Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (13)
Hailing from Denmark, Dr. Kim Richard Larsen has been doing research under a JSPS postdoctoral fellowship at the Kitakyusyu Museum of Natural History & Human History since April 2006. He was introduced to his host, Dr. Michitaka Shimomura, by a colleague in his personal network. Dr. Shimomura praises Dr. Larsen, saying that he is a researcher of outstanding ability, who is working diligently to advance his studies under the fellowship. After his 2-year tenure ends, Dr. Larsen plans to continue to pursue his career in science as a lecturer or curator.
What is the nature of your research under the JSPS fellowship?
As a marine biologist my project runs along two lines: traditional taxonomy and ecology of a group of small benthic Crustaceans. The diversity of these animals around Japan is very high but very sparsely studied, mainly due to lack of funding. I hope that my project will help redeem that situation. I am also trying to create more funding for taxonomic studies by coupling the taxonomic investigation with an ecological experiment assessing the value of these animals as bio-indicator species for habitat recovery.
That's a fascinating field of research. Could you tell us a little more about your work?
Among the Crustaceans, my research is mainly focused on tanaids. Using a microscope, I dissect them and observe the shape of their legs and other parts, which draw in order to identify differences between species and to classify them. As tanaids are extremely small creatures, measuring about 3 millimeters in length, dissecting them is precise, exhaustive work. As it entails making very accurate drawings and annotating them with comments, descriptions or descriptive analyses to preclude misclassifications, the work is highly detailed and requires intense concentration. That said, I believe it to be very important work as it helps to generate new knowledge related to biodiversity. I have so far published two papers on some new species of tanaids I discovered around Okinawa, and now I'm busy preparing for a conference that will be held here in June.
How did you become interested in your research field?
During my master's program, which focused on faunistic research, I became aware of the great shortcomings in the current level of invertebrate taxonomy. It struck me as highly unfortunate and a waste of good science that ecological and faunistic researchers had to do their work without being able to identify the species used in their studies. This is particularly problematic in biodiversity studies, which are next to useless if not based on solid taxonomical knowledge.
Why did you choose Japan to pursue your research?
The deficiency in taxonomical knowledge of Japanese fauna made Japan an interesting place to study. When so little is known about these animals around Japan, it increases the chances of making plenty of new discoveries. I have to admit that the high level of financial support (both personal and for research) provided by the JSPS also makes Japan an interesting place to work.
What other merits are there to conducting research in Japan?
The merits of conducting scientific research in Japan under the JSPS fellowship are that it allows for more experimental (thereby risky) projects, which might be difficult to obtain funding for in the EU or the US. The fellow is given a high degree of independence and the research funding is better than most, if not all, other places.
What do you usually do outside of your research?
I sleep, eat, exercise, and go out with friends. Pretty much the same things I would be doing any other place, although I seem to spend an unreasonably long time in sushi bars. As Kitakyushu is near the sea, it has good makings for sushi. I'm particularly fond of mackerel and yellowtail. Their names saba and buri were among the first Japanese words I learned when I came here. I also enjoy viewing the cherry blossoms in April. I have to admit, however, that my research does not permit a lot of time out of the laboratory.
Before coming to Japan, what kind of image of Japan did you have? Has it changed after coming here?
I had heard that one had to be very careful not to insult anybody in Japan. I was rather worried about this before coming here, as I am not reputed to be a very diplomatic person. I was afraid I might inadvertently insult somebody due to a cultural difference. Happily this problem turned out to be almost non-existing. My Japanese colleagues are of course aware that I am not accustomed to Japanese culture. They don't take offence if I should behave less correctly, like for example, forgetting to change slippers when going into the bathroom.
You have given a lecture under the JSPS Science Dialogue Program, haven't you? What do you think of the program?
Last December, I gave an English lecture, entitled "Biological Science: The Work and the Wonders," to high school students in Kagoshima. I think this kind of program is extremely valuable in the long term. In fact, I am kind of surprised that initiatives like this are not compulsory in all research programs. The biggest problem in science is a lack of funding, and we scientists are largely at fault. How can we expect to get funding from the community if people are not aware of what we are doing nor do they know why it is important? We have to inform the community about these things. If we cannot do so in a reasonable manner, then we ought to rethink our research.
What advice would you give someone about to begin a JSPS fellowship?
Be prepared to spend a lot of time initially learning Japanese. It is a hard language to learn and one should not expect English to be spoken widely outside academic circles. Also be prepared for difficult and expensive library services. Specialized literature can be hard, expensive and time-consuming to obtain in Japan, particularly if the fellow is not based at a major university.
One of the really good things about working in Japan is that security is a non-issue. As Japan is one of the safest places on earth, female researchers or researchers with children will have little to worry about here security-wise.
Interview by JSPS Fellows Plaza