What is it like being a student researcher in the Asian Research Node? RISH faculty member Chin-Chen “Scotty” Yang sat down with three grad students and one postdoc to discuss their perspectives on ARN, and how the program affects their research.
Satoshi Oshiro, Japanese, postdoctoral fellow at the Research Institute for Sustainable Humanosphere (RISH). Primary topic: engineering of enzymes that utilize woody biomass
Yuri Takeda, Japanese, second year doctoral student in the Graduate school of Agriculture, Division of Applied Life Science. Primary topic: metabolic engineering of grass lignocellulose using rice as a model plant
Didi Tarmadi, Indonesian, third year doctoral student in the Graduate School of Agriculture, Division of Forest and Biomaterials Science. Primary topic:elucidating lignin degradation and its effects on the physiological activities of wood-feeding insects
Subir Kumar Biswas, Bangladeshi, first year doctoral student in the Graduate School of Agriculture, Division of Forest and Biomaterials Science. Primary topic: utilizing cellulose nanofibers to fabricate advanced, high-performance nanocomposite materials in simple, scalable ways
Scotty Yang, Junior Associate Professor, Laboratory of Ecosystem Management and Conservation Ecology
Scotty: As students, what are your impressions of the ARN program?
Subir: We all know that RISH is highly multidisciplinary, with labs studying everything from insects to phenomena in the upper atmosphere. But ARN has its focus beyond Japan, pursuing the objectives of RISH on a global scale, with a focus on Asia. ARN also connects with programs elsewhere, such as Europe. This is especially true of the RISH Data Server, which we can use to study and understand the humanosphere —and how to improve our lives.
Didi: Since I am from LIPI, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, ARN is very important for me, especially when it comes to collaboration between institutes. One of the goals of ARN is strengthening international collaboration, particularly for students and young scientists, which I am hoping will benefit my country. Indonesia faces a number of environmental and biodiversity challenges, but we lack the technology and skills to solve these efficiently. I am counting on ARN to help us build a brighter future.
Yuri: I study the molecular breeding of plant biomass. South Asian countries are very rich in bio-resources, so there are a lot of avenues to explore. We students tend to isolate ourselves in our labs and focus solely on our work, but that doesn’t open our eyes to new projects and questions. For example, if our work is utilized outside of the lab, we need to know what kind of environment the plants will be facing. That would be impossible for me to do alone. Having international communication is necessary for future studies and research.
Satoshi: ARN is great for collaborating with Asian countries. Asia and the world face a lot of problems right now, such as environmental degradation, global warming, expansion of tropical diseases, and human population pressures. Sharing information and conducting good science between institutes to solve these problems is very important. I study enzymes and their application to biomass, a field which can contribute to the utilization of bio-resources in Asia. One key role we can play is in the degradation of pollutants in air and water. But we need people who are familiar with their local environments for this to work. ARN can help us get in touch with these people.
Scotty: So ARN acts as a hub to connect scientists. Kyoto University is trying to connect Japanese researchers to scientists throughout Asia. As we develop, ARN can act as a mediator to introduce Western researchers to science in Asia, making Japan a hub for Asian scientific collaboration. As the program grows, we hope to develop new techniques and technology to utilize resources in a more sustainable way.
Education at ARN
Scotty: Another important function of ARN is education. We hold workshops and symposia throughout Southeast Asia and also here at Kyoto University, such as a seminar series in Penang where all of you presented posters and had a chance to interact with scientists in the region. What did you take away from that?
Satoshi: ARN’s educational opportunities are an important way to experience real research happening in Asia. Of course you can get information about Southeast Asian studies and research on-line, but it is not possible to gain the full experience through these sources alone. You need to go see the area yourself and talk to people doing research there. ARN provides for this. Initially I knew very little about microbes, insects, and tropical plants native to Southeast Asia, nor did I have any idea which research topics were popular there. The ARN symposium was a great opportunity to expose myself to ongoing research, and to interact with other researchers.
Yuri: This was my first time to visit Southeast Asia. I am relatively familiar with my research topic of biomass, and how important it is to the future of the world. But I was not aware of the research going on in other labs throughout Asia. During the symposium, I was able to talk to many students and scientists close to my age about their research and the problems they face. We also discussed ongoing environmental problems and how to tackle them. It was a real eye-opener.
Didi: Education is a very important part of my life and research. Many people from my country do not care about the environment, and that is a big problem. The knowledge I gain from going to symposia, meeting young researchers, and learning about their work is very important for when I go back to my own country. But what I found very interesting during the symposium was the discussions I had with researchers from Malaysia. There are some conflicts between our countries when it comes to ecological preservation. We talked about this extensively, and I came out of it with a better understanding of each side. Being part of ARN made this connection possible.
Subir: One of the most unique things about ARN at RISH is that it is a multidisciplinary endeavor. Most institutes usually focus on a single theme or topic. RISH gives us the opportunity to interact with people and research I may have never known about. The nature of the symposium and this institute as a whole almost forces us to be knowledgeable of other humanospheric sciences. Perhaps from there, we can develop new solutions and technologies.
Scotty: I agree. The advantage of this institute is being exposed to many fields of research. This can help us develop creative solutions when obstacles arise. I can see a future in which we solve the world’s problems using a multifaceted approach.
In the lab
Scotty: So, let’s talk about your research and how you benefit from ARN.
Satoshi: I engineer enzymes to degrade lignin, a key component of woody biomass and a potential replacement for fossil fuels. I am trying to enhance the enzymes to facilitate biomass conversion with higher efficiency. My research contributes to ARN through the utilization of bio-resources in Asia. The enzymes I study are also used to decompose environmental contaminants in waste water. My expertise can help other nations with contaminant problems, and also possibly enhance their energy future.
Yuri: I also work on biomass. Grass biomass crops are an important resource for future bio-refineries, to make bio-fuels and bio-materials. But to establish a cost-effective bio-refinery system we need to improve the properties of biomass. I am genetically engineering rice plants in my lab to produce different structures of lignin, and then examine their properties. One day my research may provide alternative strategies for engineering lignin to efficiently convert biomass into fuel.
Didi: Miss Takeda’s research is very interesting. She is involved in actually increasing the lignin content in plants. Those plants are very important for energy generation through bio-fuels.
Scotty: But are there concerns about genetically engineered plants? This is a sensitive topic for the public.
Yuri: There are no worries about that. When the results of my study are applied to the breeding of grass biomass crops, we will select mutant lines in order to obtain natural variants with the same genetic mutations. Biomass conversion and biomaterial synthesis are important topics for countries and institutes affiliated with ARN. My work can be utilized and improved through collaboration since there is a lot of relevant research in Southeast Asia.
Didi: I study insect physiology, specifically of termites which can degrade lignin. So, this is about biomass again (laughs). These insects produce hydrogen and methane when they feed on wood. All these compounds are vital for a non-petroleum based energy future. Of course, conversion efficiency is still low, so we need to find the mechanisms behind these metabolic processes. In order to do that, I need to collaborate with researchers who are more familiar with this science. I am thankful that ARN and RISH are providing me with this opportunity.
Subir: My focus is on cellulose, the essential substance that makes up trees. There is a material called “cellulose nanofiber” that we can extract from trees, which is amazing because it has strength comparable to steel. My research combines cellulose nanofibers with plastics to build very strong nanocomposite materials. I am also interested in the microstructure of insects. For example, the mandibles of termites: they are very strong. But why? Thanks to the elegant composite structure of nanofibrous chitin and inorganic elements, which we can also incorporate into new sustainable materials. Sustainability is a big topic in ARN countries. As I interact with more people from different research backgrounds, I am hoping we can discover new candidates for sustainable biomaterials and more efficient and scalable mechanisms to produce them.
ARN and beyond
Scotty: Subir and Didi, what do you plan to do after graduation? How will your studies at ARN affect your work if you decide to continue your research in your native countries?
Didi: A general problem we face at home is technology. At Kyoto University we have access to cutting edge equipment and research materials. Unfortunately, in our country, that technology may not be available. I hope that I can utilize the knowledge and resources I gained here to improve research back home. This is an opportunity for collaboration. We can run preliminary tests and extractions in my home town, and then send it to Kyoto for deeper analysis. The ARN framework is perfectly conducive for that kind research workflow.
Subir: I am from Bangladesh, where ARN does not currently operate. So I have asked the heads of ARN to expand the program into more Asian countries. The entirety of South Asia and Southeast Asia is rich in bio-resources and biodiversity. But economically, many areas are poor. I feel that ARN can be a driving force to promote efficient use of bio-resources while also enhancing member countries’ intellectual resources.
Scotty: That is a very good idea. The organizers of ARN are thinking of expanding our partnership into other countries in Asia. We hope you can be a seed for that endeavor to expand our collaborative map.
Life and studies in Kyoto
Scotty: What do you find special about working at Kyoto University, and how are you enjoying the beautiful city of Kyoto?
Subir: If you go to universities in South Asia you can see a lot of students gather at one place to chat with each other. The environment here is very different. Students here are completely involved in their studies and research. Kyoto University also has RISH, which contains so many academic disciplines, and where you can easily talk to scientists and professors from many disciplines. That is harder to do at other institutes. As for living in Kyoto, I am very happy to be in such a beautiful city. I can walk five minutes from my house and go to a beautiful temple or castle. Everybody I know gets jealous when I tell them where I work.
Didi: Kyoto University amazes me because of the closeness of the students with the professors. I feel very comfortable talking to my professor, asking questions and even arguing about my work. I can even ask for personal advice, and often find the time to talk. I feel that I cannot find that in my home country. Everybody here is very friendly. Kyoto is such a pretty place to live in, and I enjoy the architecture and the food.
Yuri: One quality of Kyoto University that I love is the many satellite offices all over the world, especially for RISH. This gives me many chances to contact researchers from other countries —a strong global connection has helped me gather data that I have used in my research. I hope to continue using these resources.
Satoshi: I am originally from Tokyo and moved to Kyoto two years ago. I feel that Kyoto University has a very healthy sense of academic freedom, one of the hallmarks of the university. There are many unique collaborative projects that may not have come without this special atmosphere. There are almost no barriers to pursuing your own research. Most professors here actively support and even encourage original thinking. I really enjoy the academic environment here.