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Location:ホーム会社情報The GE&Science Prize for Young Life Scientists 受賞者インタビュー

The GE & Science Prize for Young Life Scientists Interviews with the Winners

1998 Grand Prize Winner
Dr. Hiroyuki Noji

Professor, Department of Applied Chemistry,
Graduate School of Engineering,
the University of Tokyo

Profile (as of July 2012)
Since 2010, Professor, Graduate School of Engineering, University of Tokyo
In 2005, Professor, Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research, Osaka University
In 2001, Assistant Professor, Institute of Industrial Science, University of Tokyo
In 2000, “PRESTO (Sakigake)” Researcher, Japan Science and Technology Agency
In March 1997, completed the Doctoral Course, Interdisciplinary Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology

The photograph at the time of an interview
Dr. Hiroyuki Noji

Memory of the award ceremony

What was most memorable for you at the award ceremony?

I have not won so many prizes, so I cannot quote this prize's characteristics in contrast with other prizes. I simply enjoyed the stay in Sweden very much, thanks to the perfect hospitality of the prize staff.

We answered a questionnaire survey before being invited to the ceremony. In addition to questions about our own research, there were also personal questions, such as, “What are your hobbies?” I used to be a member of the mountaineering club at my university, and enjoyed hill-climbing along with the stream, rock climbing, skiing, and so on. So, I simply wrote “climbing” in English in the hobby field of the questionnaire sheet. I guess that the prize staff read that answer and responded to it. During the ceremony tour, all of the winners were taken to a kind of indoor free climbing gym. I remember vividly that only I was extremely pleased, and climbed enthusiastically.

They took all the winners to the gym?

Yes, all of them. Some would not try a climb, while others were excited and enjoyed climbing. Such differences in personalities were also interesting. In this way, I was strongly impressed by the staff's careful and detailed preparations and entertainment, considering the personality of each winner. I can still recall the faces of the staff members that year.

Although I do not have much contact with the fellow winners today, I absolutely enjoyed the conversations with them during the ceremony tour.

Each of the winners is from a different specialty. What do you talk about on such occasions?

We talk about fairly specialized issues. The fields are different, but are all part of the life sciences. So, I do not feel very much alienated, because I have heard about similar issues elsewhere. There was a researcher of cancer genes, a scientist focused on substance production using bacteria, and a specialist in the crystal structure of the ribosome.

Thus, I truly enjoyed the tour itself, and was also inspired as a researcher.

A winner could take one companion to the award ceremony tour. Who did you take with you?

I took my mother. Maybe it was she who was the most pleased at the tour. We were able to eat at a lovely, traditional Swedish restaurant, see a small dance show given by local students, and other wonderful experiences. We still remember them.

To tell the truth, I think I felt some scruples at the same time. Do I deserve such hospitality? Am I worth it? That's the stress I had. I was confident that I did a good job, for sure, but when I questioned whether I, as a young researcher, was worth that much hospitality in those days, my answer was “not really”. Despite such scruples, the trip was fun, and I was also very much stimulated as a researcher.

Over time, I think those experiences turned into a positive motivation that I must become a scientist who is worth this prize that has awarded to me. Honestly, I know what level of person I actually am. Nevertheless, I was able to have so many precious experiences thanks to this prize, such as that many great scientists have given me compliments, and that I had an opportunity to talk with people from the Nobel Foundation, and so on. I even had personal talks with senior editors from Science Magazine, which is still a very rare opportunity for me today. These invaluable experiences made me wonder whether I was really worth receiving them, and feel a strong urge to make future achievements that would justify my winning this prize. In the long run, this may have been the very aim of this prize, and it seems to have had the exactly intended effect on my life.

Changes that followed the prize
- “Oh, I know you!”

You said that the prize motivated you. Were there any other changes that followed the prize?

Yes. I guess the case is the same with the latest winners… The photo of a winner is put in Science many times throughout the year following winning the prize.

That was a great joy for me, but at the same time a large stress, too. Not only at the award ceremony, but also throughout the years that followed, many distinguished scientists talked to me and said, “I saw you in Science!” Actually, over the next several subsequent years, professors whom I had first met in new places knew about me. I guess this long-term effect was the most influential on my life…

This prize has such an effect, too? We know that the prize adds 1 line to the winner's profile, but are not sure whether it has other effects, and how it is positioned in the mind of a winner.

Oh, you are not? After that prize, I was awarded several other prizes, including an intra-school award from Tokyo Institute of Technology and a recent prize from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS). This may be because I have lost fresh sense of pleasure, but I think I was the most impressed by the first one, this prize from Amersham Pharmacia (the present GE Healthcare). Even today, I want to draw the most attention to this prize in my curriculum vitae. Combining this with those fantastic experiences at the award ceremony, this prize is far from “simply adding 1 line” to my profile. It was one of the largest turning points in my life.

Following my winning, people around me all came to know about this prize. My supervisor posted copies of the Science article that reported my winning on the walls of the halls and elsewhere, so that younger students would be stimulated. Thus, I think the impact of this prize also included people around me. It had a substantial influence on my career development.

Significance of the GE & Science Prize for new and future doctors

To be quite honest, do you think that young researchers should apply for this GE & Science Prize, once they have taken their doctorates?

Yes, they definitely should, considering that the prize money has been raised lately.

I do not know very much about recent trends, but I believe that competition for this prize is fairly intense. A high level of achievement is required to become a winner. On the other hand, achievements during a doctoral course do not necessarily reflect the person's abilities, directly. Recently, various scientific societies, both domestic and international, have established prizes to encourage young researchers. I often serve as a member of the review board for such prizes, and find the judgement to be very difficult.

For example, there is a scientist who belongs to a small lab, and does a unique and high-quality study. On the other hand, there is a researcher who works at a large-scale and highly productive institute, and undertakes assigned tasks in a successful and reliable manner. Which of the two should be evaluated more highly? I assisted the review process for the GE & Science Prize a few times, and found it very difficult. Applicants may wonder which points will be evaluated, and suspect that reviewers only look at the impact factor of each paper. I think the important thing is to convey the significance and interesting points of one's own research through the essay. In addition to the number of papers you have written, and their impact factors, please try to write an essay that has an interesting story. If you can write an interesting story, do not hesitate to submit it. Please consider that it is a good chance to communicate how exciting your research is.

In fact, in the year that I was awarded, the Regional Winners had written many more papers, and had far better cumulative impact factors. One of the reasons that my essay was selected for the Grand Prize, despite the above fact, was probably that my story was interesting.

Can applicants still write their essays in Japanese?

(Yes, they can.)

Then applicants do not have to worry about their poor English skills! I myself submitted my essay in Japanese. It was then translated into English very successfully. As long as Japanese essays are accepted, I think a fresh doctor can write an essay with the length of 3 to 4 sheets of [A (size)] paper, without much difficulty. Please give it a try!

You mean that the Grand Prize-winning essay was originally written in Japanese?

That's right. Therefore, I felt reassured that the very content of the essay was evaluated, regardless of its language.

About the essay

What points in your essay, do you think, were evaluated highly?

My research was the verification of the rotation of F1-ATPase. The essay started just like my research did - with a strong question about the hypothesis about the existence of a rotating enzyme. My supervisor at the doctoral course was Dr. Masasuke Yoshida, who now serves as a professor at Kyoto Sangyo University, after retiring from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. I joined Dr. Yoshida's lab after completing the master's course. The first task assigned to me in the doctoral course was to “prove the error of the rotation hypothesis”. In other words, our starting point was set in the opposite position from our actual final conclusion.

Your research was started to prove the error of the rotation hypothesis?

That's right. Dr. Yoshida did not find the “rotation” part of Paul D. Boyer's hypothesis acceptable at all, with all due respect to his wonderful achievements. Professor Yoshida seemed to be strongly interested in the concept itself, and thought of a different, non-rotational model, and suggested to prove it. I myself was excited at the idea of challenging and countering a hypothesis proposed by a distinguished scientist, so I followed Dr. Yoshida's suggestion.
We made all possible efforts and repeated experiments for nearly six months, which never worked well… Today, I do not think six months is long at all, but I was overwhelmed by the length of that period back in those days. All the data I obtained were negative. Although I could perform the experiments successfully, the results were all negative to our idea. I wrote so by fax (“e-mail” did not yet exist) to Dr. Yoshida, who was staying in the U.S. at that time. Professor Yoshida is a sincere scientist, and he answered “I see. It seems that we were wrong. Let's think it all over again.” Subsequently, we changed our mind that a rotating enzyme may actually exist, and considered how it could be proven. Thus, we headed for the climax of our research - single molecular measurement.

Therefore, my essay had a strong “turn” in the introduction, development, turn and conclusion of its story. We started from a completely opposite position from the actual conclusion we finally proved. Our experiments did not work well at all, so we made an about-face in the middle of our originally planned course. Then, we succeeded in the attempt of verification from this opposite position. it was probably exciting to read, because it had such a strong story. I clearly described how our original concept did not work, though it did not come to be a good research paper how we thus changed our perspective drastically, and found out that Boyer's hypothesis included many persuasive points. Then, we undertook experiments from the new perspective, and discovered that the results were highly consistent.

I have written the “Cell Stories” series, and I found stories about a failure and the following turn and success really exciting.

I think so, too. That was also why Boyer won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. I guess reseachers in the field and ones in the other fierds found his hypothesis attractive, but were highly suspicious whether it could hold water. Then, proofs came out that all the related data were consistent, including the crystal structure that Dr. Walker solved in 1994 and the molecular data that we presented. Thus, the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Dr. Boyer and Dr. Walker. I think in the background of Boyer's winning was this exciting story that his hypothesis had been originally doubted by many scientists, but was later proven to be true. I myself became a part of this process, so I think my essay was found interesting by readers.

Techniques for writing an effective essay
- A clear story is persuasive

Do you have advice to younger scientists for writing an effective essay? Not only advice on essays, but also tips on writing paper abstracts, in general.

This may contradict with my earlier advice to “not hesitate in submitting your essay”, but a persuasive story - in a research essay or anything - is always clear and intelligible. So, I think it is important to write intelligible way, with a simple and clear story.

I believe that the case is the same with papers. You may manage to hold water with complicated combinations of numerous data and logics. However, if the whole story is not simple and persuasive, and is only supported by the combinations of fairly remote data sets, your paper will not be accepted smoothly. Most interesting stories are grounded on simple data, and a challenge to conventional concepts. I think such studies are published in so-called “grand journals”, including Science.

If you have done good research, it must have a simple and clear part in its story. Please describe that part. If you do not focus on it, your story will become complicated and non-persuasive. I think the case is the same not only in biology, but also in physics, chemistry, engineering, and so on. In a map of biological fields, I think I have always worked in peripheral areas. So, I have relatively many opportunities to listen to the studies of researchers in differing fields. On those occasions, I feel that effective stories are usually simple and understandable, even to non-specialists in the relevant fields.

Considering that your essay will also be read by speakers of different languages, the essential point is that the story itself is very simple and interesting. If you are confident in this point, I do not think you have to worry whether you should write in English or your mother tongue, or what field your research was performed in, etc. The very content of your research will be evaluated.

From this point of view, the opening part of your essay is the most important. Because you are confident, your research is definitely interesting. Therefore, you should communicate how interesting it is at the beginning of your essay, through a simple and clear story. A Japanese conventional writing technique requires introduction, development, turn, and conclusion. This technique is also useful in writing such essays. Unlike technical writing, you do not necessarily have to write the conclusion first. It would be exciting to place a twist at the end of your essay. This is a slightly different point from writing a scientific paper.

At the same time, an essay may have aspects other than a scientific proof. In addition to an objective report on how the study progressed, it would be effective to include your own memories, difficulties that you overcame, and other experiences that communicate your personality.

How to secure sufficient time for research

This may be a diversion from your essay, but as a researcher, particularly after having your own lab, I suppose you have many tasks to undertake, in addition to research activities that you really want to do. How do you handle them? Do you have any techniques to find a balance between such tasks, and secure sufficient time for your research?

Oh, that is a permanent challenge for me, too. That is very difficult.

Even though I am very busy, I have very good staff members. For example, Ms. S, the secretary who served us coffee here, supports me greatly in office work. Other staff members also divide and perform various tasks that are assigned to me. Thanks to such support by people around me, I am able to continue using my mind in research activities.

One of the methods to catch up is, though it is not always the best option, to perform each task as soon as it emerges. Even during travel times, when you are physically separated from your research instruments, you can finish some sort of assignments.

Time management is an extremely difficult skill. I still find difficulties in managing my time. I guess we have to trouble others in some way or another… I make it a rule to not cut down on time for sleep, time to spend with my family, and time for other essential activities. As for tasks that will erode such parts of my life, I announce that I cannot undertake them, even though it is regrettable that I cannot meet the expectations of people who offered such tasks to me.

Message to young researchers

Do you have any advice on how to continue with research with a positive mind, or other messages, to younger researchers?

Oh, I do not have “advice”, but I would say…

I hear that the proportion of students who proceed to the doctoral course has been declining, and more students hesitate to become doctors. The problem of a postdoctoral career exists in our university, too. It is a big problem, and postdoctoral fellows are not in a favorable financial situation. I think it is natural that students become conservative and hesitate to proceed to the doctoral course, considering such adverse conditions. I was not an exception.

What made me decide to take the step ahead? I do not recommend the doctoral course to all students. I simply think that persons can only do what they like to do. We have to work to earn our living, so the largest part of our life will be spent on our work. Therefore, whether you like your work will become the key factor in living your life happily.
If you choose to become a researcher as your profession, you will not be able to live happily unless you like researching. I do not know if it is appropriate to say this, but the fundamental point is whether you can find your research and its process interesting, despite all the difficulties you experience in its course, rather than whether the research is popular in public, whether it can win grants easily, whether it is fashionable, and so on, though they may be important factors, too. Being a researcher may be a little bit tough if you only find fun in gaining positive results.

Unless one can enjoy the process itself?

That's right: unless you love the process itself, before reaching the conclusion.

Of course, professional researchers are only evaluated through their achievements, and are required to provide results, not only processes. Nevertheless, I think it is critical that you can enjoy the researching process itself, while pursuing the results as a professional.

I am an experimental scientist, so I would like to talk about experiments. Of course, experimental sciences include theories, but the larger part of our activities is made up by experiments. If you simply find fun in experiments and in research activities as a whole, I think there is good reason for you to join the doctoral course.

Once you become a professional researcher, it will be questioned whether you can provide results. This is difficult, and depends on your luck to a certain degree. But I think the ultimate key to a breakthrough is your persistence. Then, what makes up your persistence? It largely depends on how much you love your work. If you are not sure about this point, I think the job as a researcher will not be fun for you.

This is the only thing I can say to young researchers. Do you love your research? How far are you sure about your answer? That is the only key.

There are techniques to advocate the importance of your research, in order to win grants, etc, but they are not the essential points. I make decisions on the direction of research and other managerial points, based on my intuition - whether I like it or not. I think this is not only the case with researchers, but also with any other job.

Dr. Noji, thank you for sharing your valuable experience with us.

(at the Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research, Osaka University, in July 2010)


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