The air was full of anticipation at the club room of biotechnology students on the 15th of April. A group of 24 students was about to begin a ten-day excursion to Tokyo, with the intention of visiting local universities and research centres as well as experiencing Japanese culture and the sights of Tokyo. This was not the first time biotechnology students were headed abroad on an excursion, having visited Germany, Sweden, and France previously, but the coming excursion was the first directed at a real far-off country.
Three undaunted students were in charge of the excursion’s travel arrangements, booking the flights and accommodation as well as finding out about various practical matters, such as using public transport in Tokyo. Additionally, their responsibilities included monitoring the budget of the excursion. However, everyone took part in raising funds for the trip. This was achieved by serving coffee at BioMediTech’s seminars, baking Christmassy pastries for Christmas sales, building gingerbread houses for the staff at BioMediTech and Tays, and participating in an inventory at Bauhaus. In addition to other voluntary work, each participant also had to sell detergents and socks as well as look into possible places to visit in Tokyo.
We managed to arrange visits to four institutions: the National Cancer Center, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID), the University of Tokyo, and the Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences. The visits were spread out on three days, with the first day including a visit to both the National Cancer Center and NIID.
The programme at the National Cancer Center consisted of a speech by Dr Hitoshi Nakagama and tours at the laboratories, where the test animal unit and working groups researching the development models of cancer and the signalling between cancer cells presented their research topics. It was highly interesting to learn about Japanese cancer research, because even though cancer is one of the most common causes of death in Japan, the reasons for getting cancer and the most common types of cancer differ quite a lot from those here in the Nordic countries. The most common types of cancer in Japan are, by far, lung and gastric cancer. The reasons for getting them are often copious smoking in the case of lung cancer and a helicobacter infection in the case of gastric cancer. By contrast, the most common types of cancer in Finland are breast and prostatic cancer.
After the programme at the National Cancer Center ended, we had some sushi before continuing on to the next place to visit. That was NIID, where the programme included words of welcome by the Deputy Director-General Ichiro Kurane and the institute’s researchers’ presentations on research in premises that fall under the highest biosecurity class, producing monoclonal antibodies with new technology, and the development process of a new influenza vaccine. The hosts also wanted to learn something from us, and so Joonas Tuominen held a presentation on the instruction and research at BioMediTech. At the end of the programme, we had time for discussions while enjoying coffee, and it was pleasing to note that NIID’s researchers really wanted to discuss our career plans with us and talk about the similarities and differences between Japanese and Finnish research on the fields of immunology and virology.
We spent the following couple of days purely as tourists. When the second visiting day arrived, we were eager to set out towards the University of Tokyo to listen to the words of welcome by Dr Shinya Fushinobu and Dr Makoto Nishiyama. This was followed by presentations on their Master’s level research topics by two local students. Finally, Joonas held a presentation on BioMediTech again, complementing the presentation with an introduction of his own Master’s thesis project.
After the lectures, we had lunch at the University restaurant before heading out to see various laboratories. We learned about the defence mechanisms of rice and the osmoregulation of fish, related to fish’s ability to live in either salt or fresh water, for example. Because we were visiting the University’s Faculty of Agriculture, all of the presentations were not necessarily entirely relevant for our field of study, but there were common interests, as well. Moreover, it was fun to hear about topics we considered somewhat exotic. At the end of our visit, we toured around the campus for a while to take in its historical buildings and the small park area with a beautiful pond.
We also heard about exchange possibilities at the University of Tokyo, as a Finnish student from Aalto University was on exchange at the University and took part in our day programme. Master’s level studies in Japan mostly consist of working in research groups, and so this student of process engineering from Espoo was working at an enzyme laboratory.
Even though Japan is far away from Finland, we noticed quite a few similarities to our own University. For instance, the research laboratories and their equipment do not really differ from ours. However, it was interesting to note how the tidiness otherwise prevalent in the country turned into controlled (?) chaos on laboratory tables. Another striking difference arose when we looked at some statistics: while the majority of Finnish university students are women, around 80% of the students of the University of Tokyo were men.
The last place we visited was the Tokyo University of Pharmacy and Life Sciences, located on the outskirts of the city. Despite the fact that it is possible to study both pharmacy and life sciences at the University, the two disciplines were practically separate in both research and instruction, and our visit focused on the pharmacy side. First, we were told about pharmacy studies in Japan in general, after which we got to see the students’ practice facilities. They included some really modern and spacious laboratories, meant for practicing medicine making. We were also shown some extremely fine human-like robots that the students could use to practice first aid skills.
After that, we visited the laboratories of the researchers, who told us about their research topics in the field of pharmacology. Finally, we wandered around the University’s marvellous medicinal plant garden and greenhouse for tropical plants located in the garden area. After the small tour, we got to taste some plants from the garden that tasted, to remain politically correct, interesting.
The excursion to Tokyo was, as a whole, extremely successful. Raising the funds for the excursion was not too challenging an undertaking considering everything the trip offered. Indeed, I recommend other students to organise excursions abroad, as well, because travelling certainly opens up new perspectives.
Original text: Maaria Palmroth
Translation: Petri Jones
Pictures: Anniina Brofeldt, Miika Fadjukov, Maaria Palmroth
The writer is a fifth year student of biotechnology who is completely enamoured with Japan.