Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (21)
Hailing from Thailand, Dr. Thiraporn Charoenraks has been conducting research with her host Dr. Makoto Takafuji in the Department of Applied Chemistry & Biochemistry, Kumamoto University under a JSPS postdoctoral fellowship since November 2009. After obtaining her master’s degree in Thailand, she was selected for a Japanese government scholarship to pursue her graduate studies at Saga University from 2005.
What are you currently researching under your JSPS fellowship?
Many organic molecules, such as proteins and sugars, are chiral, occurring in a right- and left-handed form in mirror images of each other. I am working on developing a novel self-assembling method for separating chiral compounds, which utilizes high performance liquid chromatography, an instrument to separate compounds dissolved in liquid mixtures. I am analyzing the chiral stationary phase of such solutions with an eye to creating a chiral separation technique that can be readily applied to such things as scientific measurements and medical drug manufacturing.
How did you become interested in your research field?
When I studied the chromatographic method in college, I was impressed by how this unique system could easily separate mixtures. I also liked how it can be broadly applied within the field of chemistry. So I got more and more into studying chemistry. But looking back to my childhood, I liked subjects such as math and science. Therefore, I think my interest in chemistry ignited a long time ago.
Is there any difference between the research environments of Thailand and Japan?
In Thailand, most of the equipment used for research is shared among many students, with some of the analytical devices being far fewer than the number of students. Therefore, our names may linger on a waiting list, sometimes for as long as a couple of weeks, before we can start analyzing materials.
I have much more flexibility in conducting my research here at Kumamoto University as both equipment and devices are made sufficiently available. Also, researchers in other laboratories are happy to share their equipment when needed immediately by other researchers.
Another difference I’ve noticed is that most research in Japan is conducted by the researchers themselves, whereas in Thailand the operation of large equipment is limited to technicians.
How did you get to know your Japanese host researcher?
I came to Japan to pursue a PhD at Saga University as a Japanese government scholar. At that time, I was hoping to continue my research career in Japan as a postdoc and was interested in living in Kyushu. I searched the Internet for a prospective host researcher in my research field and was lucky to find not only a person who was a perfect match for my research but also a suitable institution located in Kyushu. Soon after making this discovery, I sent emails to Dr. Takafuji, my current host researcher, asking him if he would become my host researcher at Kumamoto University.
Why did you choose Japan to pursue your research?
First of all, I thought Japan was a very sophisticated and well-equipped place. It was also true that Japanese researchers and research institutions are well advanced in my research field. When thinking about the country in which to pursue my postdoctoral work, that the Japanese lifestyle is similar to ours in Thailand had strong appeal in making my decision. If I had not been awarded a JSPS fellowship, I would have gone to the US or Europe as they are popular destinations for Thai researchers.
What is your impression of your host institution?
In my laboratory, there are about 20 members including five from other countries. The Japanese students are very kind but a little shy when it comes to communicating with me in English. Though it is a bit challenging for me to participate in lab meetings as they are held in Japanese, I’m glad that I can understand much of the discussions as I’ve been in Japan for four years. Viewed from the vantage point of my laboratory where I’ve spent most of my time, my overall impression of Kumamoto University as a host institution is very good.
How about the colleagues in your laboratory?
All the members of my lab are very serious and concentrated on their research. After work, however, we sometimes hold parties or sporting activities to refresh ourselves and get to personally know each other better. When I encounter trouble, I first turn to my host researcher, but count upon my colleagues in the lab too. I have never experienced a problem that couldn’t be worked out or felt any inconvenient in my lab.
Before coming to Japan, what was your image of the country? Has your perception changed after coming here?
My image of Japan was, as I mentioned, a very sophisticated country, where there are many skyscrapers and hi-tech infrastructures, especially the transportation system as epitomized by the bullet train. Also, Japanese animation is very popular with kids and young students in Thailand, and Japanese food is well-liked. I, myself, used to like Tokyo ramen, but since coming to Kyushu my favorite is now Kumamoto ramen. I like sushi, too. I’ve become a big fan of ika (squid), which is not consumed in Thailand.
What are your goals as a researcher?
I would like to develop an effective and efficient technique for chiral separation, which can be applied in industry. With it, I hope to contribute to reducing the time it takes to run experiments and to save various research costs. However, it may take a long time to accomplish this goal since my research experiments usually take three months, and sometimes six, to obtain results. If it doesn’t work out, I will have to start over from square one. It is challenging and time-consuming work, but I would like to push it forward with a positive attitude.
What do you do outside your research work?
I love to travel. I have visited Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Kyoto and Osaka. My favorite sightseeing spot in Kumamoto is the area around the volcano Mt. Aso, as it has many hot springs and activities to enjoy, such as hiking, horseback riding, golf and tennis. Visiting the Aso area is enjoyable in all seasons, but if I had to pick one, it would be summer. It is very refreshing to soak in a local spa while viewing the fresh green on the mountain sides. When traveling, I look for local restaurants, especially Japanese ones, and the lovely Japanese cafés.
I hear that you gave a lecture at a high school under the Science Dialogue Program. What did you think of the experience?
At first, I thought it would be difficult to explain my research in English to Japanese high school students. So, I used animations and pictures in my slides to help them understand my research more easily. I also did a simple experiment in the classroom.
I think it was challenging for them, but I felt gratified when the students asked me three questions after my presentation. I believe my presentation was successful in conveying my main message—that chemistry is not far removed from our daily lives but exists everywhere around us.
I would like to tell other fellows who have not yet taken part in this program that the experience is surely a rewarding one.
What do you plan to do after your fellowship ends?
I have not decided yet. However, I would like to continue my research at a Japanese institution.
Do you have any advice for young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan?
Well, I think that finding a good host researcher is the key to success. Under this fellowship, your host plays a vital role in enabling you to achieve your goals. S/he will not only act as your research supervisor, but will also be the first person you go to when needing assistance. Therefore, finding a good researcher who is hospitable is very important.
Good communication with your colleagues is also important. Some young researchers might be hesitant to come to Japan because of the language. Though Japanese is difficult, you can learn it step by step. Please know that the Japanese are kind and happy to help people who are not fluent in Japanese. Language skill will be a plus, but it is not a must for starting research in Japan.
When we asked Dr. Charoenraks what she wanted to do after her JSPS fellowships ends, she said without hesitation that she “would like to continue her research in Japan.” Though securing a position in a Japanese university or research institution can be a very competitive undertaking, her positive attitude compelled us to believe that she will be able to continue paving her career path in Japan. As she pursues that path with a strong Thai “mai-pen-rai” spirit, we look forward to it leading both her research and career in highly rewarding directions.