Microscopic Musings and Mouthwatering Matcha: Six Weeks at the University of Tokyo

Jasper Miura

In front of the beautiful Yasuda Auditorium—built at a time when the university wanted to modernize and become more research-oriented.

My last class of the day had just ended when I read the email accepting me to the University of Tokyo Research Internship Program (UTRIP)—quite an unexpected surprise! Thanks to the generous support of the FUTI Scholarship, I was selected to participate in this six-week program at the University of Tokyo, working in Professor Tetsuya Hasegawa’s solid-state chemistry laboratory. As a student at Brown University studying inorganic geochemistry, I had applied to this program in large part to gain experience in chemistry research. Prior to this internship, I have only worked in geology labs, so I was eager to apply my chemistry background more directly with Professor Hasegawa’s research group.

Me and my fellow intern in the Hasegawa Lab—ready to meet our sponsors!

Thus began my six-week research internship at the University of Tokyo. From the very first day, I was filled with awe as I toured the University of Tokyo Hongo campus. While the magnificent buildings around me spoke of wisdom accumulated over many years of study, they also carried a sleek air of modernity. From the state-of-the-art chemistry laboratories filled with students and professors busy with experiments, to the beautiful cafeteria filled with delicious scents of curry rice and ramen, I was excited to begin my life as a research intern.

In the Hasegawa laboratory, I worked under Dr. Akira Chikamatsu and my mentor, graduate student Takahiro Maruyama. Prior to arriving in Japan, a friend of mine who previously had an internship in Japan warned me about the strict work culture. I was pleasantly surprised by the Hasegawa Lab group—while studious and hardworking, my fellow lab-mates were friendly and eager to help.

About to conduct my first X-ray diffraction analysis of my thin film samples!

The first week of my internship was spent reading previous studies, to understand the fundamental concepts behind my project and the methods I would be using to conduct my experiments. With my geoscience background, I was initially intimidated by the high level of chemistry research that I would be participating in at this prestigious institution. However, thanks to Chikamatsu-sensee and Maruyama-san, I quickly learned how high-quality thin films are created, and how atoms are incorporated into their structure. I also discovered that many concepts I previously learned in my geoscience coursework could be applied to understanding the solid-state chemistry reactions that I would be using in the lab; just like minerals in the Earth can incorporate impurities into their crystal structure, synthetic materials created in the lab can also accommodate foreign atoms, using the same mechanisms of replacement and substitution. Studying these concepts from the application-based perspective of chemistry provided a deeper understanding of these ideas, which in the Earth sciences are often used to understand how the planet has evolved over time.

Blinded by the lights in the TeamLab Borderless Digital Art Museum in Odaiba.

The remaining five weeks in the Hasegawa lab were a whirlwind of exciting experiments. Alongside my friend and fellow intern in the UTRIP program, I fabricated high-quality thin films by vaporizing pellets of my material of interest with a laser, which then deposited neatly onto a surface with the same crystal structure as the films I wanted to synthesize. Then, I conducted multiple analyses of the films’ crystal structures by observing how X-rays interacted with the material. Next, I baked my films in a special furnace along with a fluorine polymer, with the hopes of having the films take the fluorine into their crystal structures. To determine whether the fluorine was successfully incorporated, I conducted more experiments with X-rays to determine the chemical composition of the fluorinated films. Making these films and understanding the science behind for every step in this process gave me a better understanding of the importance of the results of my experiments—as an exploratory project, I helped determine the viability of using these fluorinated films for thin film batteries, with many applications for wearable technologies.

A pleasant day excursion to Mount Fuji.

Of course, the incredible research opportunities were not the only reason why I had applied to this program. I made the most of my weekends by exploring Tokyo and the surrounding area to better understand Japanese culture and my own heritage as a Japanese-American. Almost eighty years prior to my summer internship at the University of Tokyo, my great-grandfather (and namesake) attended graduate school for medicine in Tokyo. No doubt much has changed in the city since he was there; I imagine my great-grandfather probably did not spend hours at Don Quijote shopping for the spiciest instant noodles, or taking silly pictures in a photo booth in Akihabara. I found Tokyo to be a cultural hub for the new and modern; in fact, I visited two incredible digital art museums, showcasing magical light exhibits and incredible displays of ever-changing, interactive artwork. Nevertheless, in a city brimming with the contemporary youth culture and incredible displays of technology, I discovered a culture rich in tradition and recognition for the city’s historic roots. With every bowl of ramen, I imagined my great-grandfather savoring similar flavors of salt and shoyu, in a meal prepared with pride and care. I wondered if my great-grandfather also received “small bad luck” in an omikuji fortune at a Japanese shrine, as he worried about his future; or, if he had ever spent a sunny Saturday at the beach with his friends, as I did in Onjuku. Perhaps he too spent an hour or two relaxing in the warm waters of a local bathhouse on a Sunday night, or enjoying fireworks on a muggy July evening on the banks of a lazy river.

I try my hand at shaping a bonsai—much harder than anticipated!

Particularly fond memories of my summer in Japan occurred outside of the city. From a visit to the peaceful waters of Lake Ashi and the magnificent Mount Fuji, to an exploration of the Imperial Gardens in Nikko and yuba tofu skin soft-serve ice cream (a new favorite of mine), I appreciated these moments outside of the flashy bustling streets of Tokyo. Sharing these experiences with my fellow interns made these moments particularly special.

My experience in Tokyo this summer was memorable, educational, and fun. Every day was a new adventure, whether it be an exciting addition to my research project or a make-your-own okonomiyaki meal. Six weeks is a long time to live in a foreign country; but in those six weeks, I felt I truly discovered a home away from home. I am looking forward to returning to Japan, and exploring more of what this beautiful country has to offer.