Back in 2010, Michael Harris was still a Genetics with a Modern Language student at the University of Manchester and was about to step out of his comfort zone for a year and move abroad. With Japanese being the modern language he was studying alongside Genetics, there was only one place he was going to end up, so off he went on an adventure to Tokyo. Now, six years after graduating, Michael reflects on his experiences in Japan and discusses how it helped to shape the person and professional he is today. Keep an eye out for some cracking anecdotes along the way…

On my way

On a cold, rainy morning in mid-August, 2010, I boarded a flight at Manchester Airport and set off for Japan for a year-long lab placement at Tsukuba University. This placement was a requirement for my joint honors degree in Genetics with a Modern Language (Japanese), but I would recommend that any scientist considering a future career in research take this kind of opportunity during his or her undergraduate degree to get some serious benchwork experience. I found my time abroad to be enlightening; it solidified my desire to work as a scientific researcher. Eight years on and I have now completed my PhD in Immunology at the University of Cambridge and am moving to the US for a postdoc position at Johns Hopkins University.

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An eye opening beginning

After arriving in Tokyo in 37°C, 100% humidity heat, dressed like I was about to go hill walking in the Scottish highlands, I managed to sweat my way over to a bus and make my way to the Tsukuba University. One of the things that I liked the most about working at an academic institute abroad was the sense of community among the international students studying there. Everyone that I met from the very first day was generous and welcoming. In Tsukuba, to say that the dorm rooms were primitive would be an understatement. After arriving at what would be my humble abode for the next year with a pint of milk and some groceries in hand, I discovered that students there were expected to provide their own fridge; because who wouldn’t expect to pack a refrigerator for university? However, thanks to the kindness (pity maybe?) of a departing exchange student, I was able to get myself a fridge that had been passed down through generations of international students – and when plugged in sounded like it was haunted. These sorts of interpersonal experiences were common during my placement and I while there I developed a great network of friends, both in science and in other fields of study.

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Differences in lab culture 

While at Tsukuba University, I was based in the lab of Mizoguchi-sensei, working on the circadian rhythm in plants. My project was focused on the genetic screening of plants with altered circadian light inputs. Most of what I experienced of lab-culture in Japan was fairly similar to other places in the world that I have worked, though one key difference does come to mind. In true foreigner-fashion, I waltzed into the lab on my first day wearing a pair of grubby trainers and was promptly sent out to go and buy myself a pair of “lab slippers”. Little did I know that everyone was supposed to remove their shoes before entering the building and put on a pair of slippers for going around in. The shame was unbearable.

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What language barrier?

In terms of the lab members, apart from one Tunisian, everyone there was Japanese, so on a day-to-day basis work was done primarily in Japanese. This was great in terms of my studies because it meant that I was totally immersed in the language. Conversely, it did lead to me staring blankly at my supervisor on a number of occasions before we both fumbled through our dictionaries to try and find a good translation. Lab meetings and seminars were done in both Japanese and in English, which definitely made things a bit easier to follow. I found as well that a lot of the lab heads that I met there were keen for me to chat with their students in English about their work, which ultimately helped us both I think – Probably more so me than them.

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Similarities in chicken culture

One of the things that I am thankful for – and perhaps I just got lucky on this account – was that my lab group was quite sociable. Over my time there we had a fair few barbeques and Japanese-style winter hotpots (nabe), many of which were followed up by the customary karaoke session. On one occasion, after one of our PhD students and two of the master’s students had just finished their degrees, we spent the evening in the lab common room drinking sake from the local brewery, after which we stopped at every combini on the way home to get fried chicken. We must have eaten about six boxes between us. In that sense, I think students are probably culturally the same the world over.

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Other experiences

Outside of the lab, working in Japan afforded me the opportunity for a lot of fantastic cultural experiences. I spent a few long weekends sightseeing in other areas of the country. I particularly miss going around sampling all of the weird and wonderful food on offer in Japan. However, my favourite experience while in Japan would have to be joining the Tsukuba University Judo team and participating in a national tournament at the Kodokan, which is the international birthplace of Judo. Even though I managed to dislocate my shoulder and subsequently lose my match, the experience of being there with the rest of the team and meeting athletes from all of the other universities is something that I will never forget. I still keep in contact with some of my former teammates.

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To summarise…

Overall, I think that my time studying and working in Japan helped me develop as a student. Having worked on my own project for several months, when I got back I felt more developed in my scientific thinking and much more confident working independently at a lab bench. This was certainly beneficial when it came to working on my final year dissertation project. I also think that balancing my daily lab work with my required language studies and Judo training made me a lot more focused and better with time management. I think as well that studying another language whilst doing a degree in Genetics probably made me a better-rounded scholar and encouraged me to keep my mind open to new ideas, something that I think is really important for future scientists. Most importantly, going away for placement was a great adventure and I had a lot of fun while there.