Have you ever thought, while you are still in school, about working as an engineering intern abroad and traveling at the same time? I was still dreaming about it until a year ago but it actually became a reality for me. My year in Japan not only gave me hands-on experience in scientific research in an outstanding research institute, I also learned a lot about life in general and became a more confident individual. Most of all, I am more certain about my career goals and my future.
Here, I would like to share with you my adventure in Japan as a research intern at Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International ( ATR ).
I am currently in my fourth year of a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Toronto (U of T). The regular 4-year engineering program at U of T also offers an optional work-study opportunity called Professional Experience Year program ( PEY ). PEY allows second- or third-year students to integrate into their academic studies a 12-to-16-month engineering-related work term in an employer organization. To me, the program makes a lot of sense. What's the rush in getting out of university when there are great opportunities and support from the institute tailored to help students enter the workforce as smoothly as possible? While most of my colleagues were competing for limited internships within Canada, I was attracted to the idea of gaining work experience and traveling in one dynamic package, so I decided to look into international opportunities for engineering students.
The Co-op Japan Program
My chance to work abroad was made possible by the Co-op Japan Program  (CJP), a collaborative program supported by the Canadian government that fosters the exchange of science and technology between Canada and Japan. Through international placements in Japanese R&D labs and engineering companies, Canadian undergraduate students have the option to work overseas in industries related to their studies--hence, a perfect opportunity for adventurous students to test their independency and preview what qualities their education can bring to the demanding workplace.
Before arriving in Japan, participants from all over Canada were also required to enroll in an intensive 4-week Japanese language and cultural immersion program at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, to prepare them for living and working in Japan. The immersion program also provides an excellent opportunity for Canadian engineers-to-be to mingle and share their ideas and perspectives toward today's engineering industry and the opportunities that lie ahead of them. About 60 undergraduates from Toronto, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver, and Montreal participated in the 2002-2003 Co-op Japan Program, the year I joined. The majority of students were from various engineering disciplines such as computer, mechanical, electrical, civil, chemical, and materials engineering; there were also a few others with computer science, commerce, and health science backgrounds.
Through the Co-op Japan Program, I submitted my profile to a pool of Japanese companies for review. At the end I received an offer from the Human Information Science Laboratory at ATR in Kyoto, Japan. ATR is a very new research institute, established in 1986 with support from various sectors including the Japanese government, industry, and academia. In the early days of operation, ATR only had a few laboratories that worked in collaboration with Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation and focused on radio and optical telecommunications research. More laboratories emerged in the 1990s including the Human Information Processing Laboratories, Media Integration and Communications Research Laboratories, etc. But it was not until a few years ago that laboratories related to human perception, humanoid robotics, spoken language translation, motor control, and computational neuroscience started to develop.
Now, ATR not only specializes in diverse scientific research projects, it also has a high percentage of foreign researchers (as much as 23%) that are either visiting university professors, researchers, or experts from countries all around the globe such as Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Turkey, France, India, Korea, New Zealand, and so on. ATR thus provides a culturally mixed and unique environment for its employees, which combines aspects of both Japanese and Western philosophies.
The number of English-speaking researchers at the company overwhelmed me, at first. The good thing about it was that it made communication in the workplace less of a problem; the disadvantage was that it became relatively difficult to learn Japanese in the company, as the number of incoming foreign researchers kept increasing and the society of English speakers grew larger. Because my supervisor was Canadian, I had no problems working with him in terms of communications. But I couldn't help feeling that I might have been better off experience-wise had I understood and communicated more in Japanese.
I discovered that as long as you show your effort in learning Japanese language and culture as a foreigner, the Japanese co-workers will be impressed and the language barrier between you and them can easily be broken. Although the Japanese language indeed is so complicated that it is difficult even for native speakers to use comfortably, you can always learn to connect to the Japanese with your heart. They may all appear to be very timid at first, but the Japanese people I met were very enthusiastic in learning about cultures from other countries. It comes down to the situation where both the native and the foreigner have the will to communicate, but someone needs to alleviate the fear and insecurity that exist in order for it to happen. Usually the foreigner needs to take the initiative to break the ice in order for him or her to enter the stereotypically homogeneous Japanese world. I liken it to a chemical reaction, where a certain level of activation energy is needed in order for good communication to take place.
From what I have heard from others, however, not all companies in Japan are the same. A lot of my colleagues who worked elsewhere in Japan were the only foreign interns in their companies and they were given special attention. They were like "celebrities," where their every move became their co-workers' subject of after-work gossip.
My group focused on understanding brain mechanisms and the brain's hierarchical organization in controlling the various activities that humans execute, including motor control and behavioural changes upon fluctuations in the environments. I was involved in a project that investigated the modulation of human arm stiffness with the presence of external perturbations. I also had the opportunity to work with a robotic manipulandum that was able to exert small perturbations to the human arm and track the position of the moving hand. I spent a lot of hours doing experiments on human subjects to collect arm positions, forces, and electromyogram signals. And from the data that I collected, I was able to analyze the modulation of arm stiffness of different subjects.
Humans are remarkable in performing skilful arm movements for manipulation of objects in dynamic environments with the presence of unstable perturbations. Research in human arm stiffness can give us deeper insights in the organization of motor control for multijoint arm movements that can be applied to robotics or limb prosthetics design where stability is a concern. I have always been interested in studying human perception and human biological functions, so a physiological project such as this allowed me to learn more about the human body by applying my engineering knowledge, making it a totally interdisciplinary experience.
Aside from the work that I did, I was also required to attend weekly seminars where other scientists presented the progress of their own projects. Most of the seminars were delivered in English. Through the seminars, I learned about the Japanese way of research and why it is so enticing for foreign researchers. What I found amazing about the Japanese is their creativity and their fearlessness in conducting interesting and groundbreaking research. Sometimes the research that they conduct may not have immediate practical applications, but it is the ideas they generate that stimulate the rest of the scientific community.
There are researchers who create robots that move like snakes; some study human movements and functions by making a humanoid robot, and from there they train the robot to play table ice-hockey, dance, and even juggle; some work together to design an electronic wheel chair that can be controlled by the tongue; some are interested in creating a database of human facial expression that can be used in creating animation and facial pattern recognition research. I have never heard of this type of research being done in Canada. Such an open-ended mandate in research allows the researchers to pursue their true interests and generate exciting results. This is something that Western institutions should learn to employ more often, in my opinion.
I not only witnessed Japanese creativity in the workplace, but also from merchandise in department stores, vehicles on the streets, electronics, and matters that I saw on TV. Every piece of product in Japan is user-friendly, representative, and puts the human-machine interaction as a top design priority.
Before I went to Japan, I was always told that Japanese are extremely hard working and devote almost all of their time to their companies, which I found to be true. Take my co-workers, for example; they work for 10 hours minimum per day. They even go to work sometimes on Saturdays and Sundays. I hardly saw them rest. They may be spending all 10 hours at their desks, but they may not be 100% productive and some of them seemed to exhaust themselves in the process. Regardless of that, my colleagues showed their passion and commitment to the work that they enjoy doing and this is something that I really envy. If you love your work, the evidence is in the quality of work that you produce.
Life in Japan
Aside from the terrific research I was involved in, the most exciting part of my experience was to have the opportunity to learn a foreign language and get accustomed to a different culture--up close and personal.
The very first thing that I noticed at the airport was the heat. I first arrived in Japan at the beginning of June and there was the kind of humidity that I had never experienced before in my life. It felt as if someone was painting your body with sticky liquid and your sweat just wouldn't evaporate. Other than that, Japan is a beautiful country all year round.
The company offered me a really decent apartment with convenient access to public transportation and shopping centers. The company also offered special shuttle buses to transport the employees from the residence to work every half an hour. And the ride took only 10 minutes. I was thus able to avoid the pushing in subway stations during rush hours.
During my spare time, I tried to visit as many places as possible. All I needed was a guidebook and a backpack and off I went. Traveling in Japan is relatively easy for North Americans as English maps and directions are available in major train and subway stations. As long as you know how to ride the trains, you can get to anywhere that you want comfortably within the country, thanks to the sophisticated Japan railway network. Although the suburbs may not sound exciting, it is from there that you find rural Japan and the uncontaminated natural sceneries.
My exposure to scientific research in Japan has broadened my perception of the wonderful results that the marriage of medical science and engineering produces. After the year spent at ATR in Japan, my interest in physiology and human perception has grown even stronger. By applying engineering principles and computer modeling, we can investigate how the human body functions, whether it is on computational mechanism of the brain, object recognition, or motor control.
Mechanical engineering has always been associated with manufacturing, aircraft design, automotive production, and so on, but it also has very strong applications in biological systems such as our muscles and limbs. I am glad that my engineering education has provided me with a strong mathematical background and good computer and programming skills that allowed me to tackle biomechanical modeling problems that I would have never thought possible. In order to continue to explore how humans function from an engineering perspective, a specialization in biomedical engineering, clinical instrumentation, and rehabilitation will be the promising route for me to take.