stem cells in their environment

The Land of the Rising Sun

28 September 2016
By Ashley Ames-Draycott, Chloe Hurling, Victor Negri, Stephanie Telerman

This summer, 5 PhD students from CSCRM travelled to the wonderful land of Japan. We had been nominated to take part in a Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine themed summer school at Keio University, Tokyo. This opportunity was made possible by a collaboration between Keio (Japan), Karolinska (Sweden), Peking (China) and King’s College London, which has been running for the past 4 years. The summer school aims to enhance relationships between the universities and offers students the opportunity to learn more about a particular subject. The programme consists of a week of lectures followed by a week of laboratory experience.

On Saturday the 13th August, after a long flight, we arrived in a hot and humid Narita airport. With very little sleep we vouched to never again complain about confused London tourists as we struggled to navigate the complex metro system. Eventually, we found our home for the next two weeks in a lovely small neighbourhood called Hiyoshi, about an hour out from central Tokyo. After a short re-energising nap, we jumped straight back onto the trains to begin our adventure in the world’s largest city. The rest of the weekend was jam-packed full of sushi eating, temple visiting, language learning (and a side of jet-lag).

Monday morning came around very quickly. We were greeted by our course administrator, Jun, who introduced us to the PhD students from other universities. This marked the beginning of a very interesting week of lectures, ranging from neuronal stem cells; marmoset research; ongoing patient trials; and a history of Nobel prize giving from a representative of the selecting body in Physiology and Medicine, Karolinska Institute (take home message – you never ‘win’ a Nobel Prize, you are ‘awarded’ it). Lecturers from our own department, Dr Ivo Lieberam and Dr Ignacio Sancho-Martinez, also made the journey to give fascinating talks on their areas of expertise.

Friday night provided a great opportunity to let our hair down after an intensive week. The students gathered in a karaoke multiplex (which had been highly recommended by our Japanese colleague, Toru) and sung our hearts out to our favourite songs; Disney classics featured heavily and we were very surprised to discover Victor’s passion for Taylor Swift. Let’s just say this was a great "networking" opportunity - uniting students from 10 nations through the power of song.

The following morning was back to work, as we were kindly invited to attend a stimulating symposium on ‘Regenerative Medicine and Longevity’, featuring speakers from Keio and Washington Universities. The 10th floor of the hospital also provided an excellent location to view a magnificent firework festival when the sun went down.

The following week offered a more hands-on approach to learning as we were split into labs across the university.  Lesson 1 of the Japanese workplace: science does not stop for typhoons. Dripping wet we embarked upon our placements, which ranged from rat heart surgery, bioinformatics, iPSC-derived inner ear cells and to vascular biology. Despite the vast differences in experiences, we can all agree that we learnt a lot from this week - both scientifically and culturally. The programme concluded nicely on the Friday when we all gave presentations of our placements and were awarded summer school certificates by the Dean of Keio University, Professor Hideyuki Okano.

After a sad goodbye to our new friends, we took this opportunity to explore other cities this beautiful country had to offer, including Kyoto, Osaka and Nara, before heading home (32 kilos heavier thanks to all the tempting souvenirs and tasty Tokyo Bananas). It’s fair to say we all found the experience highly enjoyable and rewarding and would wholeheartedly recommend a trip to Japan.

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