Meet Dr. Marie Saitou, who was one of the 10% of female STEM-major students at the University of Tokyo, and is now a PI in Norway!

What is your scientific background?

My research area is evolutionary biology. My research goal is to understand how various species evolved by using genomic information. I am interested in identifying adaptive genetic variants, and understanding how these genetic variants contributed to evolution.

How did you choose your field of study?

I have been interested in both humanities and science since I was a little child. When I was selecting my major as an undergraduate student, I was wondering whether to choose art or science. Evolutionary biology looked appealing since I could study nature itself and the possible story behind the history of nature by scientific methods so I decided to study evolution.

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?

The biggest achievement, which is also a recent one in my research career, as a starting point, is that my research proposal to Research Council Norway (NOK 8M, $940K) was awarded in June 2021. I thought it would take at least a few more years before I could obtain such a large research grant, and I did not expect it to be awarded at all. I was very surprised to see that my writing style, which is usually considered Japanese (i.e. not very good at “promotion”), was accepted by the community.  I am glad that I won\’t need to be concerned about financial issues in my research group for a while now. I hope to gradually increase the number of group members, expand my skills, insights, and research scope, and publish papers.

I have experienced a lot of failures in my life. I was diagnosed to have Autism Spectrum Disorder tendency when I was 26. Before that, I did not realize that I cannot interpret the world, especially society, and people’s behavior as would a person not on an autism spectrum would. I may have annoyed people for over twenty years unintentionally with my odd and sometimes rude behavior, though I really did not know what was wrong with my behaviors. I still cannot behave “perfectly”, of course, but I am trying to keep learning acceptable behavior by multiple means. 

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings? 

I do doubt my abilities often. Sometimes, everybody else looks much smarter than me and I feel that I am not managing my job well enough at the acceptable level. In that case, I open my CV and try to recall how much I have achieved. Also, I read emails and message cards from previous and current colleagues who like me again and again. 

In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?

I have just opened my own research group in November 2020. So, my next goal is to lead an entire research project, from the beginning, planning to the end, publishing papers, without the supervisors, unlike my postdoc and Ph.D. student era.

Do you come from an academic family? How does your family regard your career choice?

There is no academic person in my family as far as I know. My father was an adjunct teacher in a cram school, which is a specialized private school that helps students to prepare for the entrance examinations of high schools or junior high schools. He was also a science fiction writer.  He has a variety of books and may have influenced me to form my personality. My mother was caring for elderly people and kids. She was not an academic person, but she was not happy that her two younger brothers were better trained in her family because they were boys. That may have encouraged her to let me go to a university. 

Many of my classmates in a private girl’s middle-high school suddenly started expressing that they wanted to become a doctor when we decided our careers. It sounded abrupt to me since seemingly, many of them did not show particular interest in medicine. A non-small proportion of parents encourage their daughters to become a doctor if they are good at math or science. This happened at my home as well. I do not know exactly why it happens. Perhaps medical doctors are visible to everybody’s life and are helping people clearly and directly. Or it may be just because even adults do not know that many occupations. 

Around the time after entering the university, I felt over-controlled by my parents, especially my mother, and felt I was like a child even if I was over twenty. I moved to another country just after receiving my Ph.D.  Now, I think my parents are gradually changing and they respect the fact that I am doing well in another country. 

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Were you able to overcome these?

After graduating from a girls’ high school, I was surprised when I entered the University of Tokyo in 2008, where only 20% of students and 10% of STEM-major students were female (this is the same in 2021, too). I know several female students that ended their future careers because of the lack of female role models. This made it difficult to imagine a successful future for themselves. Moreover, when I was a student, several female students left academia due to harassment and/or a toxic, discouraging environment.

I want to facilitate female students who are interested in STEM but are prevented from pursuing it to begin and continue their studies. I worked as an advisor for female high-school students interested in STEM fields at the University of Tokyo’s May Festival in 2013. The girls had fears about the work-life balance of female researchers, and I realized that to change these perspectives it is important to improve the working environment and overall gender equality to encourage talented women to pursue science.

When I was a Ph.D. student in the School of Science at the University of Tokyo, I organized the 7th Get-Together Event for Female Students and Researchers in 2015. I was able to collaborate with female faculty members as well as other female Ph.D. students. The professors enthusiastically encouraged us to study abroad to learn about inclusive and diverse academic environments, which led me to seek my postdoctoral fellowship in the United States. 

The highly male-dominated atmosphere in academia in Japan has led to a lack of inclusion of female researchers and students at higher levels of academia. As a post-doctoral researcher in the US, I learned not only research techniques but also how female leaders succeed in the academic field. One of the significant challenges in studying evolution is to maintain a broad intellectual perspective and integrate different disciplines such as biology, statistics, climate, computer science into specific questions. For this, I aim to lead the field to promote intellectual diversity and interdisciplinarity. Japan needs a strong role model for female researchers. Now I have my own research group in Norway, where is one of the most advanced countries regarding gender equality and work-life balance. I truly hope to encourage many younger female scholars all over the world.