Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (23)
Hailing from the United States, Dr. Timothy Stasevich has been conducting research with his host researcher, Dr. Hiroshi Kimura, in the Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences at Osaka University under a JSPS postdoctoral fellowship since June 2010. After obtaining his PhD at the University of Maryland and working as a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health, he decided to come to Japan with his family to gain international experience Japan-style.
What are you currently researching under the JSPS fellowship?
I am studying gene regulation in single living cells using a combination of quantitative fluorescence microscopy and theoretical modeling. Gene regulation refers to the process by which cells turn genes on and off. Without gene regulation, all cells in the body would look and behave the same since they all have the same genes. Fortunately, different cells have different genes turned on and off, so a neuron will look and behave differently than a skin cell, for example. At its best, gene regulation gives stem cells the ability to change into any other cell in the body; at its worst, gene regulation gone awry can lead to cancer.
How did you become interested in your research field?
I first became interested in gene regulation while working at the US National Institutes of Health with Dr. James G. McNally. There I learned firsthand that the cell nucleus is an incredibly dynamic place. Measuring just a few millionths of a meter across, the cell nucleus contains approximately two meters of jiggling DNA and hundreds of thousands of dynamic proteins. And yet, in spite of this extremely crowded and chaotic environment, genes are regularly turned on or off on demand in each and every one of our cells. Understanding this astounding fact is what first got me interested in gene regulation and it continues to motivate me to this day.
How did you get to know your Japanese host researcher?
Dr. Hiroshi Kimura is well known abroad and his pioneering work on chromatin (DNA and histones) dynamics continues to generate lots of citations. I read his paper on this subject and wrote to him a few years ago to arrange a meeting while I was visiting Japan. He was very kind and gave me the opportunity to present my research at a seminar at Osaka University. During this time we talked about the possibility of applying for a JSPS fellowship and began to devise a research plan together.
Why did you choose Japan to pursue your research?
There are a number of reasons I chose to do my research in Japan. First, I was interested in working in an interdisciplinary environment, so the Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences at Osaka University was a particularly attractive option because it was designed to bring biologists together with chemists, computer scientists, engineers, and physicists to tackle some of the toughest problems in biology today. I believe these sorts of interdisciplinary efforts will be more and more valuable in the future as the boundaries of science continue to blur. Second, Japan has emerged as a mecca of microscopy, matched perhaps only by Germany. Japanese universities therefore house some of the latest and greatest microscopes. Here in our lab alone, we have three state-of-the-art Nikon and Olympus fluorescence microscopes, as well as a DeltaVision super-resolution microscope and a Zeiss microscope for fluorescence fluctuation analyses. In addition to that, I have access to the world’s first multi-color microscope capable of tracking single molecules in the eukaryotic nucleus through our collaborator in RIKEN. Finally, on a more personal note, I think Japan is a beautiful country and great place to raise a family.
Generally speaking, what is your impression of Japan’s research environment?
Needless to say, the research environment in Japan is top notch and very competitive. Speaking as a foreigner, research in Japan has also become quite international, with a number of universities actively recruiting foreign faculty for increased diversity. Japan also hosts many international meetings, so there is ample opportunity to meet and collaborate with other top researchers both inside and outside of Japan.
What do you do outside your research work?
I often take weekend excursions to nearby tourist attractions with my wife and son. He has just turned one, so we are somewhat limited on how far we can travel and where we can go, but in a way this has helped us discover many interesting local sites that we might otherwise have missed.
What do you think of life in Japan—its culture and customs?
I like life in Japan and respect the deep traditional roots of Japanese culture. I also found out that Japan regards preventative medicine as important. This comes from its universal health insurance system which is unfortunately lacking back in my country. Since arriving in Japan, I have already had three mandatory health checkups. Because of these checkups, I now know more about my own body than ever before.
Please give some advice for young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan.
The JSPS fellowship has been a wonderful experience for me and I encourage any foreign researcher interested in doing cutting-edge science to apply. The most important thing is to contact your potential mentor well in advance and devise an innovative yet realistic research plan. The maximum fellowship length is just two years, so the plan needs to be crisp and focused. If possible, get a head start by doing some preliminary experiments together with your mentor to prove the feasibility of your plan.
Only naturally, many people are hesitant to leave their home country to reside in another especially non-English speaking country, with all the challenges that would seem to portend. However, Dr. Stasevich made the undaunted decision to come to Japan with his expecting wife. We were very pleased to learn that he and his family are enjoying a happy and positive experience living in Japan. From what he said when we talked to him, we believe his stay in Japan is also adding depth to his experience as a researcher: “I often see the lights on in the university hospital late at night. The devotion of doctors and nurses to patients inspires me and also reminds me why we do research in the first place.” We hope Dr. Stasevich will share his experiences with colleagues around the world who may due to language and cultural differences be reluctant to come to Japan despite it being a dynamic international venue for advancing their research and building their careers.