By Roxanne Lai
During the summer of 2016, I was fortunate enough to be granted the opportunity to participate in the University of Tokyo Summer Internship program in Kashiwa (UTSIP). Thanks to the support granted by the Friends of UTokyo, Inc. (FUTI), and the International Liaison Office (ILO) at UTokyo, I was able to conduct research under the supervision of Professor Tomochika Tokunaga in the Geosphere Environment Systems Laboratory.
I decided to apply for the UTSIP 2016 program because I wanted to find out more about research and graduate school life (especially in Japan) in the general field of geology, as well as learn from some of the best minds in the business. I was very lucky that Professor Tokunaga and his students not only accepted me into their laboratory and generously shared their expertise, but also allowed me to participate in additional and varied forms of research activities.
My research topic mainly focused on evaluating the semi-permeable membrane properties of mudstones. This I did through a combination of experiments and numerical simulations. I am especially grateful to my tutors, Professor Tokunaga’s graduate students, for their advice regarding both aspects of my research. While I have conduct field and experimental research before, numerical simulations were still pretty new to me. As such, learning how to work a new modeling software was definitely a steep learning curve. Furthermore, the experiment I was to conduct was an extremely delicate and sensitive operation, and we faced failure time and time again due to minute mistakes or failure of equipment. However, as my tutor aptly mentioned, the experience was an exercise in character-building, in addition to being a learning one. Fortunately, we managed to pull off the experiment and simulations, and obtained results we could use for presentations and discussions.
Professor Tokunaga also invited my laboratory mate (also another UTSIP participant) and I to join in the laboratory’s weekly seminars. During these seminars, the laboratory members would take turns to present their progress in their individual research projects. We were treated as part of the laboratory, and therefore also had to present on the progress of our UTSIP projects. I am grateful for the opportunities to be able to practice my presentation skills, and also to be presenting to a room of people much more learned than I am. While intimidating at the onset, the presentation experience taught me to be more confident in my own knowledge.
I was particularly fortunate to be invited on a field trip to Horonobe, Hokkaido, where we visited an underground laboratory to learn more about nuclear waste disposal from researchers from the Japan Atomic Energy Agency – of which had practical relevance to what I was researching about semi-permeabilities in mudstones. This sort of experience I cannot imagine unfolding outside of the UTSIP program, and is one of the reasons why this program has been so enriching to me. As a budding scientist, being able to see first-hand the practical and real-world applications of research has been incredibly inspiring.
Outside of the laboratory, the cultural activities held by the UTSIP program has allowed me to explore a whole other side of Japan. The other UTSIP participants and I got the chance to take a week-long crash course in the Japanese language, attended a calligraphy lesson, and took a tour of the Asakusa district in Tokyo.
Although I have been to Japan before on a holiday, spending six weeks in the kind of immersion that working with Japanese researchers and friends can bring have engendered in me a whole new appreciation for Japanese culture. Our lab mates, conscious of our bottomless appetite for new foodstuff, very graciously brought us to and recommended many amazing eating establishments.
This experience is also made immensely more exciting by the fact that the UTSIP program brought students from all around the world together. I truly enjoyed discussions where we talked about our experiences doing research in our home countries, which sometimes naturally segued into discussions regarding politics and social circumstances of those respective home countries. I have been honestly surprised at some of the things I have learnt about other countries, which says much about how much I still need to grow not just as a scientist, but as a citizen of the world. This aspect of UTSIP is one I never expected applying for the program, but one I really appreciate; a happy consequence of putting a bunch of incredibly diverse individuals in the same room.
At the end of the UTSIP program, I must honestly say that the plentitude of what I have learnt about chemical osmosis and the like cannot compare to the enormity of what I have learnt I do not know. In a way however, this is so congruent with the uncertainty and the unknown that we must face every day in the study of the sciences, and is all the more encouraging for me to continue working hard and learning more in this field. I must thank FUTI, ILO, the University of Tokyo, as well as Professor Tokunaga and his students, for this most wonderful experience.