Until 7 years ago, I had never been to Japan and had only ever met four Japanese people. Since then I have had continuous scientific contact with Japan and have visited the country nine times, which has been fascinating and rewarding. I had never seriously contemplated working in Japan, but then opportunities came my way for very useful and instructive long-term working collaboration with Japanese groups.
After doing a PhD in plant molecular biology at the John Innes Institute in Norwich, I had my first taste of international research as a postdoc in the Centre National de Recherche Agronomique in Versailles, France. I eventually returned to Norwich after 4 years and obtained a position in the Institute of Food Research where I am now head of the Molecular Metabolism Laboratory.
My collaboration with Japan started 8 years ago when I attended a Gordon Research Conference in New Hampshire where I heard Prof. Kazuei Igarashi of Chiba University describe their genetic approach to isolating polyamine transporters in yeast. The work was very elegant and I started to think about it as a possible future direction for my own lab. Later I received information about various funding opportunities from the Biotechnological and Biological Sciences Research Council ( BBSRC). Hidden away was a notice that the Japanese Society for the Promotion of Science ( JSPS) had short-term fellowships available to spend up to 4 months in a Japanese laboratory.
In a fit of reckless abandon, I rashly e-mailed Prof. Igarashi in Chiba and asked him if I could come and work in his laboratory. To my surprise Prof. Igarashi was delighted and he organised all the paperwork and sorted out accommodation at the International House for visiting scientists (where I have to say the Taiwanese are definitely the most fun). I waited another 6 months before I left for Chiba though, as I had one postdoc and two visiting PhD students in my lab at the time and I reckoned that I couldn?t go to Japan until everybody?s project was finished.
Arriving in Tokyo is like entering the Blade Runner movie. After the initial culture shock, and getting used to the idea that I also had the largest nose in Chiba (I suppose that is why people stared at me), working in Japan was a little strange at first. Ways of doing things in the lab are very different. It?s a cliché but Japanese science is much more of a group activity and people in the lab were very conscientious about looking after communal reagents and equipment. I learned a tremendous amount in that 4 months, not just about the immediate scientific subject but also about different ways of approaching experiments.
To successfully work with the Japanese, it is also important to empathise with their customs. The head of the lab, for example, is treated as a minor deity (that?s no deity, that?s my wife), and nobody leaves the lab in the evening before the boss. The concept of the group is also very important. The world consists of those in the group and those outside. This can affect greatly how you interact with other Japanese departments, as you need to be aware of the sensitivities concerning loyalty.
So what can you expect to get out of a collaboration with Japan? Firstly, it is interesting to see the world from a different perspective. I am impressed by the sheer fearlessness of young Japanese researchers; nothing seems to be too difficult or technically demanding to them. I?ve had the chance of having two Japanese postdocs working in my lab already and a third will come next year. As for the science itself, the subject matter of the collaboration has changed significantly over the years, suggesting that working together rather than the work itself is the important factor.
Personal contacts are very important in Japan and once you have integrated to some extent, doors open. I have been invited to several meetings there to give talks and have been introduced to fairly senior people simply because I am a guest. This means I usually visit Japan at least once a year, all the time collaborating with the same group but visiting other universities as well. However, I would have to say that my visits to Japan are longer than the visits of the sensei (boss) to Norwich.
There are a surprising number of funding sources available for visiting Japan. If you are eligible for BBSRC funding there are the Japan Partnering Awards from the International Office, then the Daiwa Foundation has several schemes and there are the European Union 6th Framework Outgoing International Marie Curie Fellowships. The British Council in Tokyo is also very helpful and friendly, and you?ll find a list of 42 different exchange schemes including all Japanese-funded schemes on their Web site.
If you are a 2nd-year PhD student and you fancy spending 2 months in a Japanese laboratory next summer, I strongly recommend the British Council/JSPS Research Experience Fellowships for Young Foreign Researchers. Your flight to Japan is paid, you spend a week learning about Japanese culture and language with other foreign visiting scientists from around the world, and then you spend 6 to 7 weeks in a Japanese laboratory. In addition, although I?m sure it will be of little interest to 2nd-year PhD students, you will receive a very, very generous subsistence allowance.
There is no doubt that Kyoto is the most popular place to be in Japan as a foreign visiting scientist, so if you want to spend one of these student fellowships there you will need to contact a lab soon. I also highly recommend the Pig and Whistle pub in Kyoto, it must have the highest density of foreign scientists in the whole of East Asia.
It has been an interesting, exhausting, eye-opening, and rewarding experience developing contacts and working together with Japanese scientists. My one word of advice is to practise singing well at least one song for the karaoke and make sure you don?t choose the salt-flavoured toothpaste at the supermarket.