A Summer in Tokyo

By Ivee Lee

I was inspired to accomplish something great in Japan ever since I walked into the Nagasaki Memorial filled with beautiful cranes with my family five years ago. It is still unreal to me that I had the opportunity to conduct research at a prestigious institution like UTokyo and live in Tokyo by myself. To begin with, I would like to sincerely thank the Ito Foundation U.S.A. and Friends of UTokyo, Inc. for their generous support to enable students to pursue their educational endeavors. Through engaging academic involvement and cultural immersion, the past six weeks I spent in the UCEAP Summer Lab Research, Engineering & Science Program at the University of Tokyo has helped me grow as a scientist and a more mature individual.

Total Internal Reflection Microscope (TIRF)

I spent my six weeks working in Professor Ozawa’s analytical chemistry research lab at the University of Tokyo’s Hongo campus. My project focuses on a single molecule live cell imaging study on β-Actin mRNA, and examining the visualization and tracking of spatial and temporal movement of single endogenous β-Actin mRNA. The goal was to use a Total Internal Reflection Fluorescent (TIRF) microscope to observe mRNA localization and dynamics in live cells and analyze the data with ImageJ Tracking software, Microsoft Excel, and Igor. My current research at UC Irvine limits me to in vitro experiments with DNA and RNA. This summer, I have been exposed to in vivo techniques with live cells and single molecule microscopy. I was worried about not being skilled in in vivo experiments and capturing bad images for analyzing. However, I found performing transfections and cell culturing exciting. Lots of practice and guidance from my lab mentors has helped me excel in opto-bioanalysis techniques. I am also grateful to learn to use a TIRF microscope, which is considered one of the more difficult microscopes to observe with. The most exciting part was observing a potential β-Actin mRNA’s movement. I found the topic to have a significant application to drug development. My exposure to cell culturing, optical imaging and novel intramolecular signaling has taught me new skills that can be carried to obtaining a PharmD., which would prepare me for any advance post-graduate research and pharmaceutical career-related endeavors in the United States or even Japan.

Eating okonomiyaki with lab mates

Tokyo is definitely a place to visit because it’s where the past and the future, city and countryside are located at the same place. Apart from the long working hours, I made time to visit every item in my bucket list. Surprisingly, I never thought shopping would be so exciting. Every corner I came across had something for me to look at. Ginza, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku and Shibuya were just some of my favorite shopping hubs to visit. I was fortunate enough to ride the shinkansen and trains all the way to Nikko to visit the sacred Toshogu Shrine, the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was one of the most lavish and intricately structured shrines I have ever seen. The Imperial Palace, hidden in a park surrounded by skyscrapers, was breathtaking under the blue Tokyo sky. Along Tokyo Bay sits a futuristic world dazzled by illuminations within dimly lit hallways and open spaces. Mori Building Digital Art Museum: teamLab Borderless in Odaiba was a dream-like wonderland to explore with my friends and we were fascinated by the interactive artworks that transcend the borders of the museum. Tokyo’s unique and quirky kawaii culture became a regular sight that consumed my meals at character themed cafes, the writing utensils sitting in every stationary store and even the surfaces of common buses and trains. Furthermore, authentic Japanese food such as sashimi, okonomiyaki, yakitori and ramen tasted the best with the friends I made from the UCEAP program. Despite the number of places I visited, I want to come back with my family and friends and discover something new about Tokyo.

Walking around Asakusa in a yukata

Living in Japan gave me a chance to meet new people, visit new places and experience a dynamic culture. However, I definitely went through some challenges too. I felt lonely at times, but I also found it nice to just walk around and do things by myself too. The graduate students in my lab spoke little English, therefore having casual conversations were difficult. Therefore, I tried to learn a couple of words in Japanese. These challenges were an opportunity for me to learn about myself and how I can attack problems I may not normally come across back in UC Irvine. I came out of my comfort zone to talk to new people and asked for help. I am happy to have brought home these life skills to a new level that will help me succeed in my future endeavors.

Imperial Palace surrounded by moats and walls

Upon my return to California, I have attained a new set of eyes towards my life ahead of me. I am so thankful for having such a precious experience in Japan to explore, learn and grow into a better version of myself. I have kept a journal of my whereabouts, experiences and thoughts for every day of the six weeks I was in Tokyo. I look forward to rereading excerpts and recalling all the good memories 10 years from now. My lifelong dream of conducting research in Japan has been fulfilled and am so grateful for Ito Foundation U.S.A. and Friends of UTokyo, Inc. for supporting such opportunities to make my dream a reality. One of those beautiful cranes that has been sitting on my desk has attained a new memory of my unforgettable summer in Tokyo. I know that I will hold onto the lessons I learned in Japan and UTokyo for the rest of my life!

Evening view at Tokyo Skytree