Encounter with researchers and research themes.
You are now active as a researcher (in academia). Have you ever thought of working for a company?
I originally thought that working for a company was common. As I was sponsored by a company scholarship when assigned to my laboratory, I thought I would work for the company after graduating from the university. However, the company merged with another one before my graduation. The merger may have resulted in a change in company policy. One of the company's personnel contacted me, saying, "We have decided not to hire researchers. You can work at our company if you don't mind working in jobs other than in research." At that time, I had already begun to find fun in research and intended to continue my research even at the company, so after wavering I decided to go to postgraduate school. Even though knowing that I would hardly get lucky, I asked the company, "Do you have any plans to sponsor postgraduate students with scholarships?" They answered, "We have no plan for a scholarship system for them because we changed our policy to not hire employees for research." It was hardly surprising, but still quite shocking for me.
That is different from what I imagined. I had thought you originally chose to be an academic researcher, as you had mentioned how much you liked invention and science since childhood.
The characteristics seen in faculty staff have changed greatly to date since many years ago. I presume that more members have various backgrounds, while some are so-called typical researchers.
What kind of research did you do in graduate school?
Exactly the same as at present. Almost all of my publications since I started research are related to ideas, such as extracting energy from cellulosic biomass or basic knowledge for converting cellulosic biomass to useful substances.
Continuing research itself is so difficult. I sincerely admire you even if only for your continued efforts.
I think that researchers have their own styles and that I have been lucky in being able to continue my research in my style. I am also thankful for the world's trends that I didn't notice when first starting research. My chosen field of research was very unpopular, and cellulosic biomass research had become increasingly less active when oil and natural gas were yielded at less cost and in larger quantities. While studies in this discipline have been at the mercy of the times as you can see, the terms "sustainable society" and "clean energy" are increasingly common nowadays, and ordinary people are more aware of the impossibility for humans to continue living current lifestyles. Accordingly, the need for this discipline has gradually become more recognized.
I have an impression that you have introduced a variety of the latest experimental methods for clarification, while focusing on consistent research themes.
You are right. I am an early adopter and like trying new things. I always ask: "What will this method enable me to do if applied to my research?" The same applies to the space experiment. Once I was consulted about it, I hopefully thought: "I really want to do! I will!"
You need both belief and flexibility. It must take much courage for you to apply an unknown experimental method
I assume that the desire to try a new method overweighs any courage needed. Look for a person involved with technology that I find attractive, meet and talk with that person, and then conduct joint research with him or her if we click with each other—this is how I develop my research.
Has your interest in the research themes ever shifted to others?
Trying a variety of experimental methods hardly allows the current research itself to become monotonous. If anything, I feel that I am always doing something new because I have conducted research from diverse perspectives.
What is the most impressive event in your life as a researcher?
I'm sure it was what I had successfully observed with my own eyes — cellulase degrading cellulose. The result obtained with a high-speed atomic force microscope was what I had been certain would enable us to enhance our research to top-level science. However, the plan had remained unrealized for more than a decade, without an actual method to be applied. Later, advanced developments in experiment technology helped us achieve the observation, the result of which was published in Science that ranks among the top academic journal about the natural sciences. It was nothing but pure delight for us.
Image captured by the high-speed atomic force microscope. Cellulase moving from right to left on cellulose crystal. As time passes, cellulase causes a "traffic jam." (Credit: The University of Tokyo)
I was also excited upon first seeing your experiment result. Didn't you have any difficulties until obtaining such an amazing result?
What I feel is that researchers, particularly in my discipline, tend to shut themselves out from realizing their potential to broaden the horizon. I have often heard researchers saying that their disciplines cannot be science that will influence ordinary people, or that they therefore would never believe in their wildest dreams that their theses could be published in Science or Nature (or other top-ranked academic journals that publish articles about the natural sciences), which focuses on more general and more universally intriguing results. Having worked in the discipline for a long time, I came across such a disappointing situation many times and have also have been personally surrounded by that environment. At the same time, I have also wondered about the closed nature and have doubted if it is really impossible to convey my research, which I enjoy so much. It was under these circumstances that we achieved what we wanted, in order to make our discipline a top-level science, which made me incredibly happy. I never thought of my projects as being shabby or uninteresting, or even wanted to think like that. I think any researcher who sincerely works on his or her research earnestly will inevitably find something interesting in it.
The same applies to my supervisor, Professor Masahiro Samejima (Laboratory of Forest Chemistry, Department of Biomaterial Sciences, Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Faculty of Agriculture, The University of Tokyo), and the late professor Karl-Erik L. Eriksson, a biochemist who was at the University of Georgia and looked after me when I was there as a postgraduate student. They fully enjoy their research. Even in his 70s, Professor Eriksson looked as happy and joyful as a little child whenever he got a new result. Seeing those people may have helped me keep going without losing motivation.
Ms. Tachioka, have you had any experience like some highlight in your research life as Prof. Igarashi mentioned? (Ms. Mikako Tachioka (Doctoral Course Student), Laboratory of Forest Chemistry, Department of Biomaterial Sciences, Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, The University of Tokyo)
I succeeded in research which my seniors have long conducted and advanced considerably. At first, I wondered what I could do at that time for research that very intelligent students had earnestly worked on. Continuing the research for about five years, however, even I gradually found something I wanted to say. I thus realized that this is what research is about, and it gave me confidence, although nothing like any particularly big topic.
Now you are steadily walking on the career path as a researcher.
At that time, I liked studying but was one of those people who get satisfaction by swallowing whole what is written. My research life allowed me to learn from Professor Igarashi that things do not always go well as described in school textbooks, which I did experience.
Just as she said. [Laughing]
It's encouraging to see younger researchers steadily growing up. Do you think Professor Igarashi takes pleasure in conducting an experiment?
Yes. Conducting an experiment with him makes me think what I am doing now is really fun and worth doing.
You are not made to think it is fun, but it is fun indeed!