Houston Fulbright Blog – 181025

Hello CHME friends, faculty, and students,

Nan desu ka? 

This question is an informal way of asking, “what is this?”

In Japanese this question rolls off the tongue easily, and somehow it captures the meaning more satisfyingly. It is pronounced: nahn-dess-kah

Lately I have been thinking about this question because it is relates to the many things my family and I are experiencing. We are constantly exposed to new things, therefore it helps us to have these words. They are words that when put together allow us to ask for clarification with a Japanese mindset. I amused myself the other day because in our group meeting I was curious about the type of fluorophore Taguma san (an undergraduate researcher) was using in his research. He had a diagram with a nondescript red dot to symbolize the molecule. So, naturally I asked without thinking, “nan desu ka?” and pointed to his slide. His response was funny. At first he hesitated and looked puzzled then laughed nervously. Maybe he was shocked to hear me ask it but I think he paused because he didn’t have the words to answer in English.

Asking questions is such an essential part of learning, so I always hope that our CHME students are not afraid to ask questions in classes. By asking questions we use language to understand the world, which is distinct from passive learning. When we first moved here, we mostly observed our surroundings, but now we have made a network of friends and families from Saitama and we are learning much, much more!  Probably the most valuable thing about our 6 months in Japan will be the relationships we make and lasting friendships.

We’ve found that so many people are eager to talk because they want to practice their English and are interested in why we are in Japan. In fact, I’ve collected a stack of business cards from the many people I’ve met and interacted with both at the university and in the city in general. You may know that it is customary in Japan to exchange business cards, and to respect them as valuable objects because they represent future relationships and connections. I’ve given out many cards and collected cards from parents of my kids’ friends, faculty members at Saitama U, friends from Saitama city, teachers, retired professionals we’ve met around town, and of people in research. This network is quite large and some I will probably lose touch with but others not.    

Recently I leveraged my cytometry network and reached out to a well-known scientist at University of Tokyo. Professor Keisuke Goda is a leader in optofluidics, high speed imaging, biophotonics and spectroscopy. His research is published in Cell, Nature, Optica—all obviously high impact. He is in the Department of Chemistry (http://www.goda.chem.s.u-tokyo.ac.jp/). I contacted him and my friend Dr. Nao Nitta (his collaborator) and they invited me to give a talk at the Zasshikai seminar series. This is a seminar that started in 1890 and has been ongoing ever since. I gave the 1756thtalk of this series (see picture).

The main UTokyo campus is very beautiful. I attached a picture of me in front of the famous Yasuda Auditorium, which has a gothic style architecture.  I was excited to see UTokyo and to connect with Keisuke. His laboratory was quite impressive with state-of-the-art optics infrastructure and many spaces with high-end photonics equipment. His research team is 30 people strong and consists of both postdocs and grad students. Since Japan is well known for consumer electronics, many people are knowledgeable in photonics and optical technologies (think Sony). This works out nicely for me because this is my general field. I now have plans to continue to correspond with Keisuke and I was able to introduce him to Miho, which she appreciated greatly. When we use our own network it can be a bridge for our colleagues and collaborators, which strengthens science in general.

Dr. Goda’s lab was quite different from Miho’s, which is more of a traditional biochemistry space, as opposed to dark rooms, clean rooms, and fabrication labs. One thing that is interesting about Japanese labs whether it’s for wet chemistry or not,  is that you have to change from outdoor shoes to indoor shoes before you enter, which are often Crocs or some sort of slip-on. Also, believe it or not, it is OK to eat your cup of noodles in the lab! As you can see in the picture, the lab has everything that is needed by Miho and her team to develop fluorescent bioprobes. Her research is primarily taking fluorescent proteins and genetically engineering them to express peptides that allow linkage to other fluorescent dyes or so that they can self-assemble and become recognition sites. For example, she might use fluorescent proteins and link it with a different fluorophore using a peptide sequence to thus create a molecular tool that “reports” enzyme activity. When an intracellular enzyme cleaves the peptide bond that links the fluorophores, they no longer are bound together and therefore are free to fluorescence naturally thereby becoming fluorescence beacons that indicate the presence of the enzyme inside of the cell.  At NMSU, I use such ‘bioprobes’ because they are incredibly valuable ways to quantify intracellular phenomena. I am finalizing a paper with Miho and my former CHME students Nichani and Li in which we took one type of fluorescent bioprobe and used it in combination with our cytometry measurements.

Although many of our friends outside of the University are not in science, I still consider them a valuable network. Kevin, the kids, and I now have a reliable group of friends that we hang out with and who are incredibly generous and helpful to us. We’ve had so much fun visiting over coffee, lunch, dinners, and cultural exchanges. I am glad that it has worked out that our Japanese friends love to meet up and show us many Japanese things we would otherwise not be able to experience as tourists. We’ve learned so much about great foods (see pics of our okonomiyaki fun), interesting city festivities, cultural events and more (see us trying calligraphy)!  

Therefore I think I will continue to ask nan desu ka to continue learning and to strengthen my relationships with my Japanese friends and colleageus.

Arigato gozaimashita!

Jessica P. Houston, Ph.D.

Faculty Fulbright Fellow, Japan-US Fulbright

Saitama University


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