Maya Taliaferro: Microbiology Research at Kyoto University

For my CIP I worked in a microbiology lab at Kyoto University under the supervision of Dr. Hosokawa. As a STEM major at my home institution (neuroscience to be more specific) I was really inspired to pursue this as my CIP as it aligned perfectly with my interest in scientific research. I had some previous experience working in research labs in the United States, so I was really interested to see how the Japanese lab environment compared. 

I was extremely nervous going to visit Dr. Hosokawa at first because, while I have experience in microbiology, it’s not my primary focus at school. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had a lot of experience with the methodological aspects of the work being done in her lab. With this in mind, a lot of the work I helped with in the lab was technical; I set up and helped collect data from Western Blot, gel electrophoresis, and protein transduction analyses. However, the primary focus of her work revolved around the observation of cellular organelles via confocal microscopy. This technique is something that is used quite frequently in neuroscientific research and was, therefore, something I felt extremely confident using. This experience allowed for a seamless transition from being shown how to work with the microscope, to being supervised while using the microscope to finally being able to run slides on my own while Dr. Hosokawa worked on other things. That was one of the best things about working with Dr. Hosokawa — she treated me as an assistant to her research rather than just a student and this was reflected in the type of work she trusted me to do on my own. 

Overall I learned a lot about the research process in general, about the Japanese research environment specifically, and about Japanese language and culture from Dr. Hosokawa herself. In terms of the universal research experience, I learned a great deal about the amount of time and effort that goes into getting a research manuscript published. She had been working on the research we were conducting for 2 years and still hadn’t been able to get her manuscript published, something I learned was quite normal in the world of research. In terms of the Japanese research environment specifically, it seemed to me that compared to the United States, Japanese research is far more independent.While there were other researchers in Hosokwa’s lab working on the same project they tended to work on their own and only came together to compare and assess findings. From my experience, the United States has a much more collaborative approach to research work where almost nothing is done without discussion amongst team members. I also found the gender divide in the lab to be interesting. Like in the US, it seems that research is a predominantly male dominated occupation in Japan. While Dr. Hosokawa is female, every one of her 6 research graduate students were male. In addition, all other research professors that I interacted with from other labs were also male. This, while slowly changing in the US, seems to be a trend in the STEM field across the world. Finally, in terms of Japanese language and culture I was able to learn quite a bit from Dr. Hosokawa. Since research of this nature is very hands-on, I was able to follow much of the instructions given to me in Japanese by observing while listening. At first this felt very difficult as I didn’t want to mess anything up, but over time it began to get easier as I became more familiar with the Japanese terms. I think this allowed me to pick up a lot of Japanese in a more natural way — by listening to the words and seeing in real-time what they meant. Also, since the type of tests run in microbiology often take a long time, there were many times when Dr. Hosokawa and I were left with free time together to just chat about anything. These were amazing times to learn about the Japanese perspective on many different topics as well as an opportunity to utilize Japanese I had learned in a conversational way. It was a great time to increase my cultural awareness as well as my Japanese skillset. 

My advice for future students when considering their CIP is to choose something they are really interested in and to view it as more than just a time to practice Japanese, but a chance to form close bonds with those you meet. Even in a CIP such as mine where I didn’t really interact with peers my age, I was still able to form a great bond with Dr. Hosokawa. This included exchanging cookies on Valentine’s day and even taking a trip together to a nearby shrine for the Setsubun Festival. The CIP can be an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, but sometimes that requires you get out of your comfort zone.

4 thoughts on “Maya Taliaferro: Microbiology Research at Kyoto University

  1. Hey Maya, this sounds like such an awesome experience. I don’t have any experience in STEM research myself, but I can see that it must have been super interesting and rewarding. I would love to look more into doing research in my field during a future stay in Japan. During KCJS, I didn’t get to look too much into what academia looks like in Japan, so I was curious about that. Why do you think Japanese research is more independent while American research is more collaborative? Also, what differences or similarities do you see in the gender gap in research between the two countries?

    For my CIP, it was also nice when my superiors allowed me to do something on my own without their supervision. For future KCJS students, how do you think you go about building that trust with the people you are working with in Japan? It seems like building trust is definitely key in having a good CIP experience.

    Thanks for sharing what you did for your CIP! I’m looking forward to hearing more about your research career in the future!

    • Thanks for your comments Brian!

      In terms of the difference between the American and Japanese research environments, it’s hard to say why such a discrepancy exists. It could come down to a difference in expectations between the US and Japan in terms of how research is conducted. Of course, it isn’t that there is no collaboration between researchers in Japan from what I witnessed, but rather, that collaboration seemed to come once a researcher had pursued a certain avenue in how they were going to tackle the given research problem whereas in the US this pursuit tends to come after said collaborative effort. In this way, the Japanese approach seems to provide researchers with a bit more freedom in terms of the direction they want to take before working with their peers.

      With regard to the gender gap in research between the two countries I think they’re very similar. However, it feels to me that recently the US has done a lot more to increase the amount of women working in STEM fields (via special grants, fellowships, etc) while there doesn’t appear to be such a push in Japan.

      And to your final point, yes it definitely does seem that building trust is a key part of a successful CIP! My advice for future KCJS students for building that trust would be to pick a project that you have either at least a bit of knowledge or experience in. That way your attitude and skills will (maybe) speak more volumes than your Japanese. I know for me personally, going into the lab with very limited Japanese skills was terrifying, but once I was able to be familiar with stuff I recognized I gained a lot more confidence that I could be of use. I think attitude and experience are universally understood no matter where you go and, therefore, can allow you to build trust with people even if your language skills aren’t necessarily the best.

  2. Haha wow, pretty sure I didn’t understand most of the first paragraph, but it really does sound interesting. This CIP is definitely unlike any of the other CIP’s I seen so far. It’s really cool that you were able to participate in something that you could be able to use in the future and for your major. And I definitely agree that learning Japanese in that kind of environment is one of the best methods of actually retaining information. Did you and the other researches make much progress in the research?

    • Thank you Alexis!

      It’s interesting that you should ask that because I originally thought that we hadn’t really had much of any progress when we were there. We were mostly trying to fix the problems that had been pointed out by a journal review board so that the manuscript she was working on could be published. It felt like every time we tried something it still didn’t work (and most of that had to do with the fact that some of the tools present at Kyoto University weren’t strong enough to capture the images she needed to capture). However, the last couple of weeks I was there we were able to fix one of the issues that had been pointed out by the review board (I’ll spare you the details because it has to do with showing how viral a certain virus was). So that, as small of a victory it was, was very exciting. But, overall, the work is still very much ongoing.