Emma Breen - NanoJapan 2012
Major/s: Electrical Engineering and English
Anticipated Graduation: May 2015
NJ Research Lab: Prof. Morinobu Endo, Shinshu University
NJ Research Project: Silicon Nanoparticles Coated With DNA-Derived Carbon as Higherperformance Anode Material for Lithium Ion Batteries
For me, the NanoJapan Program was the perfect chance to get some research experience in a field, nanotechnology, that is usually inaccessible to undergraduates without several years of experience. It was the chance to go to a foreign country and to understand how different cultures can collaborate with each other to produce results. Finally, it was the chance to experience Japan, a country I have always been fascinated with, by actually living there – not just by exploring the fringes of it as a tourist.
This program gives physics and engineering students nationwide the opportunity to study nanotechnology outside of the classroom, in research labs doing the kind of work that the students themselves might be doing in the future. Whether they research quantum computing or graphene synthesis, quantum dots or carbon-nanotube technology, the focus of my project at the Endo Lab in Shinshu University, the students in NanoJapan will have an unforgettable experience, and a true introduction to collaborative research and the broad field of nanotechnology.
In the short term, what I look forward to the most is the three-week orientation in Tokyo, and the amount of learning I will be able to do in that short time about the Japanese language and culture. In the long term, I am the most excited about working in Prof. Endo's lab and completing a full-fledged research project on the subject of carbon nanotubes, as well as living in a quiet city, Nagano, that foreign tourists do not usually visit.
My goals for this summer were:
Research Project Overview:
Silicon Nanoparticles Coated With DNA-Derived Carbon as Higherperformance Anode Material for Lithium Ion Batteries
Endo-sensei's lab at Shinshu University consisted of several different groups working on related projects. (One group worked on carbon nanotubes, one group worked on lithium-ion batteries, etc.) Because of my interest in engineering, I was assigned to work with the lithium-ion group. Thus, my research was a little more engineering-based than what you would normally see in NanoJapan. The project that I worked on together with my graduate-student mentor was a new one, devised by a professor, so there was very little catching up to do. The project's basic goal was to alter the anode material of a lithium-ion battery from graphite to silicon nano-particles, in an attempt to increase the battery's capacity. We tried to even out the disadvantages of silicon by coating the nano-particles in DNA-derived carbon. What this amounted to, research-wise, was a lot of time spent mixing samples with various proportions of silicon and DNA, and heating them at temperatures, after which I created anodes, then full batteries, from the completed materials.
If there was one thing that surprised me about research in an international setting, it was the amount of teamwork involved. The members of my lab had a shared public office space, ate lunch together at the cafeteria, and often went out to restaurants together at the end of the day or on weekends. The research, too, was cooperative – the rest of the lab seemed to share the responsibility for my project. Even the poster and abstract, things I expected to write by myself, were passed around and contributed to by the lab, so that my project feel like a real team effort.
This group-based approach does a great job of easing the workload on each person, but it can also be frustrating, especially for American researchers – I had much less independence and autonomy than I was used to, and had to learn to talk to other people and ask questions to get any real work done. If there's one vital thing I learned from the NanoJapan program, it's how important cooperation is for international research, both between nations and between individuals.
Daily Life in Japan
My daily life in Nagano was very peaceful and laid back. I lived on campus and had only a 3-minute commute to work, which started at 10:00 every morning. My dormitory was meant for visiting foreign professors; it was peaceful and had plenty of space, although there were a few days scattered throughout the summer where I couldn't stay there – I had to take weekend trips and stay at hotels during those times.
I would usually wake up at 8 or 9 in the morning, eat breakfast (purchased the night before at a nearby convenience store) and generally take it easy until work started at 10. At 11:30 sharp, all the lab members in the shared work-room would head off to the cafeteria for lunch, although I missed this outing more and more as my research schedule got busier. Work tended to stretch on until late at night, and people often got their dinner from the grocery store just off campus. Since I lived so close by, I would often hang around, chatting with my lab-mates, until 8 or 9 PM, when I would grab a convenience store supper and head back home to eat. The weekends were usually devoted to weekend trips, such as the mid-program meeting in Kyoto, or to day-trips to tourist attractions with my lab-mates. The downtown area, with all the good shops and restaurants, was a 15-minute walk away, so I usually went there only on weekends. Since the city was both very small and very safe, I would often explore just by picking a random direction and walking. Overall, life in Nagano was very peaceful, the people there friendly, and it was never that difficult to get food or supplies.
My Favorite Experience in Japan was...
Without a doubt, the people. In Nagano, the highlights of my day were the times I could speak in Japanese with the members of my lab. Outside of Nagano, the 12 NanoJapan participants for this year bonded with each other and became really close.
But my favorite part of Japan, particularly, is without a doubt its convenience, and how easy it is to travel between cities using the train system. Even with the language barrier, I had a much easier time getting around Japan than I did with the U.S. In general, people are very friendly, and willing to help you out if you are lost or confused.
Before I left for Japan I wish I had ...
Packed my suitcase a little less full. There were many clothes that I never ended up using, such as the formal dress. (You will not ever need formal wear in NanoJapan.)
I also wish I had gotten a Japan Rail Pass – they're much easier to get in the US, and if you use them properly you can save a great deal of money.
While I was in Japan I wish I had ...
Not saved every receipt, brochure, and scrap of paper I ever found in Japan just because they had Japanese text on them. As it turns out, you do not need to save the minor receipts that you paid for with your stipend – only major ones, such as housing and train ticket receipts.
Bring some warm clothing / hiking gear for the Fuji trip at the end of the summer. It's possible to buy supplies in Japan for this, but the period right before Fuji will be very busy, as you will have to finish up your project and travel to Tokyo.
Definitely memorize hiragana and katakana. Katakana especially is useful, because English words, such as “cheeseburger” and “hotel,” that are used in the Japanese language are written in katakana.
Don't worry too much about planning what weekend trips to take in Japan. Your first week of research at your lab will most likely not be very busy, and you'll probably just be given some books to study before you learn about your research project. You can use this free time to plan out trips and get work done that you've been putting off.
Orientation Program Tips
Go out all day, every day, and explore. Try to manage your sleep schedule and diet so you have the maximum amount of energy to explore. The Tokyo Tower, Shibuya, Akibahara, Harajuku, and local restaurants are all good places to go exploring.
Mid-Program Meeting Tips
There are too many “must-see” attractions in Kyoto to visit in one weekend, so unless you take a week off to explore Kyoto before the mid-program meetings, I'd suggest not stressing out too much about going everywhere and seeing everything. Attractions can be a huge time sink, and it's hard to go to more than one or two places per day, so don't worry about tourism too much and just enjoy what you do end up seeing.
Tips on Working in a Japanese Research Lab
Be sure to tell your graduate student mentor about your upcoming due dates – mine was very surprised to hear that my abstract and poster rough drafts were due so early, and then we had to scramble to produce publishable results in time.
Living in Nagano
You don't need any advice on living in Nagano; it's an incredibly livable place. Just remember that you have to go north to reach downtown. As for attractions, I would suggest going to see the snow monkeys, although they are a bit of a distance away, as well as Obuse, a small village north of Nagano that is famous for it's art. The Zenkouji Temple and Matsumoto castle (in Matsumoto, an hour's drive south) are also definitely worth seeing.
Language Study Tips
The easiest type of Japanese to learn when you are actually in Japan is spoken Japanese, since you will often be too busy to study grammar or vocabulary. It's best to study as much grammar as you can before coming to Japan, so that the spoken language becomes easier to pick up. Also, don't be afraid of sounding stupid; people in Japan are often impressed when foreigners speak any Japanese, and are very forgiving of mistakes.
What Gifts to Bring
Gift-giving is a very big thing in Japan, and there is never a lack of people to give gifts to. If you find yourself needing to buy gifts in Houston, I would recommend the Chocolate Bar, a chocolate specialty store where you can buy both large, elaborate gifts for your professors, and smaller ones for your lab-mates. People will also appreciate things with an “American” or “Texan” feeling.
What to Eat
The junk food in Japan is quite tasty. Convenience store food is also very nice. Ask your lab-mates about what restaurants they like to go to.
What to Buy in Japan
Like I said, gift-giving is very big in Japan, which means that people will be giving you a lot of gifts as well, and most of these gifts will be given at the very end of the summer. Make sure you leave some room in your luggage in preparation for these gifts.
What to Do in Japan
Be a tourist on the weekends. Be a researcher during the weeks. If someone invites you to a social event, say yes unless you absolutely can't make it. Relax a bit. Enjoy life.
Photos and Excerpts from Weekly Reports
Week One - Arrival in Japan: My initial experience of Tokyo was that of seeing the tall, modern buildings at night by the light of the rainbow bridge, on the bus ride that NanoJapan students took to reach the Sanuki Club hotel on our first night in Japan. This scenic background was very similar to what I had expected from Tokyo – my experiences during the rest of this first week, however, were not. Probably the thing that surprised me most about Tokyo was how truly spread-out it was. After hearing stories for years about how crowded Tokyo was supposed to be, I expected a city somewhere along the lines of Manhattan – nothing but tall buildings piled on top of one another, crammed into every available small space. But the neighborhood around the Sanuki Club in Azabu-juuban does not in the least resemble Manhattan. It has narrow streets, some of which don't even bother with sidewalks, and small boutiques and restaurants lining the sides of the road. Of course, Azabu-juuban is only one small part of Tokyo, and some other regions of the city had more of the crowds and department stores I was expecting. My experiences in Shibuya on a Friday evening and at the Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa taught me to never underestimate how massive the crowds in Tokyo can get.
Week Two - Riding the Subway: It is certainly possible, when living in Tokyo, to own a car – I see plenty of them when I'm trying to cross the street every morning. But the life of a car owner in Japan, or in Tokyo at least, seems to be riddled with difficulty. There are no parking lots near the famous department stores in Ginza and Shibuya. Some streets in the city center are closed to cars at certain times of day, and even when open, they let humans and cars travel on the same road. Gas prices are ludicrously high, from an American point of view at least. And whenever we Nanojapan students do come across a parking lot, it has high prices or restrictions to keep itself from being flooded with cars. One memorable parking lot in Asabu-juban had a cost of 100 yen for 15 minutes, and the many parking lots we saw on our weekend trip to Nikko were owned by restaurants that denied parking to those who weren't planning on eating there. In any case, the only way for NanoJapan students to get anywhere in Tokyo is to either walk or use public transportation, and I have done plenty of both over the past two weeks. The process of buying Metro and train tickets ranges from extremely simple to mind-bogglingly complex. Surprisingly, the language barrier was not much of a problem, as all important notices and signs were also written in English. Buying tickets could become a bit complicated, especially if we changed our mind about where we were going halfway through and had to readjust our fares; however, this aspect became much simpler once most of our group purchased Metro cards. Soon, our primary problem became deciding which lines to take, as the best route maps were located out by the ticket machines, which Metro cards had rendered unnecessary.
Week 3 - Trip to Minami-Sanriku: Based on what I have seen so far this trip, Japan is still experiencing the aftereffects of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. The ground still shakes with occasional aftershocks of the 3/11 earthquake, and the buildings destroyed by the tsunami have not been rebuilt. Still, the emotional impact seems much greater than the physical impact. Judging by what I have heard during the lectures, and during the KIP discussions, 3/11 is still on everybody's mind, and the effects of radiation, the lack of government information about the disaster, and the shut-down of Japan's remaining nuclear reactors (and the resulting power shortage) remain issues today. During the last weekend of the orientation in Tokyo, NanoJapan visited Minami-Sanriku, one of the areas hardest hit by the tsunami, and one that was continuously hit by tsunamis over its long history. The first thing I noticed, upon entering the town, was that on almost every major street, the buildings were in ruins. Houses had been torn down by the tsunami, and later stripped down by cleanup crews to their bare foundations, with only the floor-plans still visible. This layout of the rooms of the destroyed houses gave us a peek into the lives of the people who once lived there – and a greater taste of the lifestyles that were stripped away by the tsunami. One thing that surprised me about the visit to Minami-Sanriku, compared to what I have heard about the region before, was how truly far it was from being rebuilt. Piles of trash and ruins of boats littered the sides of the road, because nobody had the time or money to pick it back up. People lived in temporary housing, and were rebuilding their lifestyles bit by bit. To an extent, the rebuilding town of Minami-Sanriku reminded me of New Orleans, Louisiana, or one of many other cities that have had to rebuild after a large disaster. One thing that set Minami-Sanriku apart, though, was how friendly it was to visitors, and how much emotions came into play in the rebuilding effort. When one of the NanoJapan students asked a presenter what people from other regions could best do to help the region, they replied that we only had to come to the region and talk to them – they would be energized by our youth and our smiles. The people from Minami-Sanriku have been more friendly and more open than in any other region of Japan I've seen so far, and in any other region of the world, for that matter. Despite the stressful situation, there seemed to be no crime, and children freely wandered the streets. News of local suicides was kept off the paper in an attempt to help the mood. What came out of the disaster, it seems, was a powerful sense of togetherness – a strong example of the famously group-oriented Japanese culture. What gives me the most hope for the future of Minami-Sanriku is, without a doubt, the energy of the children. We spent much of our time there playing various games with elementary school kids, and they seemed as happy as could be, even though most of them had lost parents, grandparents, or other relatives in the disaster. According to a local resident, the energy of the children was a recent phenomenon – it only started around four months ago. Either way, it gives me hope for the future of the region, as children are the future of any region, disaster or no disaster. However, this trip left me hoping, more than anything, that in the future these children would have houses as far up the mountain slopes as possible, to prevent another tsunami from coming and sweeping them away.
Week 4 - First Week in Research Lab: Though official lab work began on Monday morning of the first week, my first sight of the lab was on Sunday night, after I arrived in Nagano. The many students of Endo-sensei's lab seem to use the student room as both a meeting-place and a local hangout, as all of them live off-campus. Thus, on the first night, when several students from the lab took me out to dinner, we met in the student room, after which we went downtown to have some of Nagano's famous soba. On Monday morning, I was introduced to the lab proper, to all of the professors, and to my desk, which the lab members had decorated with balloons and gifts. Everyone in Nagano has been friendly and welcoming, and though I am one of the only foreigners there I do not feel left out. My interactions with Sakumoto-san, and the other lab members, are surprisingly informal – almost everybody uses nicknames in the lab, and as I am an American, they have asked me to be informal as well. The lab is very group-oriented, so that every day at around noon we all go to eat lunch together at the school cafeteria. In addition, in between lab work, we frequently do fun things as a group, such as barbecues, gaming sessions, and magic trick shows. Although all of the professors speak fluent English, and the post-docs speak conversational English, I spend most of my time with 4th – year undergraduates and graduate students, who have never really had good chances to practice their English before. As all of the students in the lab are Japanese, they speak Japanese pretty much all the time, and somewhat terrifyingly, my conversational language with them is usually Japanese, although quite often they translate words into English for me. The most efficient way for us to communicate right now is for the lab members to speak English and for me to speak Japanese – because I can't always understand their fluent Japanese and they can't always understand my fluent English. Thus, both sides are getting in a great deal of language practice.
Week 5 - Critical Incident Analysis: Many Japanese people that I have met so far tend to not speak up when they have a problem, although I am never quite sure whether this is personal or cultural. A good example of a situation like this is last weekend, when my lab-mates and I made plans to see Zenkouji, a famous temple in Nagano, on Saturday morning. However, on Friday night, we decided to change the date to Sunday, as Saturday was predicted to be rainy. But nobody set a time or place to meet on either of those days, so when the weekend actually came along I wasn't sure whether I should go anywhere or contact anyone. That, combined with the rain on Sunday morning, made me finally decide to stay home for the day. On Monday morning, as I was working in the lab with my graduate student mentor, he asked me whether I had gotten to Zenkouji that weekend. (I said I hadn't.) He also asked if I had dropped by the student research room that weekend, but other than that did not mention the planned trip or how it fell through. This conversation made me extremely nervous, because the previous weekend, we had met up in the student research room Sunday morning at 9 to go to Obuse, a village north of Nagano. Perhaps the lab members had just assumed that I would know to meet up at the same place and time for Zenkouji, and everybody else had shown up to the student room on Sunday, only to disband when I never showed up? I soon asked my mentor whether he or anybody else had shown up, and he told me not to worry about it, and that he stayed at home. It seems now as if the whole situation was a false alarm, although certainly communicating better could have cleared things up for everyone. Throughout this whole experience, there was very little outright miscommunication. However, there was plenty of confusion – I wasn't sure what the customs of the labs were, and I wasn't sure whether I was missing something or not.
Week 6 - Research in Japan vs. the U.S.: The idea of the lab itself is somewhat different. In America, “lab,” short for “laboratory,” is a place where actual research is conducted, while papers and secretarial work are dealt with in “offices.” The Japanese version of lab, “ラボ” (rabo), refers instead to the communal office/workspace where students and researchers write papers, study, and chat with each other. (Actual experiments are conducted in the じっけんしつ, or experiment room.) The whole place has a home-like atmosphere, less like an office than like a college dorm. (People even take their shoes off before entering.) And while everyone works long hours, they intersperse their work with play and conversation – the lab room is such a lively place that it is easy to forget how much work everybody is doing in their spare moments.
Week 7 - Preparing for the Mid-Program Meeting: Well, this has definitely been an action-packed summer so far, and it's hard to believe that it's already halfway over. My biggest accomplishment by this point probably has more to do with the research part of NanoJapan than the language part. I had been studying Japanese for a while before this summer, and though I have gotten a great deal of practice in, especially in terms of conversation, I haven't had time to study as much grammar or vocabulary as I did before coming here. On the other hand, before NanoJapan, I had no experience working in a lab, and had to start learning from scratch about my research topic after coming to Nagano and learning what it was. Therefore, I consider my biggest personal accomplishment so far this summer to be learning my way around the laboratory, deciphering Japanese-language instructions, and gaining enough independence to conduct research on my own.
Week 8 - Reflections on Japanese Language & Culture: I think my lab in Shinshu University might be a bit unique by NanoJapan's standards, as English is not the normal spoken language in the lab, nor is it the language the lab members use to talk to me. In fact, neither English nor Japanese really works as a conversational language, since I am not really fluent in Japanese, and the lab members are not really fluent in English. During the first few weeks, we would usually try to speak in both languages; however, keeping up a bilingual conversation can be tiring, and we eventually settled on using Simple Japanese, a language that is very similar to Japanese, except for its lack of advanced vocabulary or sentences more than a few words long. Of course, Simple Japanese often does not suffice on its own, so I have learned to use hand gestures, body movements, and facial expressions to help carry the point across. This summer has been my first real experience with having day-to-day interactions in a language besides English, and so far I have been fascinated with how using an unfamiliar language affects the way people relate to each other. For example, when speaking in English, I tend to keep a straight face while talking, and let the words themselves carry the meaning of what I'm trying to say. However, when speaking in Japanese, I tend to exaggerate my motions and expressions, and sometimes to communicate my point completely nonverbally. Of course, there are some problems that pop up from using Japanese in the work space, especially when doing experiments. I can usually understand when my mentor gives me instructions, (it helps that we have a English-Japanese dictionary,) and I can usually ask questions when I am confused. However, it is not nearly as easy to talk about abstract, wide-reaching topics, such as the overall goals of our project for the next few weeks, and the amount of independence I could have in the direction of the research. Thus, a lot of the time I feel as if I'm simply following the flow in lab work, and not taking as active a part as I could have taken if research were conducted in English.
Week 9 - Critical Incident Analysis in the Lab: Throughout my time at Shinshu University, there have been several incidents where the language barrier got in the way of lab work, and several moments of confusion between me and my mentor, and sometimes other lab members. One good example of this confusion is an incident that occurred last weekend. It was a three-day weekend, with Monday being a national holiday, and I had made plans far in advance with the students of my lab to go to a fireworks festival on Sunday night. However, late on Thursday night, a few days before the festival, the lab secretary called me up to her office to introduce me to Yamada-san, a former secretary in Endo-sensei's lab who had stopped working there a year before. Yamada-san's family owned a ryokan in a small town about an hour's drive from Nagano, where she held a day care service for the neighborhood kids, and she wanted to invite me to stay the night there, to have a party with the kids, go to a nearby small festival, (which took place at the exact same time as the one in Nagano,) and see the snow monkeys the next morning. It was definitely a great opportunity, but I was a little nervous about spending a night with strangers, and the Sunday festival would have been my last chance before the end of the summer to spend some time with my lab members outside of lab. I told my concerns to Yamada-san, and as a result the situation got much more complicated, and I ended up standing there in the lab secretary's office for more than an hour. Yamada-san continuously asked herself, "どうしようかなぁ” (“what should we do, I wonder,”) and every few minutes, she would share another tidbit about her party at the ryokan, such as how one of her students was going to a home-stay in America in a few weeks, and this was his send-off party, or how every single Nano-Japan student who came to Nagano had stayed for a night at her ryokan. Finally, Yamada-san told me about a high school girl in her group who would love the chance to have a conversation with an English native speaker, and soon had called that student and put me on the phone. In the end, I agreed to cancel my plans with the lab and stay at the ryokan for the night and for the day after. And this is the point where I think cultural differences might have come into play. What might have been a very normal interaction from a Japanese point of view came off as very strange to me, too subtle in certain places and too forceful in others.
Week 10 - Career Interview: For the research career interview, I talked with Dr. Li Song, a professor from Rice University currently working at Shinshu University. Although he is not part of my current project, we have seen each other several times, both being foreigners doing research in Japan, and he has helped me out several times. Li-sensei had gotten an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences, but as he moved into a career in research he began to be pushed more towards engineering because of the better offers for research in the engineering fields. He has worked for both Rice University (under Professor Ajayan) and Shinshu University. He has a very high opinion of Shinshu University, and of Japan in general, thanks to the safety and convenience of the country. He claims to be pretty terrible at Japanese (though this might just be him being modest) but can read most Chinese characters, and appears to have had little trouble adjusting to a lifestyle in Japan. Because of the international aspect of Li-sensei's research, he travels around a lot, and though he enjoys the new experiences, he says that it can be very tiring, and he'd rather his life be a bit more peaceful and quiet. The best advice he could give to new researchers would be to keep at it and not be discouraged by paychecks or difficulty of getting grants, because there is always a large demand for scientists and engineers.
Week 11 - Final Week in Japan: Before starting the NanoJapan program, I tended to think of Japan as a strict country, filled with social rules that encouraged everybody to act the same way as everybody else. After living in Nagano for a summer, however, I realized Japanese people still express their freedom and individuality – they just have different outlets for it. Freedom can be the freedom of wandering around at night without getting robbed. Individuality can be expressed in a group setting just as easily as by people by themselves. This experience made me realize how doable academic research really was, and how many small details had to come together for a perfect experiment. It made me realize how important it was to collaborate with others, because I had to rely on so many people in the lab to conduct my experiment properly, but also the value of independence, when I finally got the chance to start working without supervision.