International Fellowship Program Vol.1

We would like to introduce the voice of one of our past visitors, Ms. Carol Borek.  Ms. Borek is currently a master’s student in Monash University’s Center for Human Bioethics.  She came to our center in September 2010 through the fellowship program, and worked with us for about 3 weeks.

My Experience at UT-CBEL
Carol Borek

I would like to thank the professors, students and staff at the University of Tokyo Center for Bioethics and Law for making my stay in Tokyo so exceptional.  Before I even got on a plane to Japan I was given more than enough attention and support; using the GABEX computers I was able to video conference with Drs. Satoshi Kodama and Hitoshi Arima, who answered all of my questions, provided insight into things I hadn’t thought of, and generally calmed my nerves about visiting a country to which I’d never been.  Upon my arrival my apprehensions were completely quelled; I had been given excellent directions out of the airport, and was met at the train station by Kodama-san and Kyoko Takashima, a fellow master’s student.  A short taxi ride later we were on the Todai Hongo campus, where the other graduate students, Akiko Nakada, Mio Shimizu, Mayuko Takayama and Dr. Shizuko Takahashi were excited for my arrival.

On my first day at Todai, as the University of Tokyo is fondly known, after checking into my accommodation and sleeping off jet lag, I was given a tour of the campus.  I was shown the offices used, the various libraries, the bookstore and, most importantly, all the places one can get a meal on campus. The campus is lovely; it’s covered in trees and has many beautiful old buildings.  Sanshiro pond in the center of campus is a highlight; it is still and quiet, but full of fish, turtles and frogs.  Reading by the pond was one of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon, but bug spray is required.  I was put up at the Sanjo Conference Hall, which is situated between the pond and the sports Arena, and is a short walk to the Medical Buildings where the CBEL offices are located.  At the CBEL offices there is a reference room with a wall full of philosophy books in English, several meeting rooms, a kitchen and a student study room.  I was given my own desk in the student room, where I was connected to the printer and the internet, and was able to spread out and work comfortably.  There are 18 desks in the student room and about nine students who work there, but it is typically very quiet.  The other students work very diligently, and being in a room with that kind of atmosphere is very conducive for productive study.

The work atmosphere is generally very independent; people typically arrive at 10 am, take lunch at noon, and leave for home between 6pm and 8pm.  Aside from presentations and luncheon discussions there are no scheduled work hours.  I was give the pass code to the building, so I could go in and work early in the morning and on weekends when I needed to.  I usually wasn’t alone when I was in the study room off-hours; it seems to be not uncommon to work 12 hour days and over weekends, although it certainly isn’t expected.  In fact, I spent a fair amount of time at the office not working but socializing with the other grad students, which helped ease the feelings of intimidation I had about studying at such a prestigious university.

The University of Tokyo is the most highly regarded university in Japan; secondary students will do just about anything to study there.  I was very fortunate to have to opportunity to spend time working there, but it was a bit nerve-wracking.  I had been asked by the department to give a presentation about my research on science communication, and I was extremely apprehensive about it.  However, I had the chance to ask questions about what was expected for the presentation well in advance of it, which gave me confidence in what I needed to say.  I also attended Kyoko’s presentation, both in Japanese and in English, which gave me the chance to see how an hour long PowerPoint presentation is conducted.  When it came time for me to give my presentation I was a bit anxious, but mostly confident.  I spoke before 18 students and professors, some of whom I’d never met, but many of whom were by that time my friends.  I gave my presentation in English only; most people at CBEL have a good understanding of English, and I included a lot of text in my handouts, at the suggestion of Dr. Akira Akabayashi, the director of the department.  I got some good questions from my audience that pinpointed where there was some confusion in my argument, and in what direction I might take my conclusion.  Creating this presentation I believe will prove to be crucial to writing a well thought out, well structured thesis, so it was well worth the anxiety.

Aside from gaining help with my work through the presentation, I also had access to the exceptional resources at Todai.  There is a good selection of English books in the CBEL reference room, as well as in the medical library and the main library.  However, the best resources are the people.   Although no one at CBEL is directly researching science communication, they had at their fingertips the names and contact information for people who are.  Kodama-san connected me with Dr. Hiromi Yokoyama, who works a public relations communicator for the university’s science department.  Arima-san set up a web meeting with Tomohisa Sumida, who is a Ph.D. student of science communication, and Akabayashi-sensei and Dr. Hayashi Yoshinori set up a meeting for me with Dr. Osamu Sakura, a biologist and science writer.  These meetings were invaluable for my research; the few hours I spent talking with these experts was worth the entire trip to Japan.

Of course, Japan itself is worth the trip to Japan.  The Hongo campus is located near a fantastic part of Tokyo.  Within walking distance is Ueno Park, which houses many museums, temples, a beautiful pond and the zoo.  Nearby is Akihabara, or ‘Electric Town’, which is famous as a place to buy anything electronic, and Tokyo Dome, where you can see a baseball game or ride a roller coaster through a building, if you dare.  The campus is also located very close to a train station, which means that once you figure out the tangle of the subway system, the whole of Tokyo is at your doorstep.

I didn’t only work during my three weeks in Tokyo; I got a good dose of Japanese culture and fun, thanks to my friends at CBEL.  During the first week of my stay a group of us went out to an Italian restaurant.  I was a bit wary of this, since I had only just arrived in Japan and hadn’t eaten much Japanese food yet, but the restaurant was really an experience.  We ate risotto with squid, avocado salad with octopus, sweet potato ice cream and plenty else that one could only find at an Italian restaurant in Japan.  Later that night we all walked down to Tokyo Dome, to view the lights of the roller coaster, the themed restaurants, the musical fountain and all the people who had just enjoyed a baseball game.  A few days later Dr. Misao Fujita, Mio and Akiko took me out to watch sumo wrestling, the national sport.  They told me all about the wrestlers and the sport is played, and we got to eat chanko, the soup that wrestlers eat to get fat.  Food played a large part in my introduction to Japanese culture.  Every day in the study room the other students would share a snack, and tell me about what region of Japan it comes from.  Before I left the graduate students and I went out to have traditional sweets in Ueno, where we ate red bean jelly and agar cubes with ice cream.

Thanks to experiences like these, in only three weeks I took giant leaps forward in my research, made friends and feel that I know Japan, its people and its culture from the inside.

Thanks to:

The University of Tokyo, Center for Biomedical Ethics and Law (UT-CBEL)
Akira Akabayashi, M.D., Ph.D.
Satoshi Kodama, Ph.D.
Hitoshi Arima, Ph.D.
Peter Doshi, Ph.D. Student

The University of Tokyo, Department of Biomedical Ethics
Misao Fujita, M.S., M.P.H., Ph.D.
Yoshinori Hayashi, Ph.D.
Tomohide Ibuki, Ph.D. Student
Akiko Nakada, M. Public Health Student
Mio Shimizu, M. Public Health Student
Kyoko Takashima, M. Public Health Student
Mayuko Takayama, M. Health Science Student
Shizuko Takahashi, M.D., Ph.D. Student

The University of Tokyo
Dr. Osamu Sakura, Ph.D.
Hiromi Yokoyama, Ph.D.
Tomohisa Sumida, Ph.D. student

Monash University, Center for Human Bioethics
Justin Oakley, Ph.D.
Robert Sparrow, Ph.D.

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