internationally. In data science there are also more men than women, but this proportion is more balanced. The projects in the Qutub Lab are also diverse, but she had the same experience at other institutions, research fields, and countries. The work environment at Rice is similar to her former workplaces, they have office space and lab space, but she experiences more collaboration between researchers at Rice and other institutions.

Playing Tennis with Cecila ~ Miho Sakuma

Being women in STEM field can be very different in each country, and it depends on their colleagues at the specific working environment and how they find close friends at new cities. Having a close friend nearby to whom she could talk about her situation was always very helpful. To work at different places and interact with many people opened up her personality and helped her to strengthen her confidence as an engineer and as a woman as well.

After the interview, we played tennis together! And she asked me about Japanese hand-writing, food, driving, lifestyle of young professionals, long working hours and others. We enjoyed tennis and talking!

They said the same two things. One is that Houston is good place for collaboration. In Japan, medicine is usually separated from other faculties. I knew that the Texas Medical Center (TMC) is very attractive place for other faculties researchers. Just imagine if TMC were in Japan! The other thing is that 18 years old is too young to decide one’s future path for sure. I feel this policy is better than Japan. It is a sad situation in Japan that some medical students, who realize they have no interest in medicine after entering medical school, drop out from school. Maybe same thing occurs in other universities. Such people sometimes cannot succeed in Japan. This is strange as they simply changed their majors. But, some female students in my university have worked at another job, like Cecilia.

Reflections on Interview
Otherwise women have some struggles in STEM field, but both said if you study and work hard you can conquer them. I feel they are swans. Swan looks elegant, but under the water’s surface, she kicks water. I met with them for the first time, they are friendly and enjoy the lab. On the other hand, they also have a lot of work. I hope to become like them.

Other Programs/Activities at Rice or in Houston
I had many valuable experiences this week.

At MD Anderson ~ Miho Sakuma

First are my educational experiences. I visited and shadow Dr. Kornblau in the Dept. of Leukemia at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. It was quite different from hospitals in Japan. One is the patients. In contrast to Japan, there are more patients with obesity and hypertension. Also, they have different rationales and cultural differences. Sometimes, a translator is necessary for medical interviews. The other is the medical staff. The physician will knock on the door to the room and comes in. Two or more doctors see each patient. I did know that having good English skills is important for clinical medicine because a clinic is a service. Moreover, I interviewed two Japanese doctors this week. One is a clinical doctor and the other is research doctor. These made me think of my future career a lot. In addition, I attended a pathology residency conference at the Baylor College of Medicine. This was like a Japanese class. I felt that medicine is the same all over the world. But, epidemiology or the lecture style is a little different from Japan. It was interesting.

Second are my cultural experiences. My friends and I went to see the Oscar de la Renta exhibition in Museum of Fine Arts Houston. I dreamed about wearing his beautiful dresses. The other day, we also had a talk by Dr. William Fulton of the Kinder Institute on urban issues in Houston. This gave me some interesting information. I began to think more about Houston while walking around town. On the weekend, I went to the  Menil Collection alone. Unfortunately, the Menil Collection was closed but I visited other meditative places around it including the Cy Twombly Gallery, Can Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall, Rothko Chapel, and the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. During this short trip, I realized that my confidence has increased. If it were three weeks ago me, I wouldn’t have enjoyed walking alone as I would have been afraid. I love museums. So, I spent a relaxed and satisfied time.

Finally, I also did many fun things. I played tennis with Cecilia! I joined a tennis school when I was an elementary student. I really enjoyed the rallies though I had muscle pain the next day. The U.S. is more accessible to fitness. We also started daylight savings time from last weekend which gives us more hours of daylight to enjoy exercise after work. This weekend, I went to the Houston Zoo which was bigger than I expected. Actually, my friends and I could not enter the Houston Zoo last week because we arrived at 5:05 PM (5:00 PM is last entry time). As my hobby is taking photoes, there are many chances to take great shots.

Research Project Update

Confocal microscope ~ Miho Sakuma

Last week, my cells died. We thawed the frozen stored cell again on Monday. The cells we grew are healthy now. We took Day 1 Neuro Progenitor Cell image by confocal microscope and I will take Day 3 on Tuesday. I was surprised that it took a lot of time to use the confocal microscope.

We also had a l meeting on Friday. I showed my poster draft and explained it. My lab members kindly advised me about the poster structure and discussed my problems. They encourage me to work on the Analysis. I asked lab member for help about segmentation and graph theory analysis. I finally created the 3D graph image thanks to my professor and mentor on Sunday night.

Question of the Week
This week, we got emergency alert on my cell phone, AMBER Alert. I was surprised at its unexpected alert! Are there any alert in the U.S.?

  • Yes, an Amber Alert is issued in the U.S. if there is a child that has gone missing or been abducted.  They used to just announce these on the radio and TV but since cell phone technology has improved they can now send these alerts out to all cell phones within a certain radius of the area where the child went missing.   This is a way to help quickly find the child (hopefully) and people who think they have seen something can call the police to share their information. So, if there is an Amber Alert in Houston  you will not receive a text message if you are in Minnesota. Only people in that local area/city or state will get the message. There are also Silver Alerts for senior citizens or other vulnerable adults, such as those with Alzheimer’s, if they go missing.

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

With my Qutub Lab members ~ Miho Sakuma

Working in the Qutub Lab for the past month, I’ve learned a lot about its characteristics. First, the host professor sends scientific emails or reminders frequently. She sends out useful papers, conference registration reminders, lab meeting discussion topics and lab member’s award news. I was surprised because emails from my professor are relatively rare in Japan. Otherwise she is quite busy but I felt that she thinks about her lab members every day. Also, it is so quick to conduct research. She asks lab members to show her research update and share their milestones. She advises them on what is the key points to get grants too. Writing papers and getting grants are very crucial goals for my host lab. In my lab in Japan, a conference poster is the first goal. The reason why may be that Japanese labs receive money from its university. The U.S. lab must get grants from external agencies by writing grant proposals and publishing papers. This is also important to disseminate their results all over the world. It’s a hard system, but good for innovation. To sum up, my host professors attitude is very important for lab members. She is one of my role models. I will keep in touch with my lab member and plan to continue my 3D imaging research project.

BioScience Research Collaborative (BRC) members ~ Miho Sakuma

The day before the poster deadline, I was analyzing image data right up until the deadline as my data came that morning. I was very upset, but I knew that speed is an important value in the U.S. After my poster was submitted, we practiced our presentations over and over with my friends. They had unexpected questions about my project as we are in different majors. My lab members also helped with my preparation, too. During the poster session, the most heartwarming episode was that my host lab members came and said good bye to me. Actually, I cried. They are so smart and kind and I miss them. I wanted to talk more!

On my final day in Houston, I was so sad and really wanted to come back. I miss not only its warm, green environment and delicious food, but also the people. We often talked with the hotel shuttle drivers, other hotel guests, friends in chapel, lab members or TMC researchers. Although it is difficult to see them again, what I can do is that I don’t forget them and will try to keep in touch with each other if I can.

Question of the Week
How is the life around the different time zones? Japan has just one time zone. If commuters live in different cities’ office, do they have two watches?

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Final Research Poster Presentation

Host Advisor: Prof. Amina Qutub, Dept. of Bioengineering
Host Lab: Qutub Systems Biology Lab
Mentors: Byron Long, Arun Mahadevan, Andrew Ligeralde
Research Poster (PDF): “3D Living Neural Networks: Analysis of Developing Neural Stem Cells”

I used the U.S. map to explain graph theory. ~ Miho Sakuma

My research is about 3D neural network analysis. Neurons conveys various information to other cells and make neural network as well as our society. To know neuronal society, 3D is useful because brain is 3D. During differentiation from neural stem cell to neuron, we took two 3D photos at Day1 and Day3. I used graph theory to determine network efficiency. This is result. Unfortunately, we found no differences between Day 1 and Day 3 average shortest path length which is one of the network efficiency metrics from graph theory. We will pick up more samples and use another graph theory metrics. In the future, we will investigate network function analyses. This study will use for Alzheimer’s disease treatment. Our study makes neural so

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Week 05: Science & Technology Policy Study Tour

White House ~ Miho Sakuma

During my final week in the U.S., I was thinking about my future career a lot. One of the speakers at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), who also works in the Department of Literature and Science, said that many MD/PhDs in Japan never continue and come back to academia. What does this  mean for Japanese medical academia in the future? I was also worried about it. At the Texas Medical Center (TMC), I saw large-scale medical research facilities and felt that such research is necessary now in Japan. For example, national level collaboration, high evidence medical research, or applications from bioengineering to medical imaging. MD/PhDs are the primary people who can conduct such research. I would like apply my skills or degree for future innovations in Japan.

My future career is different from the other TOMODACHI participants because the medical school is unique in Japan and as well as in the U.S. But, research is the same as other majors. I began to think about foreign countries’ graduate schools or labs because I hope to spend time to research deeply in the future. In addition, talking with Pehona, a Howard University female graduate student in physics, helped me sum up my dream. Thorough this program, many people were willing to answer my concerns or questions about my career, but everyone’s precious advises was sometime different from each other and I was confused. Her story about graduate school in the U.S. made me imagine my own future career. This was valuable experience to help me with my future goals. Furthermore, I noticed there were still small number of my university female faculties even though my university is a women’s university. Women in STEM should need to gain strong power in each field.

Lehigh University Tour! ~ Miho Sakuma

We also enjoyed the last week of the TOMODACHI STEM program life very much. Leaving from Houston, we arrived in Philadelphia. It was very different from Houston in terms of the low temperature, dry air, and old buildings which are of bricks. At the Benjamin Franklin Museum, I first learned that he founded the first public hospital in the U.S. I also saw snow white ground during the bus ride from Philadelphia to Lehigh University. In the snowy morning of our second day at Lehigh, my friend and I attended a Catholic church service. This was my first Catholic service and I was surprised at difference between this and a Protestant service, otherwise the Bible was the same. Also, I was surprised that a service in Spanish would be held after the service in English.

Jumping in front of Washington Monument ~ Miho Sakuma

On same day, we also went ice skating. I was bad at skating, but I can finally skate in one circle without help! At Leigh university, I enjoyed talking with an undergraduate student about Japanese anime. I really thankful since this too is my hobby, anime. She even introduced me the Japanese anime that I didn’t know. I will try to watch it! After Lehigh, we went to Washington D.C., which is a nostalgic city for me because I visited with my family 5 years ago. At that time, I didn’t imagine coming back D.C.! I visited the White House, Lincoln Memorial and the Air and Space Museum again, but I also went to new places including the Phillips Collection and Freer Museum. I was happy to visit again because, last time I was in DC the Washington Monument and American History Museum were under repairs. On our last night in the U.S., we enjoyed girls’ talk with friends. I will miss them very much and we will stay in touch!

This also reminded of the three things I will regret not doing during this program. First, I didn’t go to any U.S. ocean though I love ocean. I wish if I could have seen Galveston to see the Gulf or Texas or visited Atlantic City to see the Atlantic Ocean which is an hour away from Philadelphia.  Second, I couldn’t go to U.S. Navy Museum in DC. I read the book of “Ouka” which is made as “Kamikaze” airplane. The book was very sad and painful story. If I had been to, I could have seen practice mission type of “Ouka”. Finally, I wanted to more research, especially analyze day 5 neuron images. I will continue my research analysis after I return to Japan.

Moreover, my U.S. life changed my personality. I gained my confidence. It was my first experience to spend a long time in foreign country. It gave me courage of living abroad. On the other hand, I came to know the dangers in the U.S. life too. Some friends who have been to the U.S. told me to be sensitive for my safety before this program. It is surely true that the U.S. is more dangerous than Japan in terms of things like guns. I sometimes was a bit frightened when I went sightseeing alone or walked at night. It was important experience for me because I may live in the U.S. in the future.

Back in Japan, I was at first surprised at how low the sinks are at home. I noticed that the U.S. environment was for people whose height is taller than the typical Japanese. It is suitable for me because I was the tallest among this year’s program participants. I enjoyed taking a bath in my Japanese-style tub, my home town’s ocean, and the cherry blossoms.

Question of the Week
Why are there many people who don’t use umbrellas? Are rain coats popular than umbrellas?

  • People do use umbrellas in the U.S. its just that often people may forget to bring them with them.
  • Since most Americans commute by car, we tend to keep an umbrella in the car.  So when we go into work if it is sunny out we leave our umbrella in the car but sometimes the weather can change and by lunchtime or  the end of the day it is rainy and then we are often frustrated with ourselves that we left our umbrella in the car.  Since we often don’t have to walk too far back to our vehicle we’ll either just wait for the rain to get lighter, ‘let up’, or will just run to the car and deal with getting wet.  Since it is only our car that would be damaged if it gets wet, it usually isn’t a big problem.
  • But, in cities like New York City or DC where people commute more via subway or bus then people may be more likely to carry a small umbrella in their purse, backpack, or briefcase – but many people still forget their umbrella.
  • Often, we just ‘put up with’ or ‘deal with’ getting wet since there aren’t a lot of very convenient konbinis nearby where you can run in and quickly purchase a cheap umbrella.

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Final Report


In Japan, medical students have little chance to meet with students in other fields because their curriculum is much different from others. I really appreciate it that I was able to participate in this program. It alerted me to my ignorance of other fields and helped me understand how medicine relates to scientific fields worldwide. In other words, “A person who is inexperienced in the ways of the world. (I no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu)” in Japanese. Within this program, I was able to communicate with U.S. and Japanese professor and students. These relationships are treasures of my life.

After I returned to Japan. I enjoyed talking about Houston with my family because my parents lived in Houston before I was born. They were surprised at changes of the city, like the Metro, and what had not changed, like Rice Village. Also I brushed up my house keeping skills because it was the first time to live alone from my family for such a long time. This will be helpful in my future career.

When my classes started again, my friends asked about my experiences in the U.S. I always say, “You should go abroad.” There are three reasons why I recommend my friends to study abroad. First, people can get more precious experiences than expected. Second, it is important to check whether I am suitable to life abroad. Third, encountering different communities is hard but interesting. This is the most important thing. For example, I felt that Houston life was very different from what I had expected. I don’t know how to explain, but these experiences give me a chance to know how to live in the U.S. I was OK, but a friend got tired because she didn’t like American food. To know such a thing may be very important for our future. Although I could enjoy American food, I was surprised at the different culture between Japan and sometimes it was stressful. All of these experiences helped widen my perspectives.

To sum up, this program is useful to know about life abroad and I recommend Japanese friends to go abroad.



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Tips for Future Participants

Some of you may worry about English. Me too. I really struggled against my weakness of listening and speaking English in Houston. But, I found a three-step-solution. First, other participants kindly helped when we talked with others in English. Second, I imitated their communication phrases. Finally, I gradually got comfortable in the U.S. In other words, you can do it and don’t hesitate to speak English!

There are good things to bring to the U.S. First, a name tag holder is very useful because we always use our Rice University ID when entering buildings. You can buy it in Rice book store or at NASA, but if you don’t need such a souvenir, you should bring them from Japan. Second, in the hotel, there are no slippers. You should bring them. Moreover, I regretted that I didn’t have any extra duffel bag for souvenirs. I used plastic bags which the U.S. stores gave me the end of my shopping, but they so fragile! I suggest you pack an empty duffel bag in your suitcase when you come to the U.S. so you have more room for souvenirs when you return home. Also, if you want, scissors, chopsticks and a USB flash memory are useful for living,

On the other hand. I didn’t use these things, hand towels (All restrooms in the U.S. have paper towel.) and cooking ingredients. You can buy almost all the things in Houston by using hotel shuttle that takes you to the grocery store.

If you know people who are familiar with Houston (previous working or their relatives living), you should ask them whether they have some friends in Houston. In my case, I contacted with two Japanese researchers before my departure because there is a researcher who worked in Houston about a decade ago in my university lab. I asked her and got their email addresses while I was still in Japan. I was so excited talked with them directly in Houston. Fortunately, they also introduced me other Japanese researchers after arrival or meeting! Some of them let me know public seminars in the Texas Medical Center (TMC).

It depends on your lab, but in my case, lab members often didn’t come until 14:00. I took advantage of my mornings for meeting with Japanese researchers. Lab time is so flexible if you can complete your tasks until poster session. I brought TWMU original clear files and Japanese snacks for lab members. I gave clear files to interviewees, too. Kaki-pi was the best snack among my souvenirs from Japan.

By the way, I bought much omiyage back to Japan. For example, I bought a Texas calendar at a stationary store and hand sanitizers at Bath and Body works in Rice Village. At the Galleria, I purchased 80% (!) discounted shoes. I got NASA keyholders for professors in Japan at Johnson Space Center. I especially recommend Trader Joe’s, which is a supermarket in the U.S. and I purchased pecan nuts and colorful cookies.

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