Montclair State University professors Carlos Molina, biology, and Mika Munakata, mathematics, led a science program in Japan with six students this summer. Students conducted research with world-renowned Japanese researchers over the course of the nine-week program. Bachelor and PhD students were selected by the two professors from among 40 applicants for a unique research program conducted at three facilities in the country.
The students, who come from different universities, worked alongside researchers at the National Institute of Genetics in Mishima, the Institute for Transformational Biomolecules at Nagoya University and the National Institute for Basic Biology in Okazaki this summer. Among the students, who worked in pairs in each lab, Montclair graduate Paulo Torano was 21.
“It was a wonderful learning experience,” says Torano, who is now a doctoral student in the molecular biology, genetics and cancer program at Rutgers University. “I am very grateful to Dr. [Noriyoshi] Sakai, the lab, the program, my guides… It was a wonderful experience frankly, culturally and scientifically. ”
Molina and Monakata fondly remember doing postdoctoral research in France and participating in the undergraduate study abroad experience in Kenya, respectively, and how they expanded their worlds, so they wanted to provide a similar opportunity for students, especially those who were underrepresented in STEM fields. Why stay in one place in the world? “We can do research anywhere,” Molina says.
The professors received a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant in 2020 to do just that. The programme, which has been postponed by one year due to the pandemic, provides international research experiences to students in Japan for three consecutive summer semesters. The scholarship pays for student travel and housing costs, as well as a stipend of $5,000. “It really is like an internship,” Monakata explains, adding, “We wanted to make sure that we provide opportunities for students who wouldn’t otherwise pursue these kinds of opportunities. We didn’t want to take their chance to make money during the summer.”
Molina and Munakata are currently accepting applications for the upcoming Summer IRES: Japan Summer Biology Research Program (NSF Project #1952513). The professors will once again cast an extensive network to recruit traditionally unrepresented students from women’s colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions for “the United States and Japan study of the new genetic elements regulating the seasonal behavior of medaka fish.”
Director of International Academic Initiatives Tim White, whose team supports Study Abroad and other international academic projects, says Molina and Monakata “designed a wonderful summer experience, enhancing both research and intercultural skills for students.” He encouraged students to apply, noting that “this opportunity to research in Japan is absolutely fantastic for students of Montclair State.”
“The purpose of the trip was to conduct research on current molecular biology projects and international cooperation, so that they would gain a deeper understanding of what it means to engage in teamwork and communication skills in an international environment,” Munakata says. “These are all undergraduate or doctoral students who want to become researchers in science.”
Monakata says the idea is to expose them to these opportunities so that they can “collaborate across language and cultural barriers” in the future, and in fact, her data suggests that students are considering starting international projects for their own programs or for their students, should they become future researchers and educators.
Luke Nicholson says that prior to his research trip to Japan, he saw visiting other countries “disconnected from my career goals.” Now, the undergraduate student at Columbia University says, “I would be quite comfortable even applying to PhD programs in different countries. I can totally see myself living in another country.”
“At my university they always talk about having a global perspective toward science, but this experience opened my eyes to that,” says research fellow Jay Miguel Fontesella, a first-year doctoral student at Harvard.
For the program, Monakata examines “the impact of this international experience on students’ understanding of science and their own perceptions of their role in the scientific community.”
Despite the occasional language barrier, the students were able to adapt, she said. They realized that science is universal. This was an important lesson for students to realize that the American way is not the only way; “There are different approaches,” Munakata says. “It is possible to work with international researchers, but there are special considerations to take into account.”
While in Japan, the students worked at state-of-the-art facilities, such as the National Institute of Basic Biology, where they used cutting-edge gene-editing techniques and learned about the role genes play in the behavioral sciences. Specifically, they studied how clock genes, which influence sleep cycles, influence the mood or behavior of fish. “A couple of the students were directly working with trying to find natural products that might influence clock genes — genes involved in our daily cycles, our sleep cycle, our seasonal cycles and so on,” Molina says. One idea is to see if they can devise natural products that might help with jet lag, for example. These genes not only influence our circadian rhythm, but also our behaviour. So, if we don’t sleep well, if we don’t rest well, it can affect your behavior and may lead to other psychological problems.”
In the second project, the students used zebrafish to search for genes involved in neural function by studying glial cells that “are also very important in behavioral changes,” Molina says.
Meanwhile, Torano worked with an inbred zebrafish. While he says that nine weeks is not a long time when it comes to scientific research, he has been able to gain some valuable experience that he may not have had a chance at at this point in his academic journey.
Turano, interested in aging and research, has been placed in the National Institute of Genetics. He and his lab colleague Yamil Negron, a doctoral student at the University of Puerto Rico, used zebrafish as a model organism. The laboratory had previously developed an inbred strain of zebrafish. By doing so, they discovered that the inbred strain ages prematurely, resulting in a 30% shorter lifespan, Torano says. “I tried to figure out one possible reason for zebrafish aging prematurely.”
Although the summer is too short to solve such a complex biological puzzle, Turano was able to develop a protocol that Japanese researchers are now using to measure telomeres, the physical ends of chromosomes, in zebrafish.
“My happiest moment was when I finally got an experience to work in the lab,” Torano says with a smile. “The method we chose to measure telomere length is quantitative polymerase chain reaction, which is very straightforward but can be somewhat tricky and no one in the lab has ever tried to do it before. It took me three weeks before I could just run it, let alone get Measurement results. That was probably my most memorable moment.”
Telomeres are very important. “In humans — and also in zebrafish — as we age, they gradually get shorter and shorter, until they get so short that they die,” Turano says.
Once he could measure telomeres, he and his lab colleagues continued their research in order to determine if the fish had shorter telomeres to begin with, a condition known as dyskeratosis pilaris congenital in humans. “If the mechanisms that regulate telomere length are off to begin with, then you would imagine you would have a shorter lifespan,” Turano explains. At first, we thought these zebrafish might have had short telomeres. Therefore, we measured the telomere length of the inbred zebrafish and the natural zebrafish streak, and there were no significant differences. As is usual in scientific research, finding answers often involves testing a hypothesis, ruling out a possible cause and then pursuing another scientific path.
Torano says the experience has also helped him improve his communication skills.
“Sometimes you have to really think, What is the simplest and best way to say this so that my message is clearly understood? It made me think about communication as a whole, not necessarily with people who are not English citizens but just communicating effectively. It is very important in science: You want to communicate your ideas clearly and effectively.”
Outside of lab work, the highlight of Turano’s time in Japan was climbing Mount Fuji with his lab mates. The highest and most famous mountain in Japan was only half an hour’s drive away. It took them about 13 hours to get up and down.
“There were a lot of cool things that we did in Japan,” he said as he shone. “The thing I am most proud of is going to Mt. Fuji. That was great. We had so much fun.”
Applications are currently being accepted for the upcoming summer program. The application deadline is November 9. To learn more and apply, visit IRES: Summer Biology Research Program in Japan.
Story by writer Sylvia A. Martinez. Photos submitted by Carlos Molina and Mica Monacata.