Of Quantum Dots and Life in Japan


Editor?s note: Joyce Wong shares her experiences, career goals, and a typical day as an intern in Japan as part of the Co-op Japan Program at University of Victoria. Earlier in this series on Japan, Frances Leung wrote about her experiences as part of this same program.

I?ve always wanted to live in Japan and explore its language and culture. In addition, Japan is a world leader in nanotechnology research. This is especially exciting to me, because I have just completed my 3rd year at the University of Toronto, majoring in nanoengineering within the Engineering Science Program. So when I heard about the Co-op Japan Program, which offers internships for Canadian undergraduates in different host companies in Japan, I knew it was a chance I could not pass up.

The Co-op Japan Program is based at the University of Victoria (UVic). Since 1991, according to its literature, the Co-op Japan Program has "encourage[d] long-term opportunities for scientific and industrial exchange between Canada and Japan," with a mandate ?to develop a pool of young Canadian engineers and scientists with hands-on experience in the Japanese work place."

I applied to the program in late September of 2002. After UVic accepted my application, I then competed for internship positions with other students in mid-October. The internships are offered by the Japan External Trade Organization, which acts as a liaison between Co-op Japan and different Japanese companies. From a database of about 200 placements, students apply to five internship positions. By late November, I received an e-mail saying that the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation would like me to be an intern. I was ecstatic and remember my friends all giving me a big group hug!

The Co-op Japan Program requires all its students to attend an intensive 3-week course in Japanese language and culture. The course was an excellent way for me to learn Japanese and be exposed to its history and customs. Furthermore, it was a great place to meet the other Canadian interns and form friendships that will last beyond the course of our internships in Japan.

I now work at NTT?s Atsugi Research and Development Center, located among the hills of Atsugi City in Kanagawa Prefecture. The R&D Center is astounding. The impressive complex is 198,000 square metres in area and houses five main research laboratories: Network Innovation, Microsystem Integration, Photonics, Communication Science, and Basic Research.

I am part of the Quantum Solid State Physics Group within the Basic Research Laboratories, under the leadership of Dr. Yoshiro Hirayama. My project is to research the properties of coupled quantum dots. Quantum dots are artificial atoms, and the current hypothesis is that they are the building blocks to making faster and more efficient ?quantum? computers. The hope is that if we can understand their properties, then it would be easier to use and control them in quantum computing.

The research at NTT is of the highest calibre and I am very lucky to be an intern here. NTT has an ?open policy? and undertake many joint projects with researchers around the world. So not only do I have the opportunity to work alongside researchers who are at the top of their fields, I can also exchange ideas with researchers representing different countries. It is very exciting to learn from them and see in ?real life? what I have only read in textbooks!

A typical day for me goes something like this:

6:30 to 8:50 I wake up and am very glad that my small, basic but cozy one-person apartment is located in the city of Isehara, which is very close to NTT. I was lucky that NTT helped set up all the apartment arrangements before I arrived in Japan. As an NTT intern, I only pay half of the usual rent, but I pay for all other necessities, such as utilities, pots, pans, and a refrigerator. The only drawback to my building is that there is no common space where the residents can ?hang out,? so making friends in my building is quite difficult.

Isehara is beautiful and the people are very friendly. There are many foreigners living in the Isehara/Atsugi region, and so it?s not surprising to see them on the bus or going to school.

Depending on the weather, I would go to work one of two ways: walk 15 minutes and then take a bus for 20 minutes, or ride my bicycle. I prefer riding my bike because it gives me a chance to enjoy the scenery. The route to NTT is beautiful--I ride by houses and get a glimpse of how the Japanese live, across a river, and alongside rice fields.

9:00 to 12:00 I work with small chips made of a semiconducting material, like GaAs or AlGaAs, and the chip size is about 1 mm by 1.2 mm. Inside this material, electrons are trapped in two directions. If I apply a small gate voltage, I can observe interesting electron properties. And if I apply voltages to more than one gate, I can confine electrons in all three directions and make a quantum dot on the scale of about several hundred nanometers. But the chip doesn?t come with gates pre-made, so I have to make them myself. If I am in this early stage, I would dress in a spacesuit, go through a chamber that blows dust and unwanted particles off me, and then enter the Clean Room. Inside, I have access to sophisticated machines that allow me to etch, or draw, the gate patterns that I want.

If my chips are ready, I would head to the Low Temperature Laboratory to test them. There, I would submerge a chip in liquid helium, cool them to 1.5 K, and observe different properties by varying gate voltages.

12:00 to 13:00 Lunch time! The NTT cafeteria offers a wide selection of Japanese foods. Because I cook for myself during dinner, this is the one opportunity in the day where I can experience a different facet of Japanese cuisine.

One of the great things about NTT is that it offers ?culture classes? during lunchtime where foreigners like me can experience a more historical and cultural aspect of Japan. For example, there are classes in judo, calligraphy, taiko drumming, and ikebana (flower arranging). I participate in calligraphy, taiko, and ikebana because I want to learn more about these very traditional art forms. Furthermore, the sensei (teacher) and many of the participants speak only Japanese, so it gives me an opportunity to practise the language.

In studying these art forms, I?ve had to adjust to a new form of learning. I?m used to having the teacher explain the theory first, and then apply the theory myself. But with ikebana in particular, the sensei teaches by example, which is difficult to get the hang of at first. But now, after several lessons of observing, I am starting to appreciate her way of teaching. Plus it?s also taught me patience and paying close attention to detail!

13:00 to 19:00 Because I?m still in the learning stage, my direct supervisor, Dr. Satoshi Sasaki, works with me everyday and we puzzle over interesting, yet unexpected, results together. There are 20 researchers in my group, including myself, and we generally work on separate projects. However, everyone is very supportive of each other and I?ve seen many of my other colleagues work together in small groups. Furthermore, there are group meetings every Tuesday where all the colleagues catch up with each other. At the moment, I work mainly with Dr. Sasaki, but I feel comfortable with going to other colleagues for help and advice.

On weekends, I would take short sightseeing trips, or participate in some activities that allow me to explore more of the Japanese culture. Some of the things I?ve done so far include travelling to Nikko, climbing Mt. Fuji, watching kabuki (Japanese theatre art form), and playing taiko drums at a summer festival.

At NTT, my colleagues and I communicate in English; however, language becomes a barrier outside of NTT. I can read and write all three of the Japanese scripts (hiragana, katakana, and kanji [Chinese characters]), so reading signs and maps in train stations are not too problematic. But speaking and listening is still quite difficult for me, so buying things at stores sometimes becomes complicated.

For example, I will ask if the store has such and such an item, and the reply is usually quite rapid and long, which makes understanding it very difficult. However, I?ve found that everyone I?ve met in Japan has been unfailingly patient and helpful--especially when they have to wait for me while I flip through my pocket dictionary to find the right words!

From a career point of view, why did I participate in this internship? My personal goal is to discover whether this is the career path for me. I felt that the courses I have taken at school so far are too broad, and I do not know enough about all the different research topics within nanoengineering. Thus, I felt I lacked the ability to make an informed decision about future steps in my career.

Just being exposed to all the research topics in this field at NTT has given me a more solid understanding of the types of nanoengineering research that is available. For example, a few weeks ago, the Basic Research Laboratories showcased its research topics at its annual Science Plaza 2003, and it was there that I realized again just how exciting and endless the possibilities are. I?d like to enter a master's degree program, perhaps even a Ph.D., to further my study in nanoengineering and then work in industry. I love the work that I am doing at NTT, and I believe that this is the right path for me.

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