Lessons Learned: Scientific Expression


Scientists from Japan are like other scientists in that we receive excellent curricular training, but our cultural tradition represses any lightheartedness in the laboratory. In the past, having a sense of humor was frowned upon, so all conversation between colleagues was reduced to scientific theory only. We were expected to perform our experiments each day without smiling, laughing, or having contact with the general public. The unwritten motto of "silence is golden" permeated the country's scientific community.

For example, lead investigators were expected to maintain a professional distance from their students, which usually meant it was the students' responsibility to discover the importance of their research and how to proceed. Although this particular way of doing science was accepted in Japan, I was at a disadvantage when I traveled to work in the United States. I soon learned that alternative methods of expression could improve the quality of science and that if I was going to be successful in America, I would have to adapt to my new surroundings.

After completing a Ph.D. in biophysics in the lab of Mitsuhiro Yanagida at Kyoto University in Kyoto, Japan, I accepted a postdoctoral fellowship to study cell cycle regulation with David Beach at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, in 1989. My first day in the lab, I unpacked a few boxes shipped from Japan prior to my arrival. I noticed a cartoon of a man with a pipette in hand coming out of a bowl of Japanese Ramen Noodles drawn on one of the boxes. I quickly realized that the cartoon was the lab's way of saying, "Tomohiro, hurry up and come out of the box and join us!" I appreciated the warm welcome and enjoyed meeting scientists with a sense of humor. Everyone smiled a lot and really seemed to enjoy doing science. Again, this cheerful attitude was new for me, but I was determined to make it a part of my persona. As most researchers know, experiments don't always turn out the way we expect them to (if they work at all). I learned that not taking yourself too seriously can lengthen your career.

During my time as a postdoc, I watched the emergence of molecular biology and its application to medicine change the world of science. Identification of disease-predisposing genes, exploration of the aging process, development of tissue regeneration, and so on are topics that increase public interest in research. As I stated earlier, in the past Japanese researchers rarely communicated with the public about their work, so we never received training on how to engage private citizens, but now we are responsible for explaining why a particular project is important and how it is related to public health. This new philosophy came about because a portion of Japanese tax revenue may be used to fund biomedical research.

Although this new openness benefits everyone involved, the exchange between scientists and the public is much closer in the United States. The progress made in basic biology and medical science is announced almost every day in the news media. In-depth explanations of these discoveries appear in peer-reviewed journals and other general scientific magazines, which give people an opportunity to study the information in more detail. As a result, people are more willing to support the work. Unfortunately, the number of such magazines in Japan decreases each year.

After spending 5 years as a postdoc, I accepted the position of assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City with dual appointments in the departments of Radiation Oncology and Cell Biology. This stage of my career was about to demonstrate another important lesson in communicating ideas. As was the custom for faculty members, I gave several seminars in both departments but failed to recruit any scientists or students to join my lab. I attended other talks to try to understand what I was doing wrong.

What was the difference between my seminar and theirs? By trial and error, I gradually understood that the "anatomy" of an appealing seminar includes a beginning, middle, and end. In other words, take the audience on a trip and tell a story. The introduction is the most important part and must be specifically designed for the audience. If you are speaking to a group of laypeople about the intricacies of the cell cycle, the wording should reflect the level of understanding. Using highly technical jargon would immediately lose the audience and defeat the purpose.

In the summer of 2001, I decided to come back to Japan and join the Radiation Biology Center at my old alma mater, Kyoto University, as a full professor. I wanted to use the communication and research skills I acquired in the United States to help elevate the department to one of the top places in the world for biomedical research. However, soon after I settled into my new office, the Japanese government introduced a new university-managing system to reduce administrative costs. The small research institutes/departments were to be disassembled and merged into larger organizations. Also, the dean would receive and determine the total budget for each department as well as the entire university.

In the conventional system, each department was given a fixed budget directly from the government each year. Although the new system will become effective at the beginning of April 2004, I foresee that faculty members will have to embrace a more open attitude when it comes to sharing scientific ideas. If this is done, the following goals will be met.

  • Biologists, in particular, will showcase their uniqueness and attract younger generations to join the field in the future.

  • Communication between scientists and the public will improve; therefore, biomedical research will be supported by a national consensus.

  • Communication between institutes will improve and increase research productivity for the entire country.

  • Idea-sharing will not be limited to oral presentations. Leaders in each field will help inspire more future scientists by publishing textbooks that convey the excitement of discovery.

  • In conclusion, my experiences in the United States helped further my career in Japan. The easygoing attitude mixed with hard work and determination explains why Americans continue to be among the leaders of the world in biomedical research. In this increasingly global society, open scientific communication is necessary if humankind is to survive and achieve the dream of good health.

    Tomohiro Matsumoto, Ph.D., is a professor at the Radiation Biology Center at Kyoto University. He may be reached by e-mail at tmatsumo@house.rbc.kyoto-u.ac.jp.

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