Meaning of NanoJapan
The NanoJapan program was one of the best experiences of my life – both scientifically and culturally. Travelling to Japan to perform nanotechnology research gave me the opportunity to explore another culture while gaining experience as a scientist in an international research lab. This program has been key to showing me how research is becoming truly globalized and that connections within the research community are very important. I was able to attend a conference with my research lab during my stay in Japan, and this was a unique experience where I met other scientists and was able to understand a little more about how researchers interact. The NanoJapan program is a great way to explore your interests and learn about the life of an independent researcher, and this has helped me gain more interest in an academic and research-based career path.
I chose to participate in the program because it offered a unique experience – to study and work in Japan, learn the language and culture, and be mentored and guided by a wonderful lab of international students, post-docs, and professors. I plan to continue undergraduate research, and I am definitely looking forward to my next international opportunity. I hope to stay in touch with the friends I have made in Japan and in the program, and I aim to volunteer to help any international Japanese students visiting my university.
Georgia Lagoudas Receives Honorable Mention for Best Poster Presentation at the 2009 RQI Summer Research Colloquium
Georgia Lagoudas received an Honorable Mention for the Texas Instruments Best NanoJapan Poster Presentation award at the 2009 Rice Quantum Institute Summer Research Colloquium for her poster presentation on the Chirality Separation and Optical Characterization of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes. To view her abstract and poster click here.
Research Internship Overview
During my summer in the Maruyama Lab, I worked with a Ph.D. student and focused on understanding the process of separation of carbon nanotubes. I investigated metallic separation of nanotubes by using the density gradient ultracentrifugation technique, and this technique involved using various surfactants mixed with the nanotubes and placing the mixture into a centrifuge that causes the nanotubes to separate into layers based on density. By later analyzing the layers with spectroscopy instruments, I could decipher what types of nanotubes were in each layer. Therefore, I began to form a model of how surfactants interact with the nanotubes and what the best combination is for optimum separation.
This project related to my interest of nanotube research, while still using biochemistry lab techniques that I could relate to from my past experience. I will continue this work in a laboratory at my home university, and I hope to achieve further progress on this project. During my summer at the University of Tokyo, the lab I worked in was very international, with students and employees from China, Thailand, America, Japan, and other places. I was lucky that almost everyone in the lab spoke English, so it was not necessary to communicate with my co-workers in Japanese. I really enjoyed the international setting and gained a lot from hearing about everybody’s experiences. The lab had a good mixture of graduate students and undergraduate students, so I was able to hear from everyone’s perspective. Some students planned to enter industry, while a few wanted to continue research. We had weekly meetings (these were almost completely in Japanese, to my dismay), and each student displayed his/her work and presented to the group. This included me, so I had a good experience presenting in front of an entire lab and mentor and receiving feedback on my project.
Maruyama-sensei is a very well-known researcher in the nanotube field, so he is often very busy and out of town. Therefore, make sure that you stay on top of things and report your progress, for he trusts the students to do their work on their own and have personal responsibility to complete their own tasks. This was a very independent lab, so it may not be the place for you if you do not feel comfortable working on your own. It was perfect for me because I had the freedom to explore my own interests and create my own project with some guidance from the student mentor. I was able to set my own schedule and work independently, so I enjoyed that freedom.
We had weekly group meetings, and prepare yourself, because they are about 4 hours long, almost exclusively in Japanese (except for your presentation and some of the other foreigners). The group meetings were a great experience because they give you the chance to practice making presentations and talking about scientific research. It was fascinating to be a part of the group discussions (at least those in English), and I learned a lot from the presentations. The lab also had some social gatherings, such as soccer matches and dinners. I made many friends, and they often helped me plan my travels around Japan.
Maruyama-sensei’s lab was a great experience, and I am still appreciating the significance of working in a lab of such renown. The equipment was state-of-the-art, and I gained many technical skills working in the lab and learning the spectroscopy equipment. Tokyo University was a great environment, open to foreigners, and always busy with activities. Maruyama-sensei gives you lots of respect, so it is up to you to prove that you deserve it.
I look forward to continuing this type of work during the school year and in the future, and I feel much more prepared to enter any type of lab, for the experience with NanoJapan has truly helped me learn a lot and feel more confident.
Daily Life in Japan
A usual day for me in Tokyo would include waking up around 6-7 am for a morning run through the city (some days I would run by the bay, other days to the fish market, other days to surrounding parks – it was great fun exploring the enormous and exciting city of Tokyo). After my run, I would pack my things and some breakfast onto my bicycle and ride for about 15 minutes to get to the University. I loved this morning ride, and I tried to go early to avoid the mid-day heat. I usually arrived before 9 am, and the office was often silent until the students started strolling in around 10:30 am. I was very fortunate to have a helpful graduate student who advised me on the project and basically was there for questions, but otherwise allowed me to conduct my own research. Therefore, I was able to set my own schedule, and I went down to the lab to perform my own experiments. I usually did some paper reading in the morning until 10 or 11, then I would leave the office and spend some time in the lab taking out my experiment from the previous day and analyzing the results.
After a lunch break, I would spend all afternoon preparing for my next experiment, putting it in the centrifuge, and then analyzing collected data from the spectroscopy machines. I would ask my mentor if I had any questions, and every week we had a group meeting with the entire lab. I usually stayed at the lab until 9 pm or later, so I would eat a snack at the university cafeteria (good, cheap food!) and then bike home with my glorious bike headlamp turned on. In the evening, I would usually just have enough time to eat a quick dinner, relax and catch up on the news back home with some Jon Stewart, and then jot down my daily journal entry.
For food, I bought things at the nearby supermarkets, riding my bike and carrying a backpack to load up my groceries. I loved the fruit at the markets, and I also indulged in all types of breads and pastries. I had fun cooking up some Japanese recipes at my apartment (we had a shared kitchen), and even though I am vegetarian, I had no problem finding food to eat. I would probably eat out about a little over half the time, at the school cafeteria or local fast food places during the week. One thing that was very helpful while cooking and trying to decipher the instructions on the packages I bought – my neighbor was Chinese, so she could read the kanji on the food labels (this came in handy!).
I had come to Japan to see new things and explore, so I travelled almost every single weekend during my summer in Japan. This was the best decision that I ever made! Work hard, play hard – during the week, finish as much work as possible, then spend the whole weekend exploring something new. The only weekend that I did not travel outside of Tokyo was the weekend that I moved in to the apartment (I had to buy all those silly things you need to live for 3 months – bedding, towels, bath stuff – how inconvenient). After our three weeks together of travelling with the group, I made some friends from my language class, and the “Tokyo Crew” became my travel buddies. The four of us explored all of Japan (or nearly all of it, we may have missed a few side streets). We went to Beppu, Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Hokkaido, Nagano, Kamikochi, Matsumoto, Himeji, Kobe, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Sendai, Shimoda, Atami, Mount Fuji, and more. We would usually meet together and leave on Friday night (we would plan the trip during the week), then we would travel and explore all weekend, staying at youth hostels (they were quite nice!) and finding fun places to try local cuisine. We would usually return Sunday night or Monday morning, and often with a very small amount of sleep, but we always had a great weekend and unforgettable experiences. We tried onsen baths, explored volcanic craters, gaped at temples, were chased by ravenous deer, and we often met with other Japanese university students that were overjoyed to guide us around the town. It was a unique experience, exploring the culture of Japan, talking to some of the locals, and trying everything with an open mind.
My Favorite Experience in Japan was...
There are too many to choose from!! My most unique experience was visiting Koya-san, the headquarters of Buddhism in Japan located up in the mountain, and this town contained more than 100 temples, some which let visitors stay overnight for a payment. Spending the night with the monks was an unbelievable experience, and exploring the vast Buddhist cemetery nearby at night was thrilling.
Overall, travelling with the Tokyo Crew (Michael, Laura, Hsin-Zon, and me) was a great experience and made my stay in Japan overwhelmingly exceed my expectations because I explored so many places and had so much fun. And I must add that watching the sun rise above the curtain of clouds on top of Mt. Fuji was unforgettable, along with roasting marshmallows on the summit, to everyone’s glee and wonder.
Before I left the U.S. I wish I had...
Spent more time studying Japanese and reading about the things I would encounter in Japan.
While I was in Japan I wish I had...
Bought tofu from the corner tofu shop on my block. I was never back at my apartment before the shop closed down, but the home-made tofu looked delectable. It is always by acting on a whim that you can discover the best surprises. One of my favorite pieces of advice I got while in Japan: if you see Japanese people standing in line, get in line with them! Japanese people gravitate to the best things, so you are guaranteed to find something really worthwhile at the front of the line. Another great piece of advice (as stated by our own Steven from NanoJapan 2009): "Whenever somebody asks you something in Japanese that you may not understand, always say “Hai!” (yes), because you will probably get something good!". Don’t be afraid to try new things, so always keep an open mind and you will discover so much more than you could imagine.
I wish that I had prepared more before the trip to Japan, especially looking over the language books and browsing through the guide books. By doing this, you can feel much more comfortable your first few weeks in Japan and will feel less stressed and pressured with the new changes. Give yourself time to relax for a few days before leaving for Japan because once you get there, it is nonstop!
Also, I strongly suggest that you do some research and reading before you get to your lab because this will help you feel more confident when you arrive at your lab and your mentor may be impressed with your preparation. Make sure to get in contact with your lab before coming to Japan, and do some background reading before arriving. Also, it is nice to send your mentor a few emails once you have arrived in Japan to keep in contact. Another important consideration is to prepare for the type of climate you will be living in. Make sure to do some reading about the city you will stay in, for the cities in Japan can have very different weather. In Tokyo it may be a bit rainy, Kyoto will definitely be hot and humid, and Hokkaido will be cool. Bring a few different types of clothing for all types of weather, especially if you are planning to go to Mt. Fuji (which I highly recommend!!). One other suggestion is to pack a large duffle bag inside your suitcase so that you can bring home the many gifts and souvenirs you are sure to buy! Suitcases are very expensive in Japan, so try to plan ahead.
Orientation Program in Tokyo - Tips
During the orientation program in Tokyo, really take the chance to meet everyone in the group and make friends, for these are some really amazing people. You can have lots of fun travelling together and exploring the huge city of Tokyo, and you will likely meet with them other times during the summer. Use these three weeks to absorb as much of the culture as you can, and put some effort into your language lessons so that you can get as much out of them as possible.
Don’t overstress about being in a new country and don’t worry about the changes and differences – you will learn to adjust, so take this as a chance to look at things in a new way. Listen to the advice of your language teacher and Packard-sensei because they have a lot to offer and teach you about the culture in Japan. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn as much as you can – once you leave Tokyo, you may be on your own, so now is the time to learn and engage those around you.
Make sure to go out as a group a few times – try to go for karaoke one night, and go out with the Japanese students that you will meet. These students really want to make you feel welcome in Japan, and they are happy to show you around the city. By making friends with a few students now, you can talk to them during your stay in Japan if you ever need anything.
Mid-Program Meeting in Kyoto - Tips
The mid-program meeting is a great time to explore Kyoto and the nearby cities, so try to talk to your mentor a few weeks in advance and arrange what time you will be able to leave the lab. I talked to my mentor, and by working hard during the week, I was able to leave 2 days early and meet some friends at the Himeji Castle. We were also able visit Kobe, Osaka, and Nara (which is a really nice place to see great temples and even some very friendly deer!) before going to Kyoto. While staying in Kyoto, I recommend visiting Kiyomizu Temple, Kinkakuji Temple (made of gold!), Fushimi-inari Taisha shrine, and of course explore the many exciting shops of Kyoto.
Coming from Tokyo, I used my 3-week Japan Rail Pass, which is definitely worth the money. I had activated my pass two weekends before because we visited Kyushu and Hiroshima the first weekend, Hokkaido the second weekend, and Kyoto the third weekend on the JR pass. If you are planning to travel (which you should!), it is a great investment to buy the JR pass – and I suggest getting the 3-week one, and I even ended up getting the 4-day JR East pass on top of my 3-week pass. But it was worth it!
Working In Your Research Lab - Tips
I really enjoyed working in Maruyama-sensei’s lab, and I found it very easy to fit in. Many of the students were international, from Thailand, America, China, and more. Almost everyone spoke English, so it was fairly easy to communicate with everyone. It is important to establish a beginning introduction through emails with your professor and your student mentor, and these first few emails will help make a good impression on your hosts (or a bad impression, so be careful). Start off on the right foot, and make sure to listen to the advice during your culture sessions and from Packard-sensei. Don't be overwhelmed and stressed about making a mistake with bowing or gift-giving or any of the customs – as long as your hosts see that you are making an effort to show your respect and gratitude, they will act very kindly with you. My lab members were very welcoming and excited to see me, and we had a dinner party together at the lab office.
I made sure to bring some nice gifts from Texas, both for my professor and for the entire lab. I brought some fun candy for the lab – jelly beans – and they loved it! My professor really appreciated the gift I brought, and it was a nice way to start the summer. Throughout the summer, I noticed that it was a custom to bring back a box of sweets for the lab group if anyone visited a place over the weekend or came back from a trip. This was a very nice custom, so I made it a habit to buy a box of nice sweets for the lab, which I brought in every Monday morning. This was a nice way to share with the group stories of my adventures, and they really appreciated the thoughtfulness. Also, during the goodbyes, it is a good idea to write a nice thank you card to everyone and give a parting gift to your professor and student mentor. One of the best things I brought with me was a huge pack of blank thank you cards, for these were very useful in the lab, at hotels, and with friends.
Living in Tokyo - Tips
I LOVED living in Tokyo – this is the most amazing city I have ever visited! First, the city is enormous, with over 34 million people in the metropolitan area. The city is divided into different wards and districts, with places for shopping, entertainment, wildlife, and just plain craziness! Try to visit as many areas as possible: spend some time in Asakusa to visit the temple and shops, Shinjuku, Shibuya (a must-see), Tsukiji fish market, Ginza, Roppongi, Akihabara, and more. The subway is very easy to use and very safe, so this is the best way to get around.
Your research lab will help you find a place to stay, and it will probably be very close to the university. I stayed in Asakusa, a very nice neighborhood with plenty of stores but still quiet enough to sleep at night. This was about a 15 minute bike-ride from the university, so I ended up borrowing a bike from a lab member. Make sure to familiarize yourself with a good map of Tokyo because it is not fun getting lost in a big city. However, don’t worry because there are friendly police officers on nearly every other street corner, and there are often maps at major intersections. I made it a habit of always having my map, phone, and extra cash with me wherever I went.
In Tokyo, I stayed at a guesthouse, which is similar to an apartment except everyone shares one living room and kitchen. It was a guesthouse for foreigners, so about 6 of us lived on one floor and shared the kitchen and bathrooms. Everything worked out very well, and I made some nice friends from all over the world. The room was furnished with a bed, table, chair, and sheets, so I just had to have towels and bathroom supplies, which I found at a nearby store.
Shopping for food was very fun, and I enjoyed exploring the nearby supermarkets and kombinis for new food. Remember to try a few fruits – the pineapple and peaches were amazing! Also, it was fun looking around the multiple bakeries across town, and keep your eyes open for late-night food sales (around 8 pm the bakeries and supermarkets often mark food ½ off).
Learning Japanese - Tips
I recommend that you give yourself some time to study and prepare before coming to Japan, even looking through the language books or picking up a few easy phrases will be a good start. Make sure to put a lot of effort into your language class, for you will learn a lot of practical speaking skills that will be very useful when traveling around the country. During my research internship, I took a few language classes offered by the university for foreigners (for free), and this was a nice way to meet some more people. Towards the end of the summer I found it hard to keep up the classes along with my work in the lab, so I ended up developing my language skills mostly by “practice” – traveling on the weekends and speaking with Japanese people along the way.