by Lucien Tsai
After successfully completing the UTSIP Kashiwa for the summer of 2023, I look back to the experiences that I have gained inside and outside of the research environment. The experiences from my participation in UTSIP further developed myself as a person and a researcher.
During the program, I worked at the Mayumi Laboratory led by Associate Professor Koichi Mayumi with a focus on polymer science. In particular, I worked with the laboratory’s postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Lester Geonzon, to design the synthesis of highly stretchable and tough hydrogels based on a polysaccharide extracted from seaweed by introducing chemical crosslinks. After an initial screening of different concentrations and improvements to the overall synthesis procedure, the resulting gels had mechanical properties that surpassed the traditional weak gel without chemical crosslinks. In addition, the properties of the gel can be further tuned by changing the concentrations of the chemical crosslinker and polymer. Another focus of my project was to understand the changes in the polymer network under deformation. To achieve this, small- and wide-angle X-ray scattering experiments were conducted. By analyzing the scattering patterns, I concluded that the strain-induced orientation of the hydrogel’s helical aggregates was the primary toughening mechanism in addition to a decrease in chain-to-chain distance with larger strains. Although the final presentation was the main conclusion to the program, I enjoyed the time in the lab the most- the curious adventures with the unknown (although often paired with very repetitive motions at times). As a fourth year undergraduate with a focus on materials science, this research experience was important to me as a means to further explore the unfamiliar techniques in the field. In particular, I was impressed by the sophisticated X-ray scattering technique and the many properties that can be inferred on many size scales. I enjoyed my interactions with the members of the Mayumi Laboratory including the other UTSIP student whether through intellectual conversations in the lab or casual talks in the cafeteria.
Outside of the research environment, I was excited by the opportunity to explore Japan and its culture through this program. For the entire seven week duration, I was fascinated by new sites around the Tokyo area using the very accessible train system. The program also led field trips to Fukushima and famous sites such as the National Theatre in Tokyo. Overall, these outings allowed me to experience Japanese culture and be impressed by the modern aspects in parallel with nature and tradition. Being a fan of anime and aniscon, I enjoyed the chance to go to the ReoNa concert for her “HUMAN” tour that can only be attended in Japan. For more outdoor activities, I climbed Mt. Tsukuba and Mt. Fuji. Although the weather was not the best for scenic views, I had a nice experience at each: Mt. Tsukuba has a nice restaurant at the top, while Mt. Fuji has many unique shops at the bottom.
Ultimately, I am grateful for this experience and the many things that I have learned throughout the program. As a person, I learned to appreciate the coexistence between nature and the anthropomorphic and the importance of strength, beauty, and practice as discovered from my interactions with different people in different environments. As a researcher, I realized the significance of global scientific efforts and the importance of making scientific discoveries practical and accessible.