by Qiaochu Li
I have long been curious of the working atmosphere and research environment in Japan, where so many outstanding academic achievements are carried out. So it’s not hard to imagine how excited I was when I received FUTI fellowship that supports my summer research internship in the University of Tokyo. In fact, this summer turns out to be an unforgettable journey for me with full of explorations.
This summer I’m working in Prof. Aida’s group in Todai, which is a world-famous lab in the field of polymer chemistry and self-assembled materials. I’m especially inspired by their study on soft polymeric materials assembled with inorganic nanomaterials, which is also closely related to my PhD thesis study at MIT. Members in Aida lab have discovered that titanate nanosheet, a 2-dimensional nanomaterial, can be aligned into ordered structures in aqueous medium in strong magnetic field. This is a very powerful method to introduce anisotropic properties into aqueous soft materials, which opens new routes for many biomedical applications.
To achieve real applications in biological medium, a critical issue is that the nanosheets should be bio-compatible: they should be stable in physiological environment, and should not interfere normal biological molecules. Our solution to this problem is to modify the nanosheet surfaces with bio-compatible macromolecules, and that is my project this summer. I successfully developed a modification method using casein, the major protein in milk, and a single-molecule modification layer is confirmed to be formed on the nanosheet surfaces. After modification, the nanosheets become much more stable that they can survive in extreme environments like salt solution, alkaline solution, organic solvent, and high temperatures, with the capability of aligning in magnetic field preserved. Due to these advantageous properties, we studied the potential of modified nanosheets as aligner medium for nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) analysis, and they turn out to show superior performance over conventional aligner materials. In addition to casein, I also studied the potential of a synthetic polymer (catechol-PEG) which has been extensively studied in my home lab at MIT, and got some interesting preliminary results. Because time is limited, I may continue the investigation of this polymer as a collaborative study after I’m back to MIT.
In addition to the experimental skills and academic knowledge, I really learnt a lot from the working atmosphere and spirits here. I’m mostly impressed by people’s concentration on their own study in this group. All the members arrive early in the morning, and strictly on time. Since then everyone is concentrated on the work until leaving at midnight. This is very striking to me as the schedule in my home lab in US is rather flexible, and usually people will not spend such a long working hour. The spirit of persistence here inspires me a lot, and I believe this is one of the secrets why this lab can be so productive.
My explorations are not limited to academic research. I’m a fan of Japanese culture, and I spent a lot of my weekend time exploring the historic sites in Japan: the Buddha in Kamakura, the temples and shrines in Kyoto, the castle in Hikone, and the National Museum in Tokyo. These trips largely expanded my knowledge of Japanese history and art. Together with other MIT students, we also paid a volunteer trip to Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, which was severely damaged by the earthquake and tsunami in 2011. By face-to-face communication with the elderly who survived the disaster, I’m deeply moved by the courage of local people that supports them to live through that tragedy, and I hope I can share their stories to more people around me.
I really appreciate this opportunity that FUTI provided me. And my deepest gratitude goes to Aida-sensei, Ishida-san, Uchida-san, Numata-san, and all other lab members who have warmly welcomed me and helped me so much along the way. Three months is such a short time for experiencing Japan, but the merit I got from this journey of explorations will be definitely life-long.