Lessons from rising stars

  • Mark Zastrow

The Tsubame supercomputer at Tokyo Tech is a powerful research tool. Credit: Tokyo Tech

Lessons from rising stars

16 March 2016

Tokyo Tech

The Tsubame supercomputer at Tokyo Tech is a powerful research tool.

Institutions both public and private are counted among Japanese institutions that have gained the most in the Nature Index since 2012 in terms of the absolute or relative increase in their weighted fractional count (WFC).

1. Tokyo Institute of Technology

Japan’s fastest-growing research institute in the Nature Index is also the largest technical university: the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Its WFC increased from 112 in 2012 to 120 in 2015. More than 40% of its revenue comes from public funds, and it has a research budget for commissioned projects in 2015–16 of 13.8 bil-lion yen (US$123 million).Tokyo Tech’s executive vice president of research, Makoto Ando, credits the university’s comprehensive range of research interests as key to its rise in the Nature Index, citing research in materials science, cell biology, and fibre optic communication - as well as the Tsubame supercomputer, which the university owns and operates. Tsubame is the world’s second-most energy efficient supercomputer, one of the fastest owned by a university, and has powered compelling research ranging from measuring blood flow in drug simulations, to modelling seismic activity of the volatile Nankai Trough off the island of Honshu. The university operates 16 research institutes, laboratories across its three campuses situated in the capital city and surrounds. Ando says reforms from April 2016 will include a focus on globalization: the university has nearly 200 visiting international researchers, 10% of its students come from outside Japan, and it hopes to further boost those numbers.

2. Okayama University

Okayama University’s rise in the Nature Index is the second-largest in Japan, making it also the overall second-most prolific institute on the list. Its vice president of research, Shinichi Yamamoto, credits this to a focused effort to selectively fund distinctive research projects, helped by funding from the nation’s science ministry, which allowed it to create an organization for interdisciplinary studies. One of Okayama’s strengths is in physics, from high-energy physics to its geophysical research institute. The latter’s expertise is also being applied to the study of other worlds. For example, a recent study in The Astrophysical Journal coauthored by Okayama’s George Hashimoto proposed a new target for astronomers hunting for exoplanets: planets with an entirely molten surface, covered with magma oceans. Scientists expect that most rocky planets, including Earth-like ones, go through this phase early in their evolution. The team’s models showed that they cool significantly after a million years or less, rendering their heat signatures practically invisible. However, the steam rising from the still-warm magma would be highly reflective, making them promising targets for the upcoming generation of telescopes. Okayama’s other major research centre focuses on plant science and photosynthesis. Yamamoto says the university has plans to increase its efforts in medical research, cybersecurity and big data.

3. The Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC),

JAMSTEC, which has been the nation’s premiere oceanographic institute since its founding in 1971, rose in the index by 47% between 2012 and 2015. Takuro Nunoura, an environmental microbiologist at the agency, says this coincides with the retirement of the institute’s first generation of scientists, and the rise of younger scientists to leadership positions. Nunoura studies the realm of the deepest sea trenches, the hadal - as in Hades of the Greek underworld. “It is the least explored biosphere on Earth,” says Nunoura. In the ocean’s deep abyssal zone, food is scarce, and microbes eke out what energy they can mostly from rocks. The hadal is even less surveyed, and previous work had been conducted like classical species hunting. But in a 2015 study published in the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nunoura and colleagues brought to bear the techniques of modern environmental microbiology.To his surprise, they found a thriving ecosystem of microbes living off organic matter at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. He suspects that organic matter collected on the trench’s slopes gets churned into the water during underwater earthquakes, nourishing this unique ecosystem.