Research with Dr. Hiroaki Suga through UTRIP

by Max Sigal

Running some gel electrophoresis to analyze my mRNA!

Thanks to the generous help of Friends of UTokyo, Inc., I had the opportunity to conduct research with Dr. Hiroaki Suga through University of Tokyo Research Internship Program (UTRIP) for 6 weeks. I am currently senior at Northwestern University studying organic chemistry and cell biology, and I research nanoparticle drug delivery with Dr. SonBinh Nguyen. Over the pasts few years, I have become interested in Japanese language and culture and have taken numerous classes to broaden my understanding of Japan; in my sophomore-to-junior year summer, I was lucky enough to participate in an 8-week intensive Japanese language program in Hakodate. During that program, I used my short vacation to visit the Suga lab for an afternoon since their research was related to my research. After that visit, I knew I wanted to conduct research in Japan. Thus, it was thus a happy coincidence when I found out later that year the Dr. Suga participated in the UTRIP program!

“Translation” of my mRNA to proteins (in more than one way)!

The Suga lab specializes in modification of endogenous translation systems for discovery of biologically active macrocyclic peptides. As my current research is about drug delivery, I was extremely interested in drug discovery. My project was to find macrocyclic peptide binders for different protein isomers of Ubiquitin, a protein that is essential in post-translational modification of proteins. As my background was mostly chemistry, it was quite fun to finally use the many biochemical techniques that I’ve learned about in my classes, such as in vitro transcription/translation, genome sequencing, and more. By the end of my research, I was able to find 5 or 6 different candidate macrocyclic peptides that will be used for further experiments!

While I had previously been to Japan for a more casual summer language experience, I had no idea what to expect from the culture of a serious internship. After arriving at the lab and nervously saying introductions in Japanese to some of the researchers, I was told that there was a welcome party being held for me later that night. I was even more surprised to learn that all forty or so people in the lab would be taking time out of their week to come and meet me. I quickly learned that this was the norm and not the exception. I constantly found myself surprised by the level of camaraderie and willingness to help someone they had just met a few weeks ago. I was constantly being invited to late-night dinners near campus or shown around Tokyo to places I didn’t even know existed. Whenever I have a question (which was quite often), everyone was always willing to take time out of their busy day to help me.

Besides the research, I made some amazing friends during my time in Tokyo. We explored all over Tokyo and even took a weekend trip to Ueda and Nagano. I visited castles, a wasabi farm, and all kinds of shrines.

My friends and I at a shrine in Ueda drinking green tea and eating snacks!

I also spent my free time on weekends exploring different types of restaurants. My favorite by far was eating fancy sushi, something I had wanted to do last summer but did not have the money to do so. I was even served some complimentary sake!

Fancy sushi I bought at Shibuya!

Because of all the excitement, this summer went by faster than I expected, but I’ll always be thankful for this opportunity and the support from FUTI for making this experience possible.