Before leaving Japan
When I was a child, I was not very sociable but loved reading and observing plants and insects. I did not have the strong motivation of going to other countries or talking with non-Japanese people. Even while learning English in the class, I was thinking that I would not be using English in practice.
When I entered the University of Tokyo, I was intrigued by literature and by the natural sciences. When I needed to determine my major, evolutionary biology appeared to me as really appealing. This was because evolution was a field that was able to investigate both nature itself and possible stories that might have occurred behind the history of nature. I chose evolutionary anthropology in the department of biology and started learning about human evolution and diversity. Throughout my studies, I came to think that interacting with people from different cultures would be fascinating, rather than only reading papers and books. My advisor, Dr. Takafumi Ishida occasionally went abroad, to several research fields in Southeast Asia, and thus international researchers frequently visited our lab.
In my Ph.D. course, I focused on applying the fast-evolving field of genomics to understand human diversity and evolution. I started working on “gene gains/losses” in the human genome. Humans have two copies of most genes (one from its mother, the other from its father) in their genome, but sometimes mutations can increase/decrease the number of genes. The duplicated/deleted gene could be evolutionarily advantageous, and in that case, individuals with more/fewer numbers of the particular gene would increase in the population through generations. These “gene gains/losses” are known to have been accelerated in the primate lineage, especially the ape lineage; and thus “gene gains/losses” likely had a great impact on human genomic evolution. However, there have been multiple technical issues to identify and analyze those “gene gains/losses”. I have been developing bioinformatics tools to understand the evolutionary impact of the “gene gains/losses” in the human genome.
In 2015, I happened to come by a paper. The study reported gene deletion polymorphisms that are shared between modern and archaic humans (e.g. Neanderthals etc.), using a comparative genomics approach. I was excited, thinking the authors would know cutting-edge approaches to investigate copy number variation in the view of human evolution. The group leader, Dr. Omer Gokcumen (Left in the photo) was an open and friendly person who showed great interest in my research about a metabolic gene (GSTM1) deletion polymorphism, which was associated with bladder cancer and was shared between humans and chimpanzees. I obtained a fellowship and stayed in Buffalo from May to July 2016.
Omer was a very active researcher and we were able to discuss all the time. I learned a lot of things such as the digital PCR experiment technique to determine gene copy number and computational genomics methods to identify potentially evolutionarily advantageous copy number variation. His group was international, consisting not only of US citizens but also Turkish, Chinese, Taiwanese students, so I was exposed to topics such as global economy, social issues, science policy, and safety in different areas, which provided me with a new view of the world. Back in Japan, I also collaborated with Dr. Yoko Satta and combined computational, experiment, and simulation analysis to understand the evolutionary history of the metabolic gene, GSTM1 gene deletion polymorphism. As a result, we also found that a haplotype associated with the deletion had been advantageous in East Asia and increased its frequency with the GSTM1 deletion there. That fall, I received the best presentation award at the Annual Meeting of Physical Anthropology of Japan, which brought me confidence about this research and my learning process. Soon after receiving my Ph.D. in March 2017, I became an Astellas Research Fellow and flew back to Buffalo as a postdoctoral researcher.
Research works at Buffalo are summarized here:
The research environment at Buffalo
The impressive culture at Buffalo is that both faculty and the university often praise members. Omer bought champagne whenever anything good happened (someone published a paper, got an award etc.) The University press highlighted members (both students and employees) when they published a paper, got an award or grant, or even held local conferences. I believe the continuous interest in their achievement and research activity encourages students and researchers a lot. American federal grants are “huge but very competitive”. Unlike Japanese national grants, which are annual, American grants have multiple review cycles. It is also possible to revise and resubmit proposals after receiving reviews.
Another impressive thing was the gender balance. I was one of the 20% female students at the University of Tokyo – in science-major files, only 10% were female students, and higher up in the career, the female ratio got even worse. Parents and society usually do not encourage girls to pursue a career, especially in STEM fields in Japan. I was impressed by the fact that more than 40% of the professors are female at the University at Buffalo. At many scientific conferences, there were Women in Science Forums/Queer Forums, and they did not hesitate to claim equality at those places. Also, there were a non-small number of open-transgender people. Universities had bathrooms for transgender people. On many paperwork, gender was categorized as male/female/non-binary/do not wish to answer. “Spouse-hiring system ” was an interesting system that supported dual-career couples. If one of the couples gets a position in a University, the University tries to find a position for the other. The high diversity and mobility of the people were contributing to active collaborations at Buffalo.
Difficulties at Buffalo
To be fair, I will also mention the cons at Buffalo. The scariest thing was winter driving. Public transportation in Buffalo was not great and we barely had once an hour bus. However, my nine-year student life in Tokyo never improved my driving skills. It was challenging to get a local driver’s license and get used to commuting by car. When I bought a car, people said that dealers won’t take a small Asian woman seriously, so I asked one of my colleagues, a huge master’s course student covered with a beard to come with me to buy a car. Quite a few drivers in Buffalo were inpatient and kept horning. In winter, things were worse. I needed to clean the frozen snow off my car, especially those on the windows. In the darkness of the morning and evening, I drove the icy road like a skate link, which was really horrible.
Another thing was the notorious medical system. The University did not offer a free health checkup unlike Japan, so I needed to find a local primary doctor. However, there was no nationwide insurance, so the insurance they accept was different between doctors (and online information was often old or wrong). A telephone appointment was needed to see a doctor. Many doctors were too busy and did not accept new patients. If you were lucky you could find a doctor, but you can make an appointment only several months after. Moreover, when I went to see the doctor, they lost my documents, filled my insurance information wrong, plus they did not assign me correctly, so I needed to go to the doctor’s office three or four times before actually seeing the doctor (So many different people with different titles were working in the doctor’s office, which made things complicated).
Last, but not least, I may have encountered those kinds of people by chance, but office work at the university was not very efficient in many cases. First of all, the most important visa procedure was extremely slow. If there was an issue in the visa, even if it was a fault of the university, there was always the possibility that I could be the subject of punishment for violating the law. One time, I needed an electronic signature of a specialist regarding the visa. I asked the same person three times. She said to me “you should wait” twice, and the third time she said “I did not receive the document from you”, although the exact document was sent from me to her several times in the same email thread and we could still see it. I still vividly remember that my whole body was shaking with rage. Of course, there were some capable and professional people who really wanted to help clients, but in my impression, there were more slow and forgetful people, unfortunately.
I stayed three and a half years in the United States. I have experienced both good things and challenging things, which I would not have faced in Japan. My life in the USA expanded my research skills, while also opening my mind and increasing my social and survival skills through interaction with different people from all over the world. I also found great aspects of Japan, such as polite and hard-working people, pretty and tasty meals, and many nationwide services.
After doing another postdoc at the University of Chicago (I may write another article about it in the future), In November 2020, I moved to Norway and started my research group at the Centre of Integrative Genetics (CIGENE), Faculty of Biosciences, Norwegian University of Life Sciences. I am looking forward to experiencing another culture in Norway.
The original text is on my personal website.