Technical college offers a long time for you to find what you really want to do, and there is a lot of time to actually have experiences.
Now, I would like to ask you about your life before you became a researcher. How did you spend your school days, Dr. Ogasawara?
I am from Iwate. My results at school were so-so. My family operated a farm, so I learned many things by looking at things like a farmer's hardship and toughness, and others like management side by side.
After graduating from junior high school, I entered a technical college in Hachinohe (National Institute of Technology, Hachinohe College). Because the technical college is a five-year program, those who want to continue studying will transfer to the university. I studied chemistry at the college, but also liked biology. At that time, I met Dr. Yasuhiro Aoyama (professor of Nagaoka University of Technology) and he suggested that I enter the department of bioengineering, which was newly established at the Nagaoka University of Technology. In other words, I was a member of the inaugural class. Because we were the first students, there was not much stuff and no senior students, but we could try anything in such an environment. Dr. Tanaka of Showa University, a collaborator in this study, and I entered the program in the same year and were members of the inaugural class. Professor Senda, who is currently the director of the Structural Biology Research Center at KEK, also came to Nagaoka College of Technology instead of attending graduate school at the University of Tokyo. The department of bioengineering was resourceful on the part of both teachers and students, and I was well trained and had a good experience there.
After graduation, I enrolled in a doctoral program. By the way, both my brother and I promised that we get no money from our parents during our doctoral program, and we completed the program in that way. Today, some young students, especially those who transferred from a technical college, are not able to make up their minds about whether to go on to a doctoral program, because the background is different or concerns about money. But somehow, it will go well.
Even now I have opportunities to go to the college, and I often listen to students' concerns that they should have gone to a regular high school and then university, instead of a technical college. However, it is difficult to find what you want to do or have your teacher properly determine the suitable path for you during the three years in high school. In that sense, technical college offers a long time for you to find what you really want to do, and there is a lot of time to actually have experiences. So, I think these things are advantage of going to technical college.
When a professor at the technical college became a professor at Iwate University, about the time I received my doctoral degree, I was invited by the teacher and became an assistant professor at Iwate University. Then after a year and a half, I had an opportunity to study abroad in England. I think that it is not normally possible to study abroad immediately after assuming your post, but I thought it is important to find what you really want to do.
I majored in chemistry at college and then biology at university. At Iwate University, I was going to study in chemistry again. However, when I studied abroad the professor told me, "Please fuse genes and inorganic chemistry together." This meant to connect biology and chemistry. I thought it was a really tough request, but also thought that it was a chance.
For example, the spines of sea urchins in the ocean are structures made mainly of inorganic materials, sea urchins produce those needles. Because the functions of organisms are controlled by genes, I thought that research in the area of such topic would be the subject. By the way, the action of organisms to make inorganic minerals is called biomineralization. (Note 1) Back in those days, the study of biomineralization was advanced in the UK, so I thought about going to England.
(Note 1) Biomineralization is the process by which living organisms produce minerals (biological mineralization). The biomineralization by marine organisms such as shellfish and sea urchin are well known. They capture and concentrate various mineral ions dissolved in the ocean and produce shells, thorns and pearls.
Recently, the word biomineralization is being heard in many places. It is a very interesting field.
How did you spend your childhood, Dr. Sakamoto?
When I was in elementary school, I liked to go to museums. I lived in Saitama prefecture and I visited the National Science Museum, the Communications Museum, the Science Museum, and other museums alone.
I was a member of the school sciences club. I was the leader of the club in the third year. I signed up a summer school organized by Tsukuba Botanical Garden. I studied with botanists. I worked with Dr. Hiroaki Hatta (Emeritus researcher of the National Science Museum, PhD in Agricultural sciences) to survey the vegetation in Mt. Tsukuba and made plant specimens.
So, perhaps you were linked with Tsukuba since you were a child.
Indeed. When I was a high school student, I joined the brass band club because of a senior student there from the science department of my junior high school. I was too busy with the brass band and did not study at all, so my grades were literally at the bottom of my class.
Which instrument did you play in the brass band?
I played the horn. In the last year of high school, our band won a competition and advanced to a competition involving the entire Kanto region. The competition was held in September. Considering the remaining time until entrance examinations for universities in the winter, you can imagine what happed. After all, all boys in the band failed the exam.
So, you dedicated your high school life to a brass band?
You could say so. After preparing for the entrance examinations for another year, I entered the department of applied chemistry at Nihon University Junior College.
However, I originally liked biology, studied biology by myself, and took a transfer admission exam for Nagaoka University of Technology. A professor at Nihon University recommended that I take the exam. I didn't know until I transferred that most transferred students came from technical colleges. It seems I was the first student who transferred from a junior college.
After that, when I transferred to Nagaoka University of Technology, I found that Professor Mitsui's class was interesting. The content of his lectures focused on the structural analysis of proteins. I later belonged to his laboratory, which is the reason why I began research in this area.
Dr. Sakamoto's background seems to give courage to young people who are interested in research, but are not confident.
I certainly hope so. I currently serve as a member of a management and mentorship committee at my high school. Looking back on those days, I still wonder why I was invited. (laughing)
According to your story, you apparently encountered persons who changed your life many times. Is that true?
Yes, I believe encounters with certain people were important for me. I would not be what I am today without knowing the science club supervisor, professors at Nihon University, Dr. Yukio Mitsui at Nagaoka University of Technology, and Professor Takamasa Nonaka at Iwate Medical University. I feel that I am now conducting research like this as a result of thinking a great deal about such encounters.
Have you ever thought about getting a job at a company?
Graduate students of Nagaoka University of Technology were supposed to go on to a master's program, so I thought I went to graduate school. I did not think much about taking a job after that, and when Dr. Mitsui asked whether I would go on to a doctoral program when I was a first-year student of the master's program, I decided to enter the doctoral program.
Dr. Mitsui gave me opportunities for various experiences ever since I was an undergraduate student. When I was a first-year student of the master's program, I worked as a beam-line assistant at Photon Factory, the synchrotron radiation facility in Tsukuba. After that, I went to Dr. Natori's laboratory of the University of Tokyo for one year, and also went to Yamanouchi Pharmaceutical as an intern for half a year. My superior at that time was Dr. Sakashita (Dr. Hitoshi Sakashita, current general manager of the biomedical research division, AIST, who is also collaborator of us conducting drug discovery research. Dr. Mitsui gave me opportunities to meet a variety of interesting people.
Dr. Mitsui must be exactly your respected mentor.