Friday, August 03, 2007

A scientist in Japan: partI

For those of you who may not know, I am now a foreign correspondent to the bayblab, posted in Japan. In the next couple of months I hope to fill you up on how science gets done here. Do not panic yet, we will still be broadcasting the podcast, as soon as we figure out how to record conference calls over IP...

My first week here as been pretty eventful so far. It started out with a conference/diplomatic mission. The purpose of the conference was to setup a bilateral collaboration between Japan and Canada in reproductive research. As you may be aware, Japan is facing some serious problems due to an aging population. It's not so much that people age, we all do, but fertility has reached new lows here, and now over 20% of the population are senior citizens. Japan is therefore very proactive in fertility research. Canada on the other hand also has low birth rates, but immigration more than covers that deficit. Still Canada is very interested in gender and fertility research, and is the only country to have a national insitute and program dedicated to this type of research. Yet Japan and Canada do not have any bilateral agreements when it comes to any life sciences. Most of the agreements and joint research programs to date have focused on aerospace and energy research. The Japanese are especially interested in methyl hydrates as an alternative to foreign oil, and have invested heavily in Canadian research in the arctic. They actually dwarfed our side of the bargain by putting in about 20 times our own funding of such research.

So our delegation included the science and technology councellor of the Canadian embassy in Tokyo, one of the directors of the CIHR program in Gender and Health studies, The COO of the OHRI (the home institution of the bayblab), and about a dozen of reproductive scientists including mostly basic research and epidemiology and representatives from various universities. The Japanese on the other hand were all either scientists or president/program director of local universities. Most of the research gets done by MDs, who are obviously very busy with clinical work. Regulations here are quite strict as to the use of human tissue, and only MDs can manipulate samples such as oocytes.
The irony is that ob/gyn are quite short staffed here despite the low birthrates. So this is where I come in, doing some of the preliminary work on a collaboration on the use of PPar gamma and alpha ligands as well as COX-2 inhibitors for ovarian cancer. They told me I need to teach them techniques, although I'm at a lost as to what exactly I'm supposed to teach them being myself a lowly PhD student. In fact no-one here thinks I'm serious when I tell them I'm not an MD, and they all call me Doctor. I can see it already, bringing me in the OR and asking me to teach them techniques. They better have malpractice insurance.

Now, all of this to introduce the topic of setting collaborations. My thoughts after the conference were that the science collaborations felt forced, not natural. Kinda like when we set my friend, lets hypothetically call him something that rhymes with "Guillaume", on a blind date in high school and he failed miserably in utter awkwardness, and although he still maintains he got to first base, it would be another decade before he got any further. But I digress. I feel that just like dates, collaborations are best set when drinking beer, perhaps after the conference, and only workout if you have things in common. I fear the politics and diplomacy mostly get in the way of that... I hope I'll be proven wrong. Nevertheless the "diplomats" felt pretty happy about it and patted each other in the back. Once the memorandum of understandings are signed and the picture taken, their work is done. The most meaningful exchange of ideas I've had here is ironically with my longtime Canadian collaborator Dr. Bruce Murphy, who is arguably one of the most distinguished reproductive scientist in Canada, and the only person I know who can tell dirty jokes in five languages. He showed some impressive work on adipokines.

Finally, I hope to share some of the wonders of Japan here on the bayblab such as the incredible butt washing dashboard (think star trek here) of my toilet bowl, the electronic key to open my apartment, the special pavement marks for blind people, the TV that sends you faxes and the incredible things you can find in vending machines... More on this later.


Bayman said...

Sounds awesome. Keep up the good work Doctor Canada! We definitely need some photos of that crazy toilet bowl. Sharing techniques is good, but don't forget that secret IP protocol we discussed on the podcast is a national secret...

something that rhymes with "Guillaume" said...

For the record, it was not a blind date. And yes it was awkward ! And contrary to what the poster would have you believe, it did not take a decade to come anywhere close to first base again, but merely 3 years ! (pretty good batting average if you ask me)

Seems like this canadian "scientist" likes manipulating numbers, hence undermining his credibility ! As such I would ask for his resignation as "Doctoral ambassador to Japan" effective immediately.