Doing Research

The following websites and resources are provided for informational purposes only.  The TOMODACHI STEM @ Rice Program, Rice University, and the U.S.-Japan Council is not responsible for content contained on any external sites.

About Research Projects
Collaborative Research Skills
Data Storage – Back Up Your Data!
Keeping a Research Lab Notebook
Laboratory Safety
Reading and Understanding Scientific Research Papers
Tutorials and Lessons on Topics in STEM
Research – It Never Goes Quite According to Plan
Working in a Research Lab – Summary
Research in U.S. vs. Japan

Related Topics
Overview: Why International Research?
Funding of Research in Japan and the U.S.
Undergraduate Research: In Japan
Undergraduate Research: In the U.S.
Women in STEM: In Japan
Women in STEM: In the U.S.

About Research Projects

Conducting a research project consists of:

  • Identifying an unsolved scientific question or an unsolved engineering problem
  • Designing an experiment to solve the problem or answer the question
  • Preparing an experiment (building an apparatus, making a sample, …)
  • Taking data
  • Analyzing data
  • Interpreting data
  • Drawing conclusions
  • Writing a paper and giving presentations on the results

Your job is to:

  • Understand the purposes and methods of your project as quickly as possible
  • Learn the experimental techniques used (under the mentorship of a Japanese researcher)
  • Become a more independent researcher while being guided by your mentor and other researchers
  • Work hard, be useful, and try to make significant contributions
  • Related Articles

Do's and Don'ts

  • Dress up a little bit on the first day to show respect
  • In your first week, observe how they behave and adjust yourself.
  • Be polite, work hard, and show enthusiasm.
  • Work closely with your mentor, and adjust your schedule to his/hers.  Working hours may vary by lab and/or project. You will be expected to work in your research lab Monday – Friday during the normal working hours for your lab/mentor.  If your project requires, you may need to work late or on the weekend occasionally but you will not be required or expected to do this every day.
  • Try to show your interest in learning their language and culture.
  • Use your language skills as a bridge but also remember that interest in science/research is a shared passion with other lab members and if you are curious and ask questions about their research, even if that is not the project you are working on, you may develop stronger friendships with your labmates.
  • Participate in group activities with your lab members. Or, if you are planning to go out to dinner or do something on the weekend, as your lab members if anyone would like to join you or has suggestions for you.  They are all poor students as well so often will have really helpful, and money-saving tips!

For more on this topic, see the section on Time Orientation on our Intercultural Communication & Skills page. 

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Collaborative Research Skills

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Data Storage – Back Up Your Data!

Not backing up your research data and related files stored on your personal or lab computer is a huge risk! If is not a question if your computer/s will fail – it is a question of when it will fail.  The personal or lab computer you are using may be old, the hard drive many not be stable, you may end up with a virus, and accidents do happen that may damage or destroy your computer.  Computers may also be lost or stolen. There was even a case of a professor from the Hawai’i who had his laptop, with years of research data and a book that he had yet to submit to the publisher on it, stolen out of his car. Years, and years of work lost in one fell swoop – because he had not backed up his data! (Luckily, the laptop and one of the external hard drives was returned but the second external hard drive remains missing).

Don't let this happen to you! One of the best things you can do as a young researcher is develop good data storage and back-up habits.  You do not want to be the master's or PhD student who loses a huge chunk of their thesis or dissertation research data or writing because you failed to back up. (And yes, this does happen – ask any professor or department coordinator and they will know of at least one student who has lost their dissertation/thesis due to a computer breakdown).  Good data storage and back-up habits are just as important for short-term undergraduate research students too as you have limited time to work on your research project and loss of research data or documents could significantly delay your progress.

You should ask your host professor how they would like you to store or back-up your research data. Is there a specific computer or drive they would like you to save this data on?  Is it okay for you to save your data on your own computer/laptop or must all data be kept on a university or lab computer? What back-up system do they use/recommend?

There are many options for data storage and back-up with some being cloud based and others being hardware based (e.g. external hard drives). A combination of both can be most secure. Your home university may offer access to cloud-based data storage and back-up services for current students, faculty, and staff but also consider what may happen when you graduate or leave that position?  How will you transfer your data from the institutional cloud-based storage to your personal storage/back-up?  If the data is backed up but you no longer have access to it or the university automatically deletes the files of students who have graduated, what then?

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Keeping a Research Lab Notebook

It is vital that during the course of your research project you keep a detailed and up-to-date lab notebook.  Your notebook is your record of the work you have done and will be helpful for you to review as you write your weekly research internship reports and prepare for your final research presentation. Ask your research host professor and/or mentor if you must leave your notebook behind (as a resource for the next student working on your project) or if you can keep your research lab notebook and bring it home with you to the U.S. For a helpful overview of best practices for keeping a lab notebook see

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Laboratory Safety

Each university and research lab will have specific safety and equipment training that you will need to complete or will be given before you can begin research or use a new piece of equipment.  It is vital that you abide by all safety training and lab policies and procedures to avoid injury to yourself or others or damage of expensive research equipment. All students will participate in Rice University’s General Laboratory Safety Training and any specialized training that may be necessary prior to starting research.

When you arrive at your research host lab, be sure to ask your host professor and/or research mentor/s what lab safety or equipment training you will need to complete and how you can sign up if necessary.   The following general resources from Rice’s office of Environmental Health & Safety may also be helpful for you to review.

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Reading and Understanding Scientific Research Papers

Prior to your arrival abroad, you will begin communicating with your research host lab via email and one of the first things your host professor or research mentor may ask you to do is to read some scientific journal articles related to the type of research you will be doing during your internship. However, reading a journal article is a bit different than reading a typical book or magazine article and if you’ve not done this before it can be a bit difficult to know where to begin.

Here are some helpful articles that describe, step-by-step, how to read a scientific journal article to ensure you can get the best understanding of these advanced research topics.  You should also keep a list of questions on the article/s you are reading that you can ask your host lab professor/mentor about or, if possible, even discuss with a professor/mentor or senior student at your home university prior to departure.  Remember, you will not likely understand everything in the article/s you are assigned to read but if you follow these steps you will be able to ask more informed questions and know which aspects of this research topic/field you may need to do further research on.

If you are not familiar with the general field or topic of your summer research project, it may also be helpful to ask your host lab for recommendations of textbooks or websites that you can review to learn the basics.  You can also look for YouTube course lectures and other resources online and/or ask professors at your home university for their recommendations of what you should study to prepare to do research in this field/topics.

When learning about a new field/topic it can be helpful to read science and technology articles that are written for the general public.  These typically summarize or introduce peer-reviewed journal articles. The magazines of professional organizations or societies can be a good starting point for students curious about a specific topic in STEM.

You may need to be a member of these organizations to access the full archives of these magazines or you can utilize your home university library journal search feature to see if your school has an institutional members. Visit your campus library and speak with a librarian if you aren't sure how to access your home university journal/article search feature. Or, you can see if these professional societies have free or reduced fees to join as a student member.  That way, you can have easy (and often free) access to all of their print and web-based resources for students in your field.  

Literature Reviews: You may also find reading literatures reviews to be a helpful way to immerse yourself in the terminology and background of your research topic/field. Try doing a search for your topic/field name and then 'Literature Review' to see if you find any helpful overviews of current literature/research in your field.

As a visiting research student, you have full access to all Fondren Library online holdings at Rice University.  If you cannot find the full PDF of the article you would like to read on your home university library, you may want to search Fondren Library's holdings.  If you are off-campus, you will need to login with your NetID and Password to access full PDFs of journal articles.  

See the section on Fondren Library on our Life in the U.S. page. 

It can be very helpful to also read an introductory level textbook or review articles in Japanese on your topic too. This will help you become familiar with the topic/area in Japanese and that may help you better understand the English vocabulary you will see in the English-language textbooks and articles you will be reviewing.  Bringing a Japanese language textbook with you to the U.S. can also be a useful resource as you will not be able to easily find Japanese textbooks while abroad. 

Search for review articles or literature reviews on your topic so you can gain a broad background in the recent literature. To do this type in 'Topic + Review' or 'Topic + Literature + Review' in your home university library's journal search or in Google Scholar.

You should also find out if you can access online journals in Japanese via your home university library while you are in the U.S.  You may need to set up a special login or VPN on your computer to access your home university library while abroad.  See above for information on how to access Rice University's Fondren Library online holdings using your NetID and Password.  

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Tutorials and Lessons on Topics in STEM

When you join a research lab you may not have a lot of prior background or experience in the topic/subject you may be doing research on.  Even if you have previously taken coursework or done research in a related field, you may still need more specific information on the research project you will be working on.  There are a wide array of online tutorials, talks/seminars, and lessons that may be helpful for you to review.  Here are a few places you can start looking but you can probably find many more resources by consulting Google-sensei.

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Research – It Never Goes Quite According to Plan

"New experiences lead to new questions and new solutions! Change forces us to experiment and adapt! That's how we learn and grow!" - Calvin

“New experiences lead to new questions and new solutions! Change forces us to experiment and adapt! That’s how we learn and grow!” – Calvin

Scientific research requires careful planning, coordination, and collaboration among all team members.  However, as the U.S. saying goes, “The best laid plans may often go awry.”  No matter how careful you plan, there will likely be bumps along the way.  Equipment breaks down, samples or materials you have ordered may be slow to arrive, you may get unexpected results that cause you to have to change your research plans, and so on.  While these setbacks are frustrating for all researchers (professors, post-docs, graduate students), they can be especially challenging for undergraduate students who may only have a few short weeks to work on their projects. However, these experiences are not uncommon or unexpected. In truth, it is a rare summer research project that does not have some delays, setbacks or frustrating moments.  Learning how to handle these situations is all a part of becoming a good researcher.

Students often worry if they will have anything ‘good’ to present at the end of their research project. However, remember that the goal of the research presentation is not necessarily to showcase your results (as it is often difficult to obtain ‘good’ results in a very short time-frame).  Rather, the most important part of your final presentation will be your understanding of your research project overall and what you did this summer.  Another key component will be the future research or future impact section, which will enable you to showcase your understanding of how your research project may be helpful to your research field overall.

Also, when you face frustrations or setbacks with your research projects, be sure that you turn to your graduate student research mentors and host professor in Japan and your U.S. co-advisor for advice, assistance, and encouragement.  They are all there to help you.

Related Articles

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Working in a Research Lab – Summary

  • Be polite, work hard, and show interest
  • There will be cultural differences; they are expected and okay.  After all, that is why you applied to Nakatani RIES – to do research in a different country/culture than in the U.S. or Japan.
  • Don’t get too self-conscious about these differences – it will be appreciated if it is clear that you are making effort to fit in
  • While abroad, you are a cultural ambassador of your home country, home university, and representing the Nakatani RIES Fellowship and the Nakatani Foundation.  Be sure you act respectfully and professionally at all times.
  • If there are any problems please communicate with the program faculty and staff – we are here to help you!
  • Maintain regular contact with your U.S. co-advisor and/or Prof. Kono about the status of your research project and any questions you may have.

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Research in the U.S. vs. Japan

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Related Topics

Overview: Why International Research?

For more on this see our Why International Research? section on our Intercultural Communication and Skills page.

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Funding of Research in Japan and the U.S.

In both the U.S. and Japan, science and engineering research is primarily funded by government agencies through grants awarded to universities or university researchers. National labs in the U.S. and Japan also play a vital role in advancement of research in an array of science and engineering fields. Industry R&D is also a vital component of R&D, particularly to apply basic research findings to products in the marketplace. For more information see the U.S. National Science Board’s 2018 Science & Engineering Indicators Report, particularly Ch. 2 Higher Education in the U.S. and Ch. 4: Research & Development: U.S. Trends and International Comparisons.

Some highlights from this chapter include:

  • Most of U.S. basic research is conducted at universities and colleges and is funded by the federal government. However, the largest share of U.S. total R&D is development, which is mainly performed by the business sector. The business sector also performs the majority of applied research.
  • Universities and colleges historically have been the main performers of U.S. basic research, and they accounted for about 51% of all U.S. basic research in 2013. The federal government remained the largest funder of basic research, accounting for about 47% of all such funding in 2013.
  • The United States remained the largest R&D-performing country in 2013, with total expenditures of $456.1 billion, a 27% share of the global total, and an R&D/GDP ratio of 2.7%. China was a decisive second, with R&D expenditures of $336.5 billion, a 20% global share, and an R&D/GDP ratio of 2.0%.
  • Japan ($160.2 billion, 10% global share, ratio of 3.5%) and Germany ($101.0 billion, 6% global share, ratio of 2.9%) were the comparatively distant third and fourth. The other 11 countries/economies in the top 15 were South Korea, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, Taiwan, Brazil, Italy, Canada, Australia, and Spain—with the annual national R&D expenditure totals ranging from about $69 billion (South Korea) down to $19 billion (Spain).

See also: 


One thing many students notice when doing research abroad is that, compared to the U.S., research labs at universities in Japan tend to have better and newer equipment overall than the majority of research labs at universities in the U.S. This is, in part, due to differences in the nature of funding for science and engineering research in these countries.

For example, in the U.S. PhD students are paid a stipend and given a tuition exemption in return for their work as research assistants or teaching assistants. This means that most of the budget for research grants awarded to professors in the U.S. must be used to support student salary and tuition costs. In Japan, PhD students must pay tuition and fees individually. This means that more of the money in research grants awarded in Japan can be used to pay for equipment and other facilities. This is also why in the U.S. it is not uncommon for different labs, or even many labs at a university, to share expensive equipment through programs such as the Shared Equipment Authority at Rice University.

See also: 

I know Japanese labs have quite a bit of money, but I’m curious where a lot of the funding comes from. Is it the government? Companies? Is Japan focused in on the ROI of research or more about discovery? The US is struggling currently with research funding, and I wonder if Japanese researchers also feel like they need to battle for money. Being in the Maruyama-lab, money doesn’t seem like too much of an issue, but the lab is also very established. What is it like for beginning researchers?

  • Most research in Japan is funded by the government and seeks to support discovery and innovation.  The government. Discovery. Todai in particular is very well funded, so it’s kinda like visiting Stanford and concluding that US universities have very nice facilities.
  • Funding from government for research is never easy to come by, but there is a perception that Todai gets half of the pot. Half of the remaining money goes to Kyoto University, and the remaining quarter is left for everyone else. It may not actually be that bad, but that’s the feeling anyway.
  • Japan spends more that the US in terms of % of GDP (third most overall behind Israel and Korea), so the research budget is quite respectable. For more, see chapter 4 on Research & Development: U.S. Trends and International Comparisons in the National Science Board's 2018 Science & Engineering Indictors report.
  • Most beginning researchers belong to a lab that is run by a senior researcher (e.g., full professor). The benefit here is good access to equipment and the junior researcher is usually a co-PI on projects led by the senior researcher. There are also certain programs designated to fund junior researchers, so you start there and work your way up.

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Undergraduate Research in Japan

Undergraduates in Japan typically apply to join a lab at the end of their B3 (Junior) year and only start doing research in their B4 (Senior) year. In Japan, most students who decide to pursue a master's degree will stay at the same university and continue working in the same laboratory once in graduate school.  In Japan, students must receive a master's degree first and then apply to the Ph.D. program.  Again, students will typically stay at the same university and within the same lab when they pursue a Ph.D. However, Japanese students who wish to pursue a graduate degree abroad, particularly in the U.S., will often first get their Master's degree at a Japanese university and then apply to a Ph.D. program in the U.S.

Some universities in Japan, particularly in medical schools, are starting to experiment with expanding undergraduate research opportunities for their students; though it is still rare for students to actually do research as a member of lab (not just a short 1 – 2 week program/observation) prior to their B4 year.  The Nakatani RIES Fellowship is one of the few programs available that provide international research experience for Japanese undergraduate students at all levels – with students eligible to apply starting in their B1 (freshman) year.

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Undergraduate Research in the U.S.

Undergraduates in the U.S. can start doing research as early as their freshman year, and some laboratories even have opportunities for high school students to do research during the summer.  How common it is for young undergraduates (freshman and sophomore) to do research varies by campus, but often students will shadow a lab or attend meetings the spring semester of their freshman year and may officially join a lab to in their sophomore year.  Undergraduate students in the U.S. may work in many labs over the course of their degree, both at their home university and through summer research opportunities at different universities in the U.S. or abroad.  Undergraduates in the U.S. often use these opportunities to 'try out' different types of research fields and help them make more informed choices about what type of graduate program and research they might be most interested in. Many universities in the U.S. have Offices of Undergraduate Research to support and encourage undergraduates to pursue various opportunities and some students select which 4-year university to attend, in part, based on the research opportunities/support available. 

U.S. undergraduates who do research during the semester typically do so on a part-time basis and work about 10 – 20 hours per week depending on their class schedule.  Oftentimes, students will receive 1 – 3 credits for their semester research projects and receive a grade for this ‘class’ too.  So, in a sense, research during the academic year is like a part-time job. To make progress in their research and still do well in their classes, spend time doing research in their labs, and, therefore must become very good at prioritizing their time. If they spend too much time doing research they will do poorly in their classes and their GPA will go down; this will make it difficult to get into graduate school.  If they don’t manage their time well and cannot come regularly to the research lab they will not make good progress on their research project and the host professor may fire them and/or not be willing to provide them a good letter of reference/recommendation.

During the long summer break (mid-May to mid-August), U.S. undergraduates can apply to do paid research through programs those funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for summer research experiences for undergraduates.  They can also apply to do an internship with a company by working with their university career services center or academic department/school to look up listings of companies hiring summer interns. Typically, these summer internships are in the U.S. though there are increasing numbers of international research opportunities, both funded and unfunded, that are available for students. 

For more information on domestic and international opportunities for U.S. students, a both the undergraduate and graduate level, see the Other Related Programs: For U.S. Students page of our website.

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Women in STEM in Japan

For more on the role of women in the workforce in Japan and science & engineering in particular see the articles and resources below:

As the MEXT and JST "Program to Support Research Activities of Female Researchers" outlines: "As a result of past efforts to support female researchers in Japan, the proportion of women in research roles has begun to increase; however, in comparison to advanced European nations and the US, Japan still has relatively few women in research. Unfortunately, there has not been much progress in the appointment of female researchers to leading positions. Not only from the viewpoint of gender equality but also to demonstrate organizational creativity (including the ability to adopt diverse viewpoints and ideas and to conduct innovative research), it is extremely important to increase the number of female researchers and to improve their research skills.

This program therefore aims to improve the research skills of female researchers and to support their appointment to leading positions. With the cooperation of universities, research institutions, and private enterprises, we are working to improve the research environment for women and to provide more opportunities for research, taking into account many women’s need to balance research against the demands of everyday life (henceforth referred to as the “work/life-balance”), including “life events” such as childbirth, childcare and the long-term care of elderly relatives. Flexible support will enable women to develop and demonstrate their research skills to the full."

For more on this topic, see the section on Work Ethic and Work Culture in Japan on our Career Resources for Science & Engineering Students page. 

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Women in STEM in the U.S.

This section provide some background and data on women and minorities in science and engineering (S&E) in the U.S. and Japan and links to articles and other helpful resources for students who would like more information on this topic.

According to the National Science Board's 2016 Science & Engineering Indicators Report their section on 'Higher Education in Science & Engineering' in the U.S outlines that:

  • The number of S&E bachelor’s degrees has risen steadily over the past 13 years, reaching a new peak of more than 615,000 in 2013. The proportion of all bachelor’s degrees awarded in S&E relative to degrees in all fields has remained stable at about 32% during this period.
    • All S&E fields experienced increases in the numbers of bachelor’s degrees awarded in 2013, including computer sciences, which had declined sharply in the mid-2000s and had remained flat through 2009.
    • Women have earned about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees and about half of all S&E bachelor’s degrees since the late 1990s. Men earn the majority of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, computer sciences, mathematics and statistics, and physics, and women earn the majority in the biological, agricultural, and social sciences and in psychology.
    • Between 2000 and 2013, the proportion of S&E bachelor’s degrees relative to degrees in all fields awarded to women remained flat. During this period, it declined in computer sciences, mathematics, physics, engineering, and economics.
  • Graduate enrollment in S&E increased from about 493,000 to more than 615,000 between 2000 and 2013.
    • Graduate enrollment grew in most S&E fields, with particularly strong growth in engineering and in the biological and social sciences.
    • Women continued to enroll at disproportionately low rates in engineering (24%), computer sciences (26%), physical sciences (33%), and economics (37%).
    • In 2013, underrepresented minority students (blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians and Alaska Natives) made up 12% of all students enrolled in graduate S&E programs. Asians and Pacific Islanders represented 6%, and whites represented 44%. Temporary residents accounted for almost one-third of graduate S&E enrollment.

Of 'Women & Minorities in the S&E Workforce' in the U.S. the report states that:

  • "Historically, men have outnumbered women by wide margins with regards to both S&E employment and S&E training. Although the number of women in S&E occupations or with S&E degrees doubled over the past two decades, the disparity has narrowed only modestly. This imbalance is still particularly pronounced in S&E occupations. In 2013, women constituted only 29% of workers in these occupations, although they accounted for half of the college-educated workforce overall. Among S&E degree holders, the disparity was smaller but nonetheless significant with women representing 39% of employed individuals with a highest degree in S&E.
  • Although women represented only 29% of individuals in S&E occupations in 2013, women’s presence varies widely across S&E occupational fields. The percentage of female S&E workers continues to be lowest in engineering, where women constituted 15% of the workforce in 2013. Among engineering occupations with large numbers of workers, women accounted for only 8% of the workforce of mechanical engineers and about 11% to 12% of the workforce of electrical and computer hardware engineers and of aerospace, aeronautical, and astronautical engineers. Other disproportionately male S&E occupations include physical scientists (31% women) and computer and mathematical scientists (25% women). Within physical sciences occupations, physicists and astronomers have the largest imbalance (11% women). Within computer and mathematical sciences occupations, the largest component, computer and information scientists, has a smaller proportion of women (24%), compared with the mathematical scientists component, which is closer to parity (42% women).
Most universities in the U.S. have specialized programs, offices, and support for women and minorities in S&E at both the undergraduate and graduate level.   At Rice University, the Women in Engineering page highlights female enrollment in engineering programs and university offices and clubs whose mission is to help and support female engineers.  Rice University has also be recognized for its success in the recruitment and retention of minority and female graduate students in the US News & World Reports article "Graduate Engineering Programs Beef Up Efforts for Minorities & Women".
Click on the boxes below to access additional articles related to the topic of Women in STEM in the U.S.  Students may also want to review the section on Work Ethic and Work Culture in the U.S. on our Career Resources for Science & Engineering Students page. 

Retention of Women in STEM in Academia

Retention of Women in STEM Workforce 

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