Paul graduated from Rice University in May of 2009 with a B.S. in Biochemistry & Cell Biology. He will begin an accelerated second degree program in pursuit of his B.S. Nursing degree in January 2010 at the University of Pittsburgh with an anticipated graduation date in early 2011.
As a Biochemistry major, I was a little hesitant to apply to NanoJapan, since it’s primarily an engineering-based summer program. The vast majority of the projects were rooted in either electrical engineering or physics. Since I am not at all comfortable (or even familiar!) with those fields, I spent a long time weighing the options in my head. However, after some thought, I completed my application and was fortunate enough to be accepted. Furthermore, I was ecstatic when I discovered that I would be working on a biology-based project in one of Japan’s most respected research groups.
During my research period at the Laboratory for Scientific Instrumentation and Engineering at Osaka University, I spent most of my time in Osaka University’s Nanobiology Building. It was there that I learned about the dynamics of cell membrane-gold particle interaction through a combination of researching and paper-reading. I was given the task of culturing a healthy colony of HeLa (human cervical cancer) cells and subsequently monitoring the effect that differing concentrations of gold ion solution had on their viability and function. This involved the use of advanced imaging techniques including fluorescence microscopy, time-lapse image capture, dark field microscopy, and Raman spectroscopy. I worked alongside a fourth-year undergraduate student who helped me along the way, yet was still given an amazing amount of freedom for a young foreigner working in one of Japan’s best labs! Although we had only begun to obtain interesting results a few days before my internship at LaSIE came to an end, I learned a huge amount about both cell culture procedure and imaging systems.
The experience of working in an international research setting was certainly an eye-opener. At Rice, I had done lab work before, and so was reasonably prepared for what I would encounter at Osaka University. That being said, there are a huge number of differences between labs here in the US and similar facilities in Japan, some of which take a lot of getting used to. At times, I was frustrated by certain aspects of the experience, but for the majority of the time I felt like I was in control of my project and had a large number of advisers and coworkers who could provide assistance if I got really confused.
I learned a huge amount from this research experience, and it’s certainly changed my academic plans for the future. I have moved from a biology lab to a more chemistry-based one where I will be focusing once again on nanoparticles in a biological setting. In addition, it’s much easier to appreciate some of my courses (now that I’ve actually conducted some of the procedures that can be a serious pain to learn out of textbooks). I hope to continue research in the nanotechnology field with a focus on drug delivery systems.
Meaning of NanoJapan
For me, NanoJapan is a unique program that allows science and engineering students the chance to travel halfway around the world, build international experience and connections, and still have the ability to focus on research.... not only have I made friends and connections abroad, but I’ve also been able to continue research in a similar vein here at Rice under the supervision of a post-doc in Professor Naomi Halas’ laboratory. I am also continuing to study Japanese, although classes don’t really match the opportunity that living in Japan for eleven weeks offered (understandably)!
Daily Life in Japan
I thought that day-to-day living in the suburbs of Osaka was incredible, and actually a lot less stressful than I was anticipating. The weekdays revolved around lab work, which is completely understandable when realizing that this program is first and foremost designed to let undergraduates conduct research. I would usually get up at around 8 every day, go for a nice run around the neighborhoods close to our on-campus housing, and then eat breakfast (which consisted either of rice and bananas or, alternatively, frosted flakes and bananas). I’d arrive in the lab around 9 AM, and work there until noon, when I would typically eat lunch with the other members of the lab. The afternoon was also spent working, and depending on the amount of work to get done, I’d leave sometime between 5 and 7 most evenings. After dinner (which my roommate and I would either cook or get from a convenience store), I’d spend the evenings relaxing by talking to friends and family back home, studying Japanese, or watching absurd Japanese television.
My roommate and I lived in the International Student House at Osaka University, which was about 10 minutes walk from the lab where I spent most of my time. The apartment was small, but had everything that we needed including a fridge, heating element, microwave/oven combination (possibly the most awesome thing ever), shower, internet access, and a television. We were close to a wide selection of restaurants and a reasonably priced supermarket. The nearest train station was 15 minutes away and got us into the middle of Osaka in a little bit over a half hour. There weren’t any downsides to our location apart from the fact that since it was in the suburbs, and since the Osaka Campus we worked on was primarily for graduate students, there was almost nothing to do nearby after 7 PM. If we had been closer to the city center, our evenings would have been much more exciting from a cultural perspective.
On the weekends, I tried to travel as much as possible. As a way to improve our Japanese, my roommate and I usually preferred traveling by ourselves, since the temptation to speak English can be overwhelming! The Kansai region of Japan has so much to see that I didn’t have enough time to visit everywhere I wanted to go, even over a period of eight weeks. Since I was curious about Japanese history, I visited Kyoto several times as well as the historic city of Nara. However, I am also a big fan of the more modern sides of Japan, so most of my weekend trips were into Osaka or Kobe, another large city in the area. Occasionally we would spend time with our lab coworkers, but for the vast, vast majority of the time they would work every day, all day, without much time for socializing outside of the university! Traveling was definitely my favorite part of the program. Originally, I had been hoping to venture further afield (to Hiroshima and Fukuoka) but time got away from me. All in all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to explore.
My favorite experience in Japan was...
I think I’m going to be clichéd here and say that sunrise on top of Mount Fuji was not only my favorite memory from Japan, but one of the most profound moments I have ever experienced. I hadn’t ever hiked or climbed before, so I really didn’t know what to expect. In short, it was really difficult, with technical paths and a rapidly decreasing temperature the closer we got to the summit. The journey to Fuji itself was full of almost laughably absurd problems (such as making our train from Tokyo by about 15 seconds, or accidentally getting off of a train in the middle of mega-rural Japan, or climbing Fuji on the night of a massive fireworks show that was attended by thousands of people who managed to overwhelm and delay even the mighty Japanese public transport system). When all was said and done, however, we made it to the top 15 minutes before sunrise, and had a staggering view as the sun began to appear. It was gorgeous. Even though the descent down the mountain was not nearly as pleasant as the ascent had been, I can’t stress this enough: If you go to Japan, climb Mount Fuji – there is nothing else that can compare. You’ll understand when you see the view from the summit!
Before I left for Japan I wish I had...
Before leaving for Japan, I wish I had stocked up on postcards. They are cheap, thoughtful gifts that you can give to lab workers, Japanese friends, and so on. Most of the time, you can find a postcard with something from your hometown on it, so it’s a good way to tell others about where you live. It’s also a good idea to bring extra toiletries along, as the Japanese versions can be a lot less effective than their American counterparts (I would stress bringing extra deodorant, sunblock, and any sort of specialty product you might need). A good recommendation I received before going was to get a headset and download Skype so that I could chat online to folks back home. I spent a lot of my evenings catching up with friends and family, it’s good to stay in touch. Apart from that, I would recommend NOT bringing a huge number of clothes or shoes…they are a hassle to haul around, and if you need more shirts Tokyo is literally heaving with awesome fashion (including the most incredible sneaker stores in the world). Research your destinations, begin planning day/weekend trips, and make sure to figure out your spending budget before getting to Shibuya and Harajuku.
While I was in Japan I wish I had...
While I was in Japan, I wish I had eaten more high-end food. I was a little worried about running out of money at points, and as a result I didn’t eat too many of the meals that were on my to-do list. The majority of my evenings were spent eating food on the Osaka University campus or in my apartment. I also wish that I could have traveled further afield, but time got away from me towards the end of the research period. If you’re going to be traveling a ton, buy a Japan Rail Pass here in the States, but if you’re not really committed to the idea of hitting up as much of Japan as possible, stick to buying tickets in the discount stores around train stations. A lot of the trains that run in and around urban areas aren’t owned by Japan Rail and so the passes don’t work on them. You can always get a partial refund of your Rail Pass when you come home, but I never came close to using mine while overseas. Also, I wish that I had spent more time making connections with Japanese people who didn’t work in my lab. I feel like my speaking skills would have improved dramatically if I had spent a few nights a week just chatting to locals. Finally, make sure to explore. It might seem like you have ages and ages to get out and about, but trust me: time will pass you by if you don’t make a concerted effort to do something every day! Finally, and perhaps most importantly, GO TO KARAOKE AS MUCH AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE.