JSPS Quarterly
No.52 2015 Summer

Research and Life in Japan by a JSPS Fellow (34)

Dr. Ezzikouri Sayeh
Dr. Panagiota Tsounapi

JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Tottori University, 2013-present
Research Assistant, Division of Urology, Department of Surgery, School of Medicine, Tottori University, 2010-2013
Ph.D. Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Tottori University, Japan, 2013
Research Fellow, Department of Urology, School of Medicine, University of Ioannina, Greece, 2006-2008
B.Sc. (Biology), Department of Biological Applications and Technologies, University of Ioannina, Greece, 2006

Hailing from Greece, Dr. Panagiota Tsounapi conducted research with her host Prof. Atsushi Takenaka at Tottori University from April 2013 to June 2015 under a JSPS postdoctoral fellowship.
After having worked as a research fellow in the Department of Urology at University of Ioannina, she traveled across the globe to attend a doctoral course at the Graduate School of Medical Sciences of Tottori University. Upon successfully obtaining her PhD, she applied for the JSPS fellowship to continue her research with Prof. Takenaka.

What are you currently researching under the JSPS fellowship?

Generally speaking, my main research interest is male infertility. Under the JSPS fellowship, I am presently focused on mechanisms that mediate the detrimental effect of exposure to cigarette smoke on the epididymal sperm maturation process. Smoking not only leads to overall diminished health, but also affects the person’s fertility potential.
According to a study published by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, available epidemiological, biological, and experimental data indicate that up to 13% of infertility is attributed to cigarette smoking. I am interested in the male factor, so my research investigates the molecular mechanisms by which cigarette smoke affects the ability of the spermatozoa to move. When this function is diminished, spermatozoa produced inside the seminiferous tubules are not able to perform forward motility.
Normally, they are able to move inside the epididymis (an organ attached to the testis) through a process called the epididymal sperm maturation. This is the target of my research on the reproductive organ at present.

How did you become interested in your research subject?

Now you take me back 10 years when I was an undergraduate student at the Department of Biological Applications and Technologies in the School of Sciences and Technologies at University of Ioannina in Greece. During the fifth and last year of my studies, I carried out my graduation thesis research at the Department of Urology in the School of Medicine under the supervision of Prof. Nikolaos Sofikitis. He is an expert in the field of andrology and reproductive medicine, both at the clinical and basic research levels. At that time, I became fascinated by this field, especially by the structure of the male reproductive cell, the spermatozoon. Attending Prof. Sofikitis’ outpatient clinic, I had the chance to interact with infertile couples. That interaction greatly influenced me and strongly motivated me to pursue this line of research. The agony, the physical and mental pain and stress, that I saw couples go through to have their own child as well as all the effort they go through was really touching to me. When a couple finally reaches their goal of bearing a child, there is an explosion of feelings and happiness. This may sound a little romantic, but if you consider that Dr. Panagiota Tsounapi JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow, Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Tottori University, 2013-present Research Assistant, Division of Urology, Department of Surgery, School of Medicine, Tottori University, 2010-2013 Ph.D. Graduate School of Medical Sciences, Tottori University, Japan, 2013 Research Fellow, Department of Urology, School of Medicine, University of Ioannina, Greece, 2006-2008 B.Sc. (Biology), Department of Biological Applications and Technologies, University of Ioannina, Greece, 2006 20-25% of couples worldwide are infertile it is a big issue.

How did you get to know your Japanese host researcher?

Prof. Atsushi Takenaka was also my supervisor during my PhD study. In 2008, I first moved to Japan under a MEXT scholarship for international students. In the first year, I took a 6-month intensive Japanese language course, and for the next six months I joined the Division of Urology of Tottori University as a research student. After taking the entrance examinations, I entered a doctoral course in the Graduate School of Medical Sciences at Tottori University in April 2009. At that time, my supervisor was Prof. Ikuo Miyagawa. When he retired a year later, Prof. Takenaka became the university’s professor of urology in 2010. I felt very lucky and honored to be able to work in his department under his supervision. He is one of the pioneers in robotic surgery worldwide and is an excellent leader. Before I graduated, he suggested that I apply for a JSPS fellowship. I designed a research protocol, he approved it, and we applied for the fellowship. Fortunately, we were accepted by JSPS.

What else led you to choosing Japan to pursue your research?

This is an interesting question. To be honest when I first applied for the MEXT scholarship in 2007, coming to Japan to do research seemed like a dream to me, a dream difficult to realize. I had no knowledge of the language, so I thought that my chances would be very low. It turned out that the language was not a barrier. Japan is one of the leading countries in promoting research and science, and it really supports international exchange.
Now, why did I choose Japan? My previous professor, Dr. Sofikitis had also been a MEXT scholarship PhD student during the period from 1989-1993. After graduating, he became an assistant professor at Tottori University until 2000. After that, he was elected as a professor in Greece. Throughout the years from 2000- 2008, he continued his collaboration with the Division of Urology at Tottori University, allowing resident urologists from Greece to visit the division at Tottori for six months of training. After I graduated from my university, I continued as a research associate in his department and also started my PhD course at the University of Ioannina. While there, he informed me of the scholarships from the Japanese government for international students, and suggested that I apply. That was a challenge for me, but I was able to make it all the way through!

Now, what is your impression of your host institution?

Although located in the least populated prefecture of Japan, Tottori University offers a high level expertise and technology. It has two campuses, one is Koyama in Tottori city, which includes the majority of its faculties; the other is its Faculty of Medicine located in Yonago. I was privileged to enjoy working in both. When I first came to Japan, I stayed in Koyama for the first six months. I studied under the supervision of Dr. Kurie Otachi; and with the help of all the staff at the Center for International Affairs, I had my first opportunity to learn Japanese while interacting with many international students from different countries. It was a great experience! Moving to Yonago I had the chance to focus on my research subject. At Tottori University, the excellent academic environment, the well-trained staff, and the interaction and collaboration between the departments are all very impressive.

Generally speaking, what is your impression of Japan’s research environment?

As I think everyone expects: top quality and outstanding. Japan is one of the world’s leading countries in research advancement. Additionally, Japan is very supportive of young researchers, not only Japanese but also foreign researchers as well. It provides all the necessary equipment, technology and conditions for a researcher to advance his/her work.

Please describe your research achievements so far in Japan?

From 2008 up to last year, I had the chance to publish 28 papers in peer-reviewed journals as either the first author, co-author, or even corresponding author. Additionally, I was given two trainee travel awards to present my studies at the annual meetings of the American Society of Andrology in 2013 and 2014, one from Lalor Foundation and the other from the National Institutes of Health.

What do you think of life in Japan—Its culture and customs?

It is very interesting that although Japan is a leading country in science and technology, it retains a strong bond with its culture. That young people have a lot of respect for their culture and customs and are excited to teach foreigners about them is very impressive. Although there are some cultural differences between Japan and Greece, I did not have any problem adjusting. I do enjoy it whenever I have a chance to learn something new about Japanese customs—each is a discovery that enriches my knowledge of this beautiful country.

What do you do outside your research work?

Actually I am also a mother, so outside my work I try to enjoy time with my family. When there is time, we travel a little or go to the sea to listen to the waves, or we visit the Daisen mountain, which is very beautiful! I really like visiting new places and discovering their main attractions, the characteristics of the locals, or their language differences and unique expressions.

Has your perception of Japan changed since coming here?

Before coming here, my image of Japan was mainly that of a country with high technology, tall buildings, and hard-working people. I knew about martial arts, the art of bonsai, and Japanese cinema. I had also read a book by the Greek writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, entitled The Rock Garden. In it, he described his travel in China and Japan in 1936 and, as the title refers, he wrote about the Japanese rock garden at Ryoan-ji temple in Kyoto. Reading that book really made me want to learn more about Japan.
Coming to Japan, I discovered a whole different country. Of course, I was not mistaken about the level of Japanese technology, which is abundant everywhere; it was Japan’s beautiful nature that I discovered as something new, and was really impressed! I did not know that 68.5% of Japan is covered by forests! I feel so happy whenever I have a chance to travel and see Japan’s beautiful green hills and fluvial valleys! On the other hand, the Japanese people are very friendly, kind, sincere, and always willing to help. The hospitality that I have experienced here in Japan is really amazing, not only in stores, restaurants and hotels but also regular people who I meet in my daily life.

What do you plan to do after your fellowship ends?

I wish to continue my research in the fields of andrology/urology. I will need to discuss and consult with my professor, Dr. Takenaka, about my future path. If I have a chance to do so, I would like to continue my research in Japan before moving back to Greece.

Please give some advice for young researchers who may be thinking about doing research in Japan.

I strongly advise them to give it a try. There is no way that they’ll be disappointed. The high level of research conducted in Japan and its academic environment are excellent. Also, it will be a great experience to add to their CVs. Moreover, they will have a chance to experience a country that is beautiful in every aspect, and to interact with a wonderful and kind people.

From very start of our interview with Dr. Panagiota Tsounapi, we were dazzled by her exuberance. We soon understood that her vitality comes from raising two children while pursuing her research.
As a mother herself, Dr. Tsounapi empathizes with couples who want to have children but can’t because of infertility. Her research is dedicated to helping such people by making scientific progress in her chosen field of andrology. As seen in the large number of papers she has already authored or co-authored, Dr. Tsounapi has established a vibrant foundation for her future research. We’ve just received good news that she will be promoted to assistant professor in Tottori University from July and will continue to advance her research in collaboration with her Japanese colleagues. Their research is sure to make increasingly bigger contributions to real people’s lives.

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JSPS Quarterly No.52 2015