Following a visit to Minnesota by three Japanese graduate students from the Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST), a group of four Minnesota graduate students from the BioTechnology Institute (BTI) visited Japan in mid-October. Chris Flynn, Grayson Wawrzyn, Jessica Eichmiller and Maria Rebolleda-Gomez were graciously hosted by their NAIST counterparts on a 3-week trip that completed the 15th exchange in a program organized by former BTI Director, Ken Valentas in 1996.
The 15th BTI-NAIST exchange featured a symposium on progress in microbial biotechnology, enzyme engineering and systems biology – and a five-year renewal of the agreement that created the program.
Since its conception, the exchange has successfully connected graduate students from one institution to research groups in the other based on common interests with the intent of learning new skills and techniques. Students from the host laboratory also become cultural mentors for the visitors. Lasting professional and personal bonds are forged in the process, sometimes resulting in collaborative research initiatives.
“I think that my favorite part of Japan,” commented Grayson Wawrzyn, “was learning to be part of a culture so strikingly different from our own.”
Wawrzyn, a graduate student researcher in the lab of Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, was assigned to Takashi Hashimoto’s laboratory and worked with one of his students to help characterize some of the enzymes involved in nicotine biosynthesis in tobacco plants.
Other members of the BTI group participated in equally compelling genomic research projects. Eichmiller studied novel intracellular proline transporters and tested the stress tolerance of mutant yeast strains in the lab of Hiroshi Takagi. Rebolleda-Gomez was introduced to systems biology in the study of bacterial genomics while in the lab of Hirotada Mori. And Flynn learned how cells repair damaged DNA while in the Maki lab.
For Japanese lab members who are required to present their lab work in English each week, working with the exchange group from BTI was an opportunity to practice speaking scientific English.
Living and working together, lab groups also had fun together. Several of the Japanese labs had their own baseball teams, and the last week of the exchange featured ‘lab Olympics day’ where Japanese lab members dressed in super hero outfits competed for fun in a series of relay races.
In addition to experiencing traditional Japanese foods like sushi and okinomiyaki, BTI exchange members also experienced the cultural environment in trips to local shrines around Nara and the old hilltop estates in Arishiyama near Kyoto. The highlight of their cultural experience was a 4-day holiday break that brought most of the group to Tokyo before members went their separate ways. Wawrzyn and Rebolleda-Gomez explored Tokyo further while Eichmiller visited a Japanese friend and Flynn and his wife toured a world heritage shrine and marveled at the beauty of the ponds and cascading waterfalls of Chuzenji in Nikko.
“The hospitality of our hosts was superb,” concluded Flynn. “Everyone was super friendly.”
Added Eichmiller, “an unexpected benefit of the trip to Japan is that I can better relate to my Japanese colleagues at the University.”