Working Abroad as a Research Scientist Intern in Kumamoto, Japan

Have you ever thought, while you are still in high school, about working as a research scientist intern abroad and traveling at the same time?

The International Research Center for Medical Sciences (IRCMS), Kumamoto University

I was still dreaming about it until six-month ago but it actually became a reality for me! My time in Japan not only gave me hands-on experience in scientific research in an outstanding research institute, I also learned a lot about life in general and became a more confident individual. Most of all, I’m more certain about my career goals.

Here, I would like to share with you my wonderful adventure in Japan as a research scientist intern at The International Research Center for Medical Sciences (IRCMS), Kumamoto University, Japan.

Who am I?

To begin with, let me introduce myself. My name is Arif Nur Muhammad Ansori, I’m originally from Pasuruan (East Java) where I’ve spent the majority of my life. I’m a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) in Biology, graduated from Universitas Airlangga (Indonesia). I received some research grants also scholarship from Ministry of Research, Technology, and Higher Education Republic of Indonesia. I did a research internship in Dengue Lab, Institute of Tropical Disease Universitas Airlangga (in a collaboration with Kobe University — Japan). Then, I became a selected participant for BSL-3 Workshop by Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology (collaboration with Ministry of Research, Technology, and Higher Education Republic of Indonesia and US-CDC Fort Collins). Aside from that, I’ve presented and published more than ten papers in conferences and research journals, I also have teaching experiences as an assistant lecturer in more than 10 practical works at Faculty of Science and Technology Universitas Airlangga. Currently, I’m a graduate student at Universitas Airlangga (MSc Program in Vaccinology and Immunotherapeutics). I’m so blessed to have so many great things in my life!

IRCMS Research Internship Program

My chance to work abroad was made possible by the IRCMS Research Internship Program, a collaborative program supported by IRCMS, Kumamoto University. For your information, The International Research Center for Medical Sciences (IRCMS) was established in 2014 as the center of excellence in Kumamoto University for world-class research in life sciences through the internationalization of its research environment and the establishment of global collaborations. IRCMS is located in the Honjo-Kuhonji area with Kumamoto University’s School of Medicine; The University Hospital; The Center for AIDS Research (CAIDS), which is the only institute focusing on AIDS research among Japanese universities; The Institute of Resource Development and Analysis (IRDA), which has state-of-the-art transgenic and knockout mouse technologies; and The Institute of Molecular Embryology and Genetics (IMEG), which covers stem cell biology. Through cooperation with these institutes, IRCMS will create a strong collaborative network in the areas of stem cell research, aging research, human retrovirology, and cancer research.

IRCMS is recruiting independent PIs (Principal Investigators) at the associate professor level or higher from all over the world who have a track record of international collaboration and are actively engaged in collaborative research. IRCMS also aims to establish an international research collaboration network with visiting researchers who hold positions in research institutes abroad. Non-Japanese nationals currently account for 35% of the people working at the Center, excluding visiting researchers, and this number is expected to increase to 50% in the future. The ultimate goal of IRCMS is to become a successful and innovative role model for the internationalization of academic research. IRCMS is now laying new framework that extends beyond the existing research environment to reach this ultimate goal.

My Work

My group (Suzu Project Lab, Prof. Shinya Suzu) focused on cells of the myeloid lineage (macrophages and fibrocytes) that are composed of a wide array of cells and have various roles in immunity, inflammation, human diseases, and viral infection including HIV-1. Suzu Project Lab’s researches have revealed a new pathway that regulates the differentiation and function of myeloid cells, and have identified a unique interplay between the differentiation of these myeloid cells and the regulation of HIV-1 growth.

Macrophages (MΦ), an essential component of the innate immune system found in all tissues, have an important role in inflammation and host defense. Soluble HIV-1 proteins, such as nef protein, can activate even uninfected macrophages. Nef has been shown to activate MAP kinases, NF-kB, and Stat pathways in uninfected macrophages, resulting in the increased production of a number of pro-inflammatory cytokines and chemokines. In this research internship program, I tried to reinvestigate the effects of HIV-1 nef protein on macrophages (primary and self-renewal macrophages). So, primary macrophages showed better results of IL-6 production than self-renewal macrophages that are increased in a proportional relationship with increasing of HIV-1 nef protein concentration. Thus, I can conclude that nef protein strongly induced the production of IL-6 in primary macrophages. However, the drivers of IL-6 production in HIV-1 infection are not known. The identified whole pathway about nef protein induction will contribute to novel therapies to prevent or reverse inflammation in HIV-1-infected patients.

Aside from the work that I did, I was also required to attend weekly seminars (including IRCMS Seminar) where other scientists (PhD students, post-doctoral researchers, visiting professors, and etc) presented the progress of their own projects. Don’t worry! All of the seminars were delivered in English. Through the seminars, I learned about the Japanese way of research and why it is so enticing for foreign researchers. What I found amazing about the Japanese is their creativity and their fearlessness in conducting interesting and groundbreaking research. Sometimes the research that they conduct may not have immediate practical applications, but it is the ideas they generate that stimulate the rest of the scientific community. In this internship program, I also met Ichiro Kurane, Ph.D., one of the famous researchers in Japan for dengue virus from National Institute of Infectious Diseases — Japan.

Before I went to Japan, I was always told that Japanese are extremely hard working and devote almost all of their time to their institutions (companies, research centers, and etc), which I found to be true! Take my co-workers, for example; they work for 10 hours per day. They even go to work sometimes on Saturdays and Sundays. I hardly saw them rest. Regardless of that, my colleagues showed their passion and commitment to the work that they enjoy doing and this is something that I really envy. If you love your work, the evidence is in the quality of work that you produce!

Life in Japan

Aside from the terrific research I was involved in, the most exciting part of my experience was to have the opportunity to learn a Japanese Language and a different culture. I first arrived in Japan at the middle of January and it was winter, I had never experienced a temperature that was below zero in my whole life. I knew it could go down to -5, and I was really concerned. I was wondering if I would ever survive that kind of weather! Well, so far it has not turned out to be a bad winter after all, and I decided that I would enjoy it and make the most out of it! Other than that, Japan is a beautiful country!

I quickly adjusted to the research center and to the systems. At first, I was totally confused and lost. For instance, I had no idea how the bus system also city tram system worked, and was unsure how to go around the city. But, I quickly figured it all out and now I can go around and explore very easily! It’s actually starting to feel like home! I’m very grateful that I was able to learn so many new ideas and concepts.

IRCMS offered me a really decent apartment with convenient access to public transportation (train station, city tram station, and bus station) and shopping centers (it’s an important thing). But actually, I bike everywhere! During my spare time, I tried to visit as many places as possible. All I needed was a guidebook and a backpack and off I went. Traveling in Japan is relatively easy. As long as you know how to ride the train, city tram or bus, you can get to anywhere that you want comfortably within the country, thanks to the sophisticated Japan’s Railway Network and Kumamoto City Tram.

My exposure to scientific research in Japan has broadened my perception and thinking like a scientist. After five-week spent at IRCMS, my interest in virology and immunology has grown even stronger. Lastly, I would like to say that I’ve had an amazing and enriching experience so far in Japan. I’ve learned so much about this country and its culture. I’ve made many new friends. I look forward to many more experiences and comeback again as a student or postdoctoral researcher! I do love Kumamoto!

Otsukaresamadeshita!