On February 26th, I was accepted to participate in the University of Tokyo Summer Internship Program (UTSIP) in the Kashiwa campus. As I reflect months later, I am beyond thankful to have been able to experience such an insightful and fulfilling internship with the Molecular Recognition Lab.
Fast forward several months, on July 23rd, I ended my spring semester abroad at International Christian University (ICU) and departed with my two suitcases. The same two that I had since coming to Japan in January, though a bit more overflowing. I was filled with mixed emotions, some sadness from parting ways with my ICU friends, but mostly excitement for the next adventure to unfold. I arrived at Akihabara Station where I met Isa, a first-year Ph.D. student from Hong Kong and also one of my UTSIP tutors. After riding the Tsukuba Express to Kashiwa no Ha Station together, I took my first steps on the Kashiwa campus. After a couple days of orientation, another intern named Aika and I were warmly welcomed by the members of the Molecular Recognition Lab. We became part of the lab’s Team N, which was short for the Principle Investigator Nagata-sensei, and we partnered with our tutors Isa and Oka-san, a second-year Master’s student, to conduct a six-week long research project.
My first day of lab was not what I expected it to be. Equipped with our nets and plastic containers, Aika, Isa, Oka-san, and I, along with another lab member Fujimori-san and Nagata-sensei, searched for bugs around campus. We caught over 60 bugs that would be used for Fujimori-san’s research, including rare earwings, elusive cicadas, and dangerous horseflies. I felt like I was living my childhood times of playing Pokémon. This was my first time ever catching insects, and as cliché as it sounds, this was an unforgettable experience. For the remaining six weeks, I conducted research about the metabolism of the two-spotted cricket, which is formally known as Gryllus bimaculatus.
Collaborating with Aika, I attempted to confirm the presence of the gene DHCR24-1 in the two-spotted cricket. DHCR24 codes for an enzyme called 24-dehydrocholestrol reductase which facilitates the conversion of sterol intermediates (organic compound with four rings and a hydroxyl moiety) to cholesterol, which is a compound essential for cell structure and necessary for life. Since the overall goal was to elucidate its metabolic pathway for cholesterol production, we employed experimental techniques in molecular biology to control DHCR24 translation and chemical analysis to measure sterol levels. With greater understanding of DHCR24 in two-spotted crickets, it is possible to streamline the development of new drugs and pesticides.
Coming to UTSIP, I felt sufficiently prepared to undertake the lab work at UTSIP. Rather, the biggest hurdle I faced was dealing with insects. During my first dissection in the first week, I extract all the parts we needed. Thankfully, weeks went by without having to handle crickets. Then by mid-program, to my dismay, I was told that I had to give injections to crickets as part of a technique called RNA interference which allows us to inhibit the translation of DHCR24. This meant I had to get used to catching and holding the crickets fast. To prepare, Aika and I were given a box that contained about 100 crickets and we had to practice injecting a harmless solution into the crickets. What made it difficult was in addition to dealing with a squirming insect that occasionally bit, we had to avoid puncturing any organs which could compromise the experiment while inserting the needle deep enough into the tissue. We also practiced dissections, spending a whole day on just seven crickets. By the end of the program, I (slightly) overcame my fear of insects and was able to successfully complete my experiments.
Without the support of Isa, Oka-san, my other lab members, and Nagata-sensei, I would not have been able to accomplish as much as I did this summer. Getting to know Isa and Oka-san during our random adventures and weird conversations in Japanese and English was truly the best part of this experience. I am also thankful for all the other lab members for their support in passing down to me their knowledge. The final three outings were also a blast!
UTSIP Programming Experience
Aside from conducting research, the UTSIP staff also prepared several activities that immersed us into Japanese culture and enriched our learning. For the first couple days, we spent most of our time in orientation, occasionally doing ice breakers to get to know the other interns. Since every intern is assigned to their own lab, with exception to some that have two interns, seeing them is limited to during lunch breaks, at the end of the day, and on weekends. So, the extra programming really helped facilitate interaction.
On the first day, we toured around the Hongo campus in inner Tokyo and Asakusa. We only had a few hours to soak everything in, so returning to see everything during our own free time was a must. We also experienced two Japanese language classes and a calligraphy lesson. The classes mainly targeted those who had little to no experience learning Japanese, at most covering grammar points from first-year Japanese. A Kabuki Play field trip was also part of the programming, but unfortunately, I caught a fever the day before and could not attend.
Interestingly, on the second week, we partook in a two-day excursion to Mobara, Chiba. We learned about the Kasori Shellmounds, the largest shellmound in Japan, and their connection to the prehistoric Jomon Period. We also visited the facilities of Godo Shigen, a manufacturer of iodine from underground brine, and the Minami Kanto gas fields. Experiencing a “theme park” filled with historical buildings that mimicked those of the Edo Period and Meiji Era.
We also had the opportunity to listen to four lectures of ongoing research on the Kashiwa campus. In contrast, we also had to prepare mid-program and final presentations about our research progress and conclusions. Thankfully, Isa, Oka-san, and Nagata-sensei provided so much support during the making process.
Free Time Adventures
Staying at the International Lodge, I was able to live pretty independently. My usual week involved going to lab on the weekdays from 09:30 to 17:00-18:00, occasionally going to Tokyo after lab, and seeing friends during the weekends. Since I wanted to save a bit of money and I already owned some cooking equipment, I decided to make my lunch every morning. I never really did this before, so doing this pushed me to think of meals and to shop smart (bless up おっ母さん).
At Wednesday nights, Isa also invited me to go to a nearby izakaya, or Japanese pub, called Bunny Burrow to play trivia with other international students. The trivia were pretty creative since they were prepared by the students themselves – it was literally impossible to get everything correct. On other nights, I traveled to Tokyo to catch up with friends that I met through other programs. There is just so much to do in Tokyo, in addition to what is available in Kashiwa, that it is irresistible to just not go. But, beware of the cost of transportation because the fare for the Tsukuba Express can really add up! One-way averages about $6 to $8, depending if you get on or off at Akihabara or Kitasenju, and that is not including the inner-city transportation yet. If I did not go anywhere, then I just locked myself in my room to study for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (shout out to Oka-san for answering all my grammar questions!).
Definitely, a lot of my free time also went to getting to know my tutors. One of the most memorable times throughout UTSIP was going to get acupuncture and massages at Kashiwa together with Isa. It was a steal – only $6 to get a massage! Also, another time was going a whole day adventure with Isa, Oka-san, and Aika. We visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum, ate ikura-don (salmon roe rice bowl), and rode an elevator up Tokyo Tower! A week after UTSIP, I met up with Isa and Oka-san one last time to accomplish our long awaited karaoke plans and eat at a seafood restaurant where we caught our own fish!
UTSIP was one of the most exciting and fulfilling adventures I have experienced in my life. As a final remark, I would like to extend my gratitude to all the individuals and groups that have supported me, personally, academically, and financially, particularly my advisors, my tutors Isa and Oka-san, and the Friends of UTokyo.