My name is Ryujiro Hara and I am from Ibaraki, Japan, about 50 miles east of Tokyo. As a young boy, I became interested in science so much that I decided to become a scientist when I grew up. I graduated from Kyoto University in Kyoto, Japan, in 1991 with a degree in zoology and continued my studies at Kyoto University in cell biology. I had planned to find an administrative job in government after I finished my doctorate because I was more interested in using my science background to link science to real life rather than doing basic research.
However, in 1995, my doctoral advisor received a letter from Aziz Sancar, a leading scientist in the field of DNA repair at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill. This well-known biochemist was looking for candidates to postdoc in his lab. Although I wasn't thinking about leaving my family and friends behind, I decided that moving to a different culture would be a valuable learning experience. So, 1 month after I defended my dissertation, I left my home country and traveled to North Carolina. I joined the department of biochemistry and biophysics in the School of Medicine.
My first impressions were very positive. My new postdoctoral advisor used to amaze me with his intellectual capabilities. Not only did he possess a vast amount of scientific knowledge, but he was able to understand the complexities of multiple projects and balance all of this with teaching and committee responsibilities. The lab consisted of approximately 15 postdocs and graduate students. The number of postdocs surprised me because there were very few postdoc positions in Japan at that time.
Also, I was impressed by the interaction between faculty members and students. We did not have that much interaction between these two groups during my graduate school experience in Japan, so I relished this new way of thinking and learning. Departmental seminars and lab meetings were great places to learn the skills of professional discussion. Although tough questions were par for the course, everyone understood that it was not a personal attack, but an attempt to grasp the science. Again, this was new for me and I enjoyed every minute of it!
Working for an American Biotech Company
In summer of 2002, I moved to Northern California to join Cerus Corp., a biopharmaceutical company. As an associate scientist, I use the knowledge I gained at UNC Chapel Hill to identify inhibitors of the DNA repair pathway which may have applications in cancer chemotherapy. The DNA Repair Research Project is still in its early stages, but members of the group are committed to helping in the fight against cancer. The atmosphere in the lab is quit relaxed and resembles a typical academic lab.
Still, industry differs from life in academia. First, a small company like Cerus has a fast-paced tempo. The management evaluates the project every 6 months or so to judge whether progress is being made. As a business, financial investment must be monitored very carefully. Secondly, new discoveries and the accumulation of knowledge are the main goals in academia while industry's goal is to produce a marketable product that improves health. During my short research experience in industry, I've never personally felt a huge gap between industry and academia. I think part of the reason is that discoveries found in academic labs often have industrial applications.
Differences Between Japanese and American Science
In most U.S. research institutions, there is a well-organized system to facilitate and support research and education. In addition to emphasizing the recruitment of graduate students, American universities have a number of on-campus service facilities such as modern research labs, well-stocked reagent rooms, and cell culture facilities. In contrast, things are not that well-organized in Japanese universities. The Annual Report on the Promotion of Science and Technology (2001)  produced by Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports Science and Technology states that we fall behind the U.S. in life sciences and must spend a considerable amount of time playing catch-up.
Part of the problem is that each departmental section in a Japanese institute works autonomously rather than working together. In addition, staff members have to wear other hats outside of the lab. I witnessed many cases of faculty members performing administrative duties along with teaching and research.
Another surprise for me was that graduate students in the U.S. are financially supported. Their Japanese counterparts must pay tuition out of their own pocket because the department may not be able to support them. Yes, there are fellowships available, but the competition is extremely intense. Many more Japanese graduate students have to secure loans and have side jobs than American graduate students.
The Average Career Path for a Japanese Scientist
Usually Japanese students enter graduate school immediately after undergraduate and in most cases attend the same school. The majority of B.S. and M.S. holders will find jobs in private companies, government, or teaching. Once you join a company or institute, you usually stay there for the rest of your life.
Ph.D. holders may find faculty jobs in academia or public research institutes immediately after completing the degree, but because faculty positions are limited, it is possible to wait for years to get a job. Japanese Ph.D.s will find it difficult to find jobs in industry as well because most employers tend to think that Ph.D.s are overqualified. Several years ago, the government set goals which would allow Japan to compete with the U.S. in science. One of their plans was to increase the numbers of Ph.D. researchers and postdocs, but the number of faculty did not increase and industrial jobs were still very difficult to find. Now there is great concern with what to do with these postdocs who can't find jobs in academia and industry.
Many researchers typically spend 2 to 3 years in foreign countries such as the U.S. or Europe. The international experience these scientists procure is an advantage because collaborating with foreign researchers is an integral part of science. Many of these people do eventually return to Japan.
In conclusion, my career path as a Japanese researcher is very unique. Although I have spent the last 7 years in the U.S., my travels in both countries have opened the door to limitless possibilities. For example, the Japanese government is now recognizing that biotechnology will play an important role in the economy of the future and has recently begun plans to introduce biopharmaceutical ventures in Japan. Currently, I use my research experience to help a U.S. company, but I hope to eventually use my Japanese cultural background to help bridge the gap between Japanese and American biotech companies. By continuing to work together, both countries will improve the quality of life for its citizens.
Ryujiro Hara, Ph.D., is an associate scientist at Cerus Corp. in Concord, California. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com .