Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (11)
Hailing from Tanzania, Dr. Prosper Mfilinge first came to Japan in 1999 under a postgraduate scholarship from Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). He obtained both a master's and doctoral degree from the University of the Ryukyus in Okinawa. In April 2005, he went on to conduct research in the University's Faculty of Science under a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship.
Of Dr. Mfilinge, his host Prof. Makoto Tsuchiya said, "He's a very serious person, actively engaged in his research. He provides a wonderful role model for the university's students, sharing both his knowledge and techniques with his juniors, overseas and Japanese alike."
After finishing his JSPS fellowship, Dr. Mfilinge plans to go back to Tanzania and continue his work as a research scientist.
What are you researching under the JSPS fellowship?
As a marine biologist, I am working on mangrove trophic ecology. Mangroves are tropical and sub-tropical trees restricted to intertidal and adjacent communities, and are adapted to living in salt water. They provide food, shelter, protection and nurseries for many species of fish. My current research work is to identify lipid markers that can be used to distinguish mangrove organic matter from terrestrial organic matter in a marine environment and food webs, and also to identify fatty acid biomarkers that are unique to marine fungi. Existing difficulties in differentiating the contribution of mangrove organic matter from terrestrial inputs in marine food webs are what prompted me to undertake this investigation. A lot of my work involves field experiments. I also gather mangrove and terrestrial plant leaves, crabs and other specimens, and examine and analyze them back in the lab. My findings will help in estimating mangrove contribution to higher trophic levels more accurately.
How did you become interested in your research field?
It started with a strong interest I had had in wetlands ecology in particular mangroves since I was an undergraduate student at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. Taking field trips and participating in the establishment of marine parks on Mafia Island did much to heighten my interest in studying mangroves.
What led you to pursue research in Japan? How did you get to know your Japanese host researcher?
I chose Japan first of all because it is well known for its advanced technologies. Having a good research environment is a key to producing good results. Such an environment would allow me to conduct my research with a high level of accuracy while giving me many experimental possibilities. I first met my host researcher in 1999 through a friend who had previously studied at the University of the Ryukyus. At that time, I was interested in doing my master's in marine science in Japan under MEXT's scholarship program. As required, I prepared a research proposal and looked for a likely advisor in Japan, who turned out to be Prof. Tsuchiya. I feel lucky he accepted me; I've gotten my best education and done my best research work under his guidance.
What merits do you find in conducting research in Japan?
There is a good working environment with a high level of organization, and well-funded, well-equipped laboratories, even more so than those I experienced at universities in other countries. Most importantly for me is the presence of mangrove forests. Okinawa, with its subtropical climate, is a perfect place as it harbours vast, undisturbed mangrove forests in its islands.
What are your impressions of your host institution? How about the research environment for overseas researchers at the University of the Ryukyus?
Very good indeed, there is a welcoming international atmosphere here for researchers. The university's high level of research attracts many foreigners. In fact, it's a joy to just get the opportunity to come here and conduct research. The environment for overseas researchers at the university is ideal: friendly atmosphere, well organized labs of high standard, most being well equipped with up-to-date facilities. The friendly staffs and students make research and everything else go smoothly. Whatever your research needs, the staff quickly meets them.
What do you usually do outside your research?
Okinawa is a beautiful and wonderful island with a very natural environment. When I have enough time especially on weekends I normally travel to the north or south to explore new places. Otherwise, I enjoy hiking and bicycle riding. There is a lot to discover here!
Before coming to Japan, what kind of image did you have of the country? Has your image changed?
My image of Japan was of technological development and a faster life style than you might find in most of the world's wealthy countries. I knew a little bit about Japanese culture and traditions, but thought they may have been left behind in the wake of the country's rapid development. I was wrong! When I came to Japan, I found that tradition, culture and technology are inseparable here.
What advice would you give someone about to begin a JSPS fellowship?
You might try to learn a few Japanese words before you come here. Just five words can help a lot. As every conversation should start in a polite way, using these words before continuing on in English is important: Ohayo gozaimasu (Good morning), konnichiwa (Good afternoon), konbanwa (Good evening), sumimasen (Excuse me!...used if you want to ask for something anywhere), gomennasai (Sorry). If you should be lucky enough to come to Okinawa, daily life isn't too difficult to manage as so many people here speak English. Whenever you have a problem, first ask your host researcher. Definitely, set some time aside to enjoy and explore the rich culture of Japan.
Interview by JSPS Fellows Plaza