President's Message (Spring 2013)

portrait of Prof. Noriko Osumi

Conveying and Discovering the Fascination of Science

Spring has arrived, bringing with it a new academic year in Japan.

Way back in the early Meiji period, the Japanese school calendar began in September, but this was changed to the spring sometime around 1921, perhaps because in the Japanese mind the cherry blossom season seems to be the right choice for marking the start of new things. The MBSJ kicked off its 18th term in January, and convened a special board meeting in late March. The board members discussed a course of action for fully dealing with the case of research misconduct that had been a pending issue from the preceding term, and will announce later a policy for preventing further misconduct. Thanks to the support of Prof. Shigeru Kondo, president of our next annual meeting in December, we plan to host sessions on research ethics on all three days of the conference, and we will begin preparing for them several months in advance. I hope that many of you will join in these sessions to share information and understanding on this issue.

On a different note, I would like to quote a passage from former University of Tokyo President Shigehiko Hasumi’s book A Couple of Things I’ve Learned about Universities:

“Culture is without question a thing whose quality is enhanced by diversity capable of protecting that which is rare or different. A society with such a culture is one that begets truly creative individuals. And, the tediousness of out-of-touch people who just preach “Be creative” while lacking the power to fascinate others is but a reflection of the tediousness of society itself. Education must, above all, be the experience of fascination. Fascination is not something that is taught—true education is acquiring and giving practical cognizance of the fact that there truly are moments in this world where something fascinates us or where we fascinate someone else.” (Excerpted from “About the Power to Fascinate”; emphasis added)

In order to cultivate future scholars in the life sciences and molecular biology, it is absolutely essential to train them and equip them with the skills necessary for carrying out research. Those skills include not only various experimental techniques, but also things like research project management and logical thinking. I believe there is an even more fundamentally important task in this process of education—imparting the awareness that fascination truly exists within the world of science. While tastes may vary among scientists, the fascination of science is something that grips them all, giving them the raw energy for pursuing their day-to-day research.

Speaking from my own experience, I recall a moment in my first year of graduate school in which I removed a 10-day-old mouse embryo from the mother to culture it as part of my study of the technique of whole embryo culture. When I laid eyes on the embryo’s bright red heart pulsating with life, I was struck by fascination with the biological phenomenon of development.

I also vividly remember other moments of exhilaration, such as when the development of non-RI in situ hybridization made it possible for me to see mRNA localization of a specific gene across the whole embryo, and when I discovered an unexpected phenotype in the peripheral nervous system of a mutant rat. And very recently, I was thrilled when I went over some data collected by a student and encountered the possibility that a very important truth was hidden among the statistical variation.

Such moments of excitement—encounters with the fascination of science—are unfortunately rare and unpredictable opportunities, and hence are not something that can be taught or learned. They are very personal experiences, so what might be exciting to one student may not necessarily elicit the same reaction from others.

What an educator can do, however, is to share such excitement and fascination with students and develop and watch over an environment that enables students to make their own discoveries of fascination. The magic of science cannot be found in a setting where one is called upon simply to gather data in support of the leader’s working hypothesis. For students, the excitement and fascination of science are not something that can be taught or dispensed to them. Instead, they are something that must be discovered through personal experience, and represent the very foundation of science.

April 2013

Noriko Osumi
18th President of the MBSJ
Professor, Division of Developmental Neuroscience, Tohoku University Graduate School of Medicine