Dispatch: a visit to Japan from Europe

PhD student Magdalena Śmiech describes her experience of switching continents and cultures.
Magdalena Śmiech is a PhD student at the Institute of Genetics and Animal Breeding of the Polish Academy of Sciences near Warsaw. Her research focuses on rare genetic mutations in cancer, using genome-engineering methods.

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Tokyo skyline

A view of Tokyo and Mount Fuji.Credit: Getty

Interning at a foreign research institute was one of the main goals I set for myself when I started my PhD. I knew that this would help me to gain laboratory experience, learn new research techniques and meet potential collaborators.

At first, I wanted to apply to an institution in a European country with a similar culture, not too far from where I study at the Institute of Genetics and Animal Breeding of the Polish Academy of Sciences, just outside Warsaw. But my supervisor, Hiroaki Taniguchi, recommended the RIKEN Center for Brain Science (CBS) in Wako, Japan, as the most appropriate place for expanding my skills and learning methods that I can apply to my studies, as well as giving me the experience of a different approach to science.

The RIKEN CBS Summer Program is one of the best, and gaining entry is very competitive. The course represented an opportunity to work in a high-quality research environment with the best specialists in my field. I had some concerns about whether I could handle working in a such a demanding institute while I was still learning laboratory skills, as well as being far away from my lab mates and normal support structure. But I decided to follow my supervisor’s recommendation. A few months after my application was accepted, I arrived, nearly 9,000 kilometres from home, on another continent, in a different culture.

Because my supervisor is Japanese, I was able to learn a little about the culture before I left. Japanese people in my experience are extremely focused on their work, spending much more time in laboratories than do Europeans. They carry out all duties conscientiously and with pride, considering work one of their main priorities. Polish people do their jobs but also tend to keep more of a work–life balance, in my experience.

At RIKEN CBS I joined the Laboratory for Synaptic Molecules of Memory Persistence, led by a Frenchman, Thomas Launey. His group investigates long-term plasticity in the synapses of Purkinje cells, which are large neurons in the cerebellum.

What impressed me

Summer programme organization. The schedule of my summer programme was planned in detail. Before l went to Japan, I got a lot of useful information from the organizing committee that made it relatively easy to get settled. The institute is within easy commuting distance of central Tokyo. I got there in two hours by bus from Tokyo’s Narita Airport. The on-campus housing is near to a canteen that serves delicious, inexpensive Japanese meals, which made settling down much easier than I expected. RIKEN CBS provided my airfare and paid for my accommodation. The cost of living in Japan is hugely higher than it is in Poland, so I was glad to have financial support — without it, an internship would have been impossible for me.

Focus on work. One of the most surprising things that I encountered during my stay at RIKEN CBS was the silence, despite the large number of people working in the institute. Everyone worked very quietly while performing experiments, so as not to disturb others. This atmosphere allowed me to focus completely on my research. I would definitely like to transfer this custom to my much-smaller-yet-much-louder institute.

Manners at every turn. The Japanese are famous for their politeness. Frequently, they offered help before I asked for it. They always tried to make foreigners feel welcome, and it seemed they felt responsible for their guests from other countries. Later, I learnt that this attitude of hospitality is called omotenashi in Japanese. The courtesy with which I was met and people’s willingness to help in every aspect of my stay — both at work and in everyday life — made me feel as if I was at my home institute, surrounded by people I know very well.

Scientific potential. Interning at RIKEN CBS was without doubt an incredibly good direction to take. In its international work environment, among scientists with extraordinary experience and willingness to share, you can learn without limits. The experiments I carried out did not always work as I wished, which often frustrated me and took away my confidence. However, constant problem solving allowed me to learn much more than I thought I could. In addition, I could always count on the help of my teammates, for which I am extremely grateful, and I relied on them many times. In Poland, in my experience, we need more time to start a good relationship with lab members.

What made it difficult

An accent barrier. One thing that seemed difficult at first was communication. Although everybody spoke English, my lab colleagues had strong Japanese accents. I suppose the Japanese had a similar problem with understanding my Polish-accented English. However, thanks to everyone’s patience and willingness to play off-the-cuff charades, it was always possible to reach an understanding.

Time pressure. At the end of the two-month internship, all participants were obliged to present their results in the form of a short presentation, which was one of the conditions of receiving the summer-programme-completion certificate. This caused quite a lot of pressure because many of my experiments did not give satisfactory results. I spent most of my time setting up protocols and research methods, and accomplished just a small portion of the project’s tasks. It was a very intense time for me.

Life environment. There were only a few things that slightly overwhelmed me about living in Japan: the very hot and humid weather in summer, the occasional earthquake and the inconceivably crowded streets of Tokyo. About the same number of people live in Tokyo as live in all of Poland.

My internship ended. I came back richer in knowledge and full of experience. At the end, going far away for an internship is sometimes worth it to face a completely foreign culture or a place that we had not considered previously. I hope each of you finds a team of scientists who will help you to develop your passion for learning. I found mine.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07869-x

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