24 June 2012

New Wave Science Breaks on Okinawa

Panorama01-1 Photo by OIST

I wrote this article back in January. It gives a nice overview of this neat institute, so I thought I'd publish it here.

The 21st century scientific climate may be turning its back on the specialist. To bring Japanese science up to speed, a new graduate university on Okinawa plans to foster the growth of a new breed of interdisciplinary researchers. With substantial funding from the Japanese government, state-of-the-art equipment, a growing faculty of world-renowned researchers, and an island setting with highs in January hovering around 20ÂșC, young scientists can go to this institute to study, perchance to dream big.

At the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) even the architecture demands communication among its scientists. To get to their respective laboratories from the campus living facilities, researchers will first have to walk through a pedestrian tunnel, into elevators that rise up a vertical light shaft, through the Center Building and out to the lab buildings. The campus design causes "everyone to meet each other everyday," says John Dickison, the OIST Vice President for Buildings and Facility Management, in the institute's informational movie. "It is not possible to work at OIST and spend all your time tucked away in your little unit corner."

Photo by OIST
In April 2003 the OIST Board of Directors decided to build their institute in the town of Onna-son in Okinawa, a subtropical island covered in lush, green forests and surrounded by an iridescent blue ocean filled with coral reefs. While keeping in mind the sensitivity of the surrounding environment, they started construction of the Center Building and the first lab building in March 2008. They are currently working on the second lab building and the auditorium (note: these buildings are now finished), and in the near future they will begin construction of a Campus Village where up to 50% of the students, faculty and staff can live. The village will also include a childcare center where the children of OIST researchers can form a community of their own. In the more distant future, they also plan to build a third lab building.

The community-oriented campus design parallels one of OIST's main ambitions: to encourage biologists, chemists, computer scientists, mathematicians and physicists from all over the world to work together to produce innovations in science and technology. Their flexible, interdisciplinary philosophy is relatively unheard of in Japanese science today, an academic system that stunts innovation with its inclination toward hermitic departments and a domineering respect for authority. As a result, the number of students enrolling in graduate programs in the natural sciences has continued to drop since 2003.

OIST wants to foster an environment where the independence and ingenuity of young researchers can blossom without the barriers of categorization, cloudy weather, or rigid superiors. Every student works towards the same degree: a PhD in Science and Technology and there are no departmental heads because there are no departments. Though the institute has hosted workshops and courses since 2005, it will officially admit its first 20 students in the fall of 2012. In five years, they hope that number will grow to 100. The faculty to student ratio will be maintained around 1:2.

Photo by OIST
212 researchers working in 44 different units call OIST home, 85 of whom are non-Japanese and hailing from 30 different countries. The institute feels the exposure of both Japanese and non-Japanese students to an international setting will engender an exceptionally open and creative style of viewing research. When all the recruiting is said and done, they aim to have a group of around 500 scientists that will be roughly half non-Japanese.

So far the OIST faculty have produced over 350 research publications and seven patents. In July 2011 the institute received considerable press for a paper published in Nature on the decoding of the first coral genome by Dr. Chuya Shinzato in the Marine Genomics Unit at OIST. The research may help understand why certain coral strains are more sensitive to bleaching than others.

For this international group of researchers to communicate, there is no doubt the university's official language must be English. Japan is in need of more high-level researchers who speak English fluently because this would allow them to spend time abroad for postdoctoral training, collaborate internationally and increase the number of papers they have published in top journals like Nature and Science. At OIST all of the courses and workshops are taught in English and using English in daily life is strongly encouraged. Even these informal exchanges, they say, are essential to the advancement of scientific thought and discovery.

The institute also aims to foster a better relationship between universities and industry in Japan, something Japanese science hasn't done much of as of yet. OIST reasons that as a result Japan hasn't experienced a phenomenon similar to the viral spread of start-ups seen in Silicon Valley in the 1960s and 1970s. OIST will promote this relationship by making it easy for industry representatives to visit the university and urging students to be conscious of the worthiness of scientific research to the sustainable development of Okinawa, Japan and society overall.

Researchers are also encouraged to participate in the local community of Okinawa. Every year OIST has an Open Campus event where the public is invited to get an insider's view of the research taking place at the institute. They also have talks and lectures where school children can get an introduction to the life of a researcher and speak with Nobel Laureates.

One barrier an unfortunate number of researchers face when designing experiments is funding. To address the deficiencies the Japanese government felt its science and technology sectors had, it has poured funding into establishing OIST. "Once it sunk in how many resources I would have available [at OIST], I realized I would need an incredible run with the National Science Foundation to match that in the US," said Evan Economo, head of the Biodiversity and Biocomplexity Unit at OIST, in an article published in Nature in June 2011. "I feel like my research success is now up to me instead of an anonymous grant-review panel."

The Japanese government hopes OIST will pave the way for a new style of conducting research in Japan, one that is more international, communicative among the fields, and friendly with industry. And there is seemingly nothing standing in their way. The campus is beautiful, the machines are cutting-edge, the faculty is top of the line, intellectual freedom reigns like nowhere else in the country, and you can go snorkeling on your lunch break. The Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology is nothing short of a high-tech, beach-front sanctuary for scientists.

03 June 2012

SĂ€chsische Schweiz

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