Laurie Wang: Cell Biology Research at Kyoto University

For my CIP this semester, I decided to participate in two activities. The first was to volunteer once a week at the iCeMS Science Communications Group, where I worked as a translator and helped with bi-weekly event preparations. The second was working at the Hosokawa Lab of Kyoto University for the  Molecular and Cellular Biology Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences. From these two, I got to experience two sides of Japanese work culture: that of the office environment as well as the freer laboratory setting. However, since I spent the majority of my time working in the lab, I will spend this report describing my experiences there and save iCeMS for next semester’s blog post.

Upon coming to Japan, I researched some labs on my own and eventually settled on the Hosokawa Lab, which mainly focuses on the mechanisms of Endoplasmic Reticulum Associated Degradation (ERAD) and the roles of chaperones and lectin function. After sending the first nerve-wracking email to Hosokawa-sensei,  I was very ecstatic to hear back from her that I could participate and continue cell biology research in Kyoto despite my one year’s worth of Japanese abilities. We exchanged emails entirely written in extremely formal keigo, which was a challenge to me at the time. Soon enough, I was invited to visit the lab!

My first meeting almost failed to happen – I somehow ended up in the East building (the lab is in the West – thank my poor navigational skills for that), and ended up having to ask two researchers where to go. I was quickly ushered into their office as they dialed the main reception to ask which building I was to head to. From there, a reception worker picked me up from the opposite building and took me directly to Hosokawa’s office. Throughout this process, everyone used keigo and thanked each other politely, and I followed suit, though inside I was already panicking inside. If I can barely use keigo to find my way around the Kyodai campus, how was I going to do that officially – on a daily basis – in a lab?

To my surprise, this worry never came into fruition. First, I was taken aback by just how welcome and cheerful  Hosokawa-sensei was from the first time I stepped into her office – she was a character far cry from the more reserved and serious personality I’ve come to expect from older Japanese women. She wore jeans, had unruly hair, and throughout the semester joked about the news, especially regarding the 2016 U.S. election together, with me. She was also the only woman in the lab other than me out of the eight members total, which both 1) stood out to me because I’m used to more women researchers in biology in America, and 2) impressed me because she held the greatest seniority and leadership in what seems to be a male-dominated field in Japan.

As far as other discoveries are concerned, I was mostly amazed at everyone’s utter disregard for keigo whilst in the lab (even the undergrads!). It seemed to me that the norm was apparently to use keigo with others outside of the lab: the deliveryman, and the man who takes orders for lab supplies twice a week, and people you make phone calls to. However, the atmosphere within is much more casual, though still polite (です・ます forms abounded), which made sense to me because the group as a whole seemed very close knit. However, as past students have noticed, this also translated to little socialization with other people of other lab groups, despite it being the opposite case in America.

Throughout the semester, I ended up staying in the lab quite a bit, around twenty hours per week; still, I learned that no matter how hard I work, Japanese PI’s work harder- and for very long periods of time. Usually Hosokawa-sensei leaves long after midnight (“It’s okay because I just live five minutes away!” she proudly exclaims), and comes early the next morning, seven days a week, even on holidays. This of course isn’t to say that all Japanese researchers are workaholics – Tanaka-san, a fellow lab member, apparently likes to take breaks in his day to return to his dormitory, conveniently located two minutes away by bike, to take naps. Furthermore, Hosokawa-sensei herself even took a break one day to take me to see the beautiful autumn leaves in Arashiyama, which goes to show that she isn’t against spending time enjoying herself, but that she truly enjoys doing the work she does.

In addition, there were a couple of other interesting Japanese quirks to the lab that I noticed – taking off your shoes every time you entered a different laboratory, using automatic lights to save energy, and reusing anything and everything that has the potential to be used again. Seeing the dark hallways and crowds of shoes gave me the impression that the facilities in Kyodai were run down at first, but I soon came to appreciate just how much the U.S. can learn from such environmentally-aware habits in the laboratory. Nevertheless, other than these, I felt that doing research in American and Japan didn’t differ as much as one might expect. To this end, I am forever grateful to Hosokawa-sensei, Kyoto University, my labmates, KCJS, and finally, Yale’s Light Fellowship for making this opportunity possible for me. I loved working in the lab, and I hope to continue doing it next semester.  

4 thoughts on “Laurie Wang: Cell Biology Research at Kyoto University

  1. Hi Laurie!

    Throughout the semester, I have been amazed at the amount of effort you put into your CIP activities, on top of an already busy schedule with work for Japanese language and culture classes. It is a feat that you have devoted significant time to research cell biology abroad. One question I have is what are the biggest differences when comparing lab work in Japan to lab work in America? As you continue the KCJS program in the spring, what goals do you have in regards to your lab work? Would you ever see yourself working in a Japanese lab post-grad?

    It has been a pleasure getting to know you this semester. I have admired your work ethic and you continuously push other students to think thoughtfully and critically. I wish you the best of luck next semester and I hope you are able to find new, exciting experiences in Kyoto!

    • Hi Joseph!

      Thanks so much for such a thoughtful and kind comment. I’d like to extend my regards to you and also say that you’ve added so much to the KCJS table through your dedication both in classes and outside! I also wish you the best back in America and hopefully we can visit next year :’)
      In response to your questions, I think the biggest difference is the level of control the PI has over your projects. In America, at least in my experience, you can get some freedom in choosing what you want to accomplish and decide what projects you want to do, which is less so of the case here. I think that for the spring semester, I’d like to simply continue working and do my best so I can contribute to a paper for the lab! On a more personal level, I think it’d be nice to deepen my relationships with my lab-mates further. That being said, I don’t envision myself working myself in a Japanese lab post-grad, mostly because I have other job aspirations…and also due to the recent lack of funding from the government towards research. It’s quite a problem actually, according to my PI, who has had experience working at the U.S.’ NIH (which basically threw money at her), and comparatively it’s kind of limiting!

  2. Hi, Laurie! Even though I don’t understand the science that you’re doing (Chaperones and lectin? What?), it seems like you had a great experience at the lab this semester and were very lucky to have met Hosokawa-sensei! You pointed out some very interesting differences between labs in America and labs in Japan. Did you ask Hosokawa-sensei why the biology field is more male-dominated? Do you think the male-female ration in STEM is more or less the same as in America? Why or why not? Also, did you get a chance to read any Japanese research papers? Were there any differences in the writing styles between American and Japanese scientific papers? Thanks!

    • Thanks for the comment! I didn’t ask her directly about why science research here is so male-dominated, but I get the sense that it’s primarily for the same reasons subjects like Physics and Chemistry don’t have many women in their fields – societal expectations, the workload, not much female advisership, etc. Having visited other bio labs, I also saw much of a similar situation to my lab, i.e. fewer female researchers and mostly young men. Curiously, I found that the female researchers were very skilled at speaking English and wanted to go to America eventually to do research, while their male counterparts wanted to stay in Japan. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to read any Japanese research papers! Scientific journalism is for the most part English only, and everyone in my lab read papers only English despite not really being able to speak English at all.