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Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (8)

Dr. Kieran Lee
Dr. Kieran Lee
Ph.D. (Plant Cell Biology), University of Leeds, UK, 2004
B.Sc. (Biochemistry and Medical Microbiology), University of Leeds, UK, 2000

Hailing from United Kingdom, Dr. Kieran Lee started his JSPS postdoctoral fellowship at Tokyo University of Agriculture (Nodai) in September 2004. Dr. Lee met his lab colleague Dr. Yoichi Sakata when the latter was doing research in the US under a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship for Research Abroad. Dr. Sakata told us, "Dr. Lee is very attentive of the people around him and has adapted quickly to the Japanese environment. His coming to our lab has exposed the students to English culture and stimulated them through contact with ways of thinking that differ from ours as Japanese."

What are you currently researching under the JSPS fellowship?

I work in the field of Plant Cell Biology; my research uses a moss called Physcomitrella patens. I am currently investigating a group of proteoglycans known as arabinogalactan proteins (AGPs), which are found in plant cell walls and associated with plasma membranes. AGPs belong to a large and heterogeneous gene family and are thought to function in many aspects of plant development.

How did you become interested in your research field?

Performing an experiment
Performing an experiment

My interest in plants began at the end of my undergraduate degree course at the University of Leeds. I found the dynamic nature of the cell wall and its importance in controlling plant development to be intriguing. In the last 20 years a major breakthrough was made in elucidating the proteins responsible for the construction and modification of the cell wall. In fact, up until about 100 years ago scientists had a fairly static view of plant cells with rigid walls. We now know that plants possess a huge amount of cell wall-related genes, reflecting the importance of cell wall assembly and regulation. I decided that I wanted to go into this research field because it would be a real challenge.

What do you think of the state of research and the research environment in Japan, and what do you consider to be the merits of conducting your research in Japan?

I think Japan is well respected globally for its quality of science in many different fields. There are more research groups working with Physcomitrella in Japan than in the UK, so from my point of view this is an excellent environment for me to work in. Japanese labs are always well equipped, and to a high standard. The lab here at Nodai is always busy, but it is a friendly working environment and well organised with rotas and booking systems so everything runs smoothly.

As I just mentioned, there are many labs here in Japan working with Physcomitrella. Being in this kind of intensive environment is a good thing for all concerned because it stimulates scientific discourse between the groups. Furthermore, residing in Japan not only puts me in one of the leading countries for science, it allows me to have contact with some very talented and experienced plant scientists who I can always turn to for advice or suggestions regarding my research.

By the way, you gave a lecture under JSPS's Science Dialogue Program at Yamanashi Prefectural Tsuru High School, didn't you? What do you think of that experience?

I think it is good for academics to get out of the lab from time to time and explain what they are doing to the public. Raising public awareness about science is something that all people involved in the field should be concerned with. In fact, one of the most challenging aspects of being a scientist is being able to translate difficult concepts into readily understandable language in explaining one's research to the public. Giving a lecture to Japanese high school students therefore gave me a unique and incredibly useful experience in this technique. I was particularly happy to be so warmly received by the high school, both teachers and students alike. I had a great day, which was made more enjoyable by the fact that the students seemed genuinely happy to have met me and also seemed to understand my lecture. Overall, I felt the day was a great success.

I think that one aspect of having a fellowship here in Japan is of course to conduct research, but I also feel my role here is to inspire the people I encounter, to be enthusiastic about science, and to help forge new collaborations between scientists around the globe. To JSPS fellows considering participating in the Science Dialogue Program, I would strongly recommend that they take part. I feel that it is a thoroughly rewarding experience for both the JSPS fellow and the students alike!

What do you usually do outside of your research activities?

I have an active social life outside of my research. I am a musician and spend a lot of time composing electronic music in my studio, which I brought with me from the UK. I have played a couple of gigs at nightclubs and have also done some DJing at cafes and bars. Whenever I have the opportunity I also love to get out and see more of Japan. I feel that there is so much to see in this wonderful country, and relatively speaking, so little time for me to do it all. Actually, recently I have taken up a new hobby; I have embarked on a quest to find the best ramen shop in the Kanto district! Although, I may have to start doing more exercise to counteract the deleterious calorific consequences associated with this pastime.

Before coming to Japan, what kind of image did you have of the country? Has your perception changed after coming here?

Yes, my image of Japan has changed since I got here. Before I arrived my only images of Japan came from tourist guides or movies. When you say "Tokyo" to a westerner, they tend to think of big buildings and neon lights. Of course, this isn't an accurate portrayal of life in Tokyo. I live and work in Setagaya-ku, which feels more like a suburb. It is a very peaceful place to work and live-not at all like the hectic scenes from Shibuya or Shinjuku for which Tokyo is renowned.

What advice would you give someone about to begin a JSPS fellowship?

If you are about to begin a fellowship my advice would be: try to dispel your preconceptions of Japan before you arrive and be ready to experience a rich culture and stimulating work environment in an amazing country! You may miss your friends and family at first, but the people you will meet here are very friendly, kind and always willing to help if you have a problem.

With lab colleagues
With lab colleagues
Interview by JSPS Fellows Plaza