JSPS Quarterly
No.19 2007 Spring Topics
Siries Message

Message from Former JSPS Fellow (7)

Microbial biotechnology research in Japan paved my way to a professorship

Prof. Dr. Busaba Yongsmith
Professor of Microbiology, Faculty of Science, Kasetsart University
Chair of "Association of RONPAKU Alumni, Thailand" (ARAT)
JSPS RONPAKU Fellow, 1979-1982

My first experience in Japan was in 1973 as a participant in a UNESCO Post-Graduate Training Course in Microbiology and Biotechnology at Osaka and Kyoto Universities. I left my seven-month old son, worked hard, and published two papers. Later, when JSPS expanded its program into Thailand, I applied for a fellowship under the JSPS RONPAKU (Dissertation PhD) Program in 1978. Again, I left my two kids, and was able to get a PhD from Kyoto University under my advisor Prof. Saburo Fukui in March 1983. Three years later, I received a grant from the British Council for a post-doctorate visit to Birmingham and Cambridge Universities. Returning to Thailand from England in 1987, I became an associate professor at Kasetsart University. Subsequently, I worked as a member of the academic committee to the Graduate School between 1994-1998 and as a department head between 1994-1996. I was appointed to the post of professor in 1999.

My research interest in Japan was from the beginning to work on vitamin B12 with either Prof. Koichi Ogata or Prof. Fukui, both experts in the field at Kyoto University. My experience with vitamin B12 fermentation started with work on a methanol-utilizing bacteria in Prof. Fukui's laboratory, where I was able to publish two papers within a year. As soon as I returned home, I joined an ASEAN project on soybean liquid waste recovery for vitamin B12 production using Propionibacteria and Streptomyces bacteria instead of an expensive imported methanol as substrates. Under my RONPAKU fellowship, which I received in 1979, I had started my research on vitamin B12 fermentation using immobilized Propionibacterium cells, about which I produced another two publications under the supervision of Prof. Fukui and Prof. Atsuo Tanaka. A total of five publications on vitamin B12 fermentation experiments in Japan and Thailand during the period 1973-1982 helped me to earn the doctorate degree from Kyoto University.

When taking the aforementioned UNESCO course at Osaka University, I really wanted to study the Japanese language so as to be able to communicate better with the Japanese people, but Prof. Hisaharu Taguchi insisted that I concentrate on my research work instead because my stay in Japan was limited. I followed his advice for the research facilities I could take advantage of there were better than those available in my home country.

Prof. Taguchi recommended that I continue my studies under the JSPS RONPAKU Program, and asked my husband to bear with me a little longer. He agreed so that I could advance my academic career. In Japan, I did my RONPAKU research inside the big, old building of the Department of Industrial Chemistry, Faculty of Engineering, Kyoto University. There were only a few other female scientists working in the building. However, I always felt safe and happy working in the warm and hospitable environment created by my Japanese advisors and active, young friends.

At the time I obtained my PhD degree, Thailand was experiencing a low-price crisis in its cassava export market. So as to provide value-added products, I began right away on work to utilize cassava starch for producing Monascus red pigments in submerged cultivation. During my PhD research activities in Japan, Prof. Taguchi had always emphasized that Thailand is an agricultural country, so scientists must focus on value-added agricultural products using fermentation technology. His attitude in this respect stimulated me to redouble my efforts, particularly in using the local substrate to yield value-added vitamin B12 and Monascus products in both solid-state and submerged fermentation, the results of which accrued to the benefit of my country. Developing microbial strains and products through such research paved the way to my professorship.

ARAT Research Exhibition at Thailand Research Expo 2006, September 2006

After 1983, I joined the JSPS-NRCT exchange program in the area of biotechnology, working mostly on cassava use in producing Monascus pigments. At the same time, I made it a practice to participate in RONPAKU alumni activities, and was appointed as the chair of the Association of RONPAKU Alumni, Thailand (ARAT) in February 2005. During these two years, three of the biggest activities conducted by the group have been: a Tsunami Seminar (20 December 2005) supported by the JSPS Bangkok Office; a Solar Energy Workshop (24-25 August 2006) supported by the Office and King Mongkut's Institute of Technology Ladkrabang (KMITL); and an ARAT Seminar on Its Role in Country Development (12 September 2006) supported by the National Research Council of Thailand (NRCT).

Now, my RONPAKU advisor has passed away and my intimate friends have moved to other departments within Kyoto University or to other universities. As JSPS's funding for the biotechnology exchange has become limited, I withdrew myself from the program in order to give an opportunity to young scientists. But, I still do my own research on vitamin B12 and Monascus fermentation.

I will be eligible for retirement this year, but will continue to work for an extended five years, during which time I want to finish my research on rice solid culture of Monascus products. I intend to also visit my intimate teachers, including Prof. Tanaka and Prof. Kazuo Komagata, in Japan as I always recall with fond memory the best time of my life that I spent with them.

Finally, I must say that Japan has opened up many doors for me while imbuing me with a wider perspective of science and technology, one that has motivated me to make contributions for the benefit of my country. Looking back, I am deeply impressed with Prof. Taguchi's kind, sincere and caring attitude toward my country, Thailand. It has long been my privilege to follow his thoughtful suggestions.

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JSPS Quarterly No.19 2007