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Discover Our People
I Came to UTokyo to Pursue My Research
March 2, 2015
  • Kathleen (Kate) Jerchel
    Doctoral degree student, Graduate School of Engineering
    Area of Study: Precision Engineering
    Country/Region of Origin: Germany

Experiencing Japan More in Depth

I began thinking about coming here after my visit to Japan. I came in 2012 for a 3 week vacation. So, I was traveling around Japan and I liked it very much and I thought, it might be nice to experience it a little bit more in depth. So, I was thinking about that and I thought about a program with the European Union where you can do an internship in Japan in various companies. In the end, I didn’t apply for that. Suddenly some friends sent me a newsletter from the university where I was studying in Germany which had information on scholarships for studying abroad, and they suggested I apply for the MEXT scholarship from the Japanese Government.

Getting my Ph.D.

In 2011, I had already graduated with a Master’s degree. I got a diploma as an electrical engineer.
So I was working and had some time to travel and money, too. I was hired at a research institute part-time as a student, and after graduation, I just stayed there longer. I was there for half a year, then later on, I decided okay, I am enrolling in a Ph.D. program.
I was thinking about studying again and writing my Ph.D. thesis and then going abroad in the process.

I didn’t exactly make the explicit decision to study at UTokyo.

When I applied for the MEXT scholarship, part of the work was done by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and they asked me to choose a professor. Actually, the professor here at UTokyo, whom I'm staying with now, I had been introduced to him already in Germany. He was the only Japanese professor I knew and his subject was related to what I was researching there. So I asked if I could study in his laboratory, and he said “yes.” After researching in Japan, I wanted to bring back my research to Germany, and he said it would be possible. Later on, I learned that he was at UTokyo. I didn’t know that beforehand.

I had actually started to learn Japanese before, with a friend of mine, but it was just self-study. When I learned I was going to Japan, I took some classes at the university. This was my Japanese language preparation. It’s quite a difficult language.
The research topic was already chosen in Germany and I continued it here.

For precision engineering, entrance exams are a little bit different from everyone else’s. I had to give a summary in English of my diploma thesis. So, I was doing a summary of the whole thesis and then translating it into English, because I wrote it in German.

I came in April last year as a research student, then enrolled in the Ph.D. program in October.
I’ve only been here for eight months now. Everything is still very fresh to me.

Applying the ‘canary-in-the-coal-mine’ principle to electronic systems

After coming here, I did an intensive course at the Nihongo Center. I wasn’t doing that much research. Now, I’m continuing my research. The details of my research will change a little bit, because my professor explained that other applications might be more interesting for that topic.
Broadly, my research is on the reliability of microsystems. I want to put a structure into electronic systems that will help to predict when the systems are going to fail. Like a canary in a coal mine, where the death of the fragile bird warned the coal miners that they had to go up for air.

The Appeal of Japan, Tokyo and UTokyo

I like Japan very much. First of all I like the sound of the language and then of course I really love the food.
I was starting to eat sushi in Germany, and then I started to cook more diverse food by myself, because I got interested in foods they ate in dramas. My professor says it’s good I like the cheaper foods. I like things like ramen and udon. They give you a warm feeling. I like this.

The University has great sports facilities

I’m not that interested in the architecture of UTokyo, but you have a sports ground as well as a pool and gym. This is really nice. In Germany, I didn’t have these things, so I like to take advantage of them. I do yoga and I also go swimming. Now, I only go once a week, but when I first arrived, I went as many as perhaps three days a week.

Also, in Germany, if you’re writing your Ph.D. thesis, you don’t have to take classes at all. You just do research and write your thesis and that’s it, but here, you have to take classes and get some credits. I actually like that, because you can continue to learn something. Not only do you do research, but you broaden your knowledge. I like that. And I like the students. In my lab and in my classes, they’re really nice to me. Some are Japanese, but there are also foreign students. I like UTokyo very much.
What is a little bit difficult is all the paperwork. I thought Germany was very bureaucratic, but here...sometimes it’s worse, sorry to say that... But it’s okay, I’ll get used to it. I just have to adjust a little bit.

I have a Japanese tutor and he helps me a lot, but he forces me to fill out everything myself, including kanji. He shows me how to write the kanji and then I have to do it myself.

Fun in the dormitory

I realized some new things about myself when I started living in a dormitory. I seem to have special opinions about things, for example, cleanliness or noisy people at night... but I found I can be quite open-minded. More than I had expected. I don’t mind if people are a little loud in the evening. I don’t care. Actually, when I sleep, I don’t hear anything. I just sleep and I’m dead to the world. I hear that there are problems from time to time, but I accept different habits, practices and cultures and I don’t feel any conflict. Actually, I like all the people in the dormitory and they are very diverse. This is quite new for me.

I have good friends from Malaysia now, and from Nepal and India and China and some guys from Iran, too, and from Turkey. A lot of people. These are the people I hang out with.

Sometimes my lab mates ask me if I want to go out for lunch. In the evening for dinner, we meet in the dormitory kitchen and we cook together. It’s a whole crowd. Everyone cooks dishes they know. I cook soups, for example, and Indian and Nepalese people cook curry and dal. And then we share. This is really nice. You get to taste a lot of different foods and it’s like a small party every evening.

My boyfriend visited me here for quite a long time. We went to Kyoto. I had already been when I came here to travel, but I wanted to show him, too. So we went to Kyoto and Nara. I wanted to show him a little bit of Japan, and he liked it very much, too.

Why Tokyo? Tokyo’s deep attraction

I like to walk around, for example, in my neighborhood. I live in Komaba, in the dormitory there, and I know that most German people have this image of Japan being all about crowded trains, busy subways and the swarms at Shibuya crossing.

I guess it’s because in the news and so forth, you always see this crossing in Shibuya with millions of people crossing. When I first came to Japan, I was thinking it must be an exaggeration. And the reality in Tokyo is quite different. So, Tokyo, of course, has its skyscrapers, but most buildings are not so high. In Germany, we have apartments or houses where people live in buildings with five or six stories. Also in the city. But here it’s very low, only maybe two stories at most in the residential areas and this is quite interesting. The architecture is so different from Germany, because in Germany, you have a lot of rules, how the buildings have to be built and how the height has to be. I'm not an architect, but that’s what I’ve heard and seen. Here, every building is different. So, it’s interesting to walk around and see how the buildings look. I do this, not in any particular area, but I just like to go walking and see what’s around me.

I was walking around one time. I wanted to pay my rent. I wasn’t sure where to go. I left through the gate at Todaimae Station, staying on the right and then walked straight on. At one point, there was a bank, and then I continued further, and then there was a temple. So, I walked around, and then on the way back I was passing through this residential area. This was so interesting. And I found another small temple. While I was standing there, some priests came out. I didn’t want to speak or disturb them, but actually they didn’t seem to care. I must have been watching them for half an hour. In the inside of the temple was a small garden that reminded me of gardens in Kyoto. That was so small and beautiful.

Stay Open Minded - Everything will Work Out

I’d never taken long trips abroad. I had not been to study in America like other students. After coming here, I learned a lot about myself and I came to realize the fact that I did not know a lot about many things. For example, how do foreign students feel at my university in Germany? For me here in Japan, even though I do not speak the language, it is kind of easy to get through life. People are very helpful, very kind, helping me even if I do not understand. At the ward office for example, they help me to fill forms out, and I am thinking, I don’t even want to imagine a foreign student coming to Germany and doing this. It would be awful, really.

Before coming here, I never thought about it. So, this is something I learned here and I appreciate that. I think it also made me more tolerant, especially living in the dormitory. Since moving out from my parents, I have always lived alone, never with someone else, never in a shared house or anything. So I have my customs and habits and here, I had to learn to accept peoples’ differences and I like it. It’s nice. So, I learned a lot about myself and this is really good.

I want to go forward with my research

A professor once asked me, you have your diploma, and you’re probably going to get your Ph.D., so aren’t you going into management and not staying with research or engineering so much after that?
But at the time, I didn’t think I wanted to be in management. When I started working at the research institute, I was thinking, okay, I'm an engineer and I'm just going to stay an engineer.

After coming here, though, and actually taking some classes, I found I'm actually very interested in how people relate to and talk to each other and how things work and how they can be improved. So, I don’t feel so uncomfortable with management anymore. I don’t know if I'd be any good at it, but I actually feel it’s possible for me now.

For my research, I just want to go forward with it. Maybe I won’t finish it here in Japan, but I want to go as far as I can go, and for me, I think it’s been a very good experience to come here.

When I graduate, I'm going back to Germany. That’s the plan. I will probably continue at my institute, even though it’s a little bit difficult for researchers in Germany to work in a research institute without funding and the process to get funding can be quite time-consuming.
So maybe I'm just going to search for a job in Germany. And I think I’d prefer a job where I can travel around a little bit. I was actually really thinking about finding a job where I can probably live abroad again for sometime.

Know your stuff

Actually, I would advise everyone to search for a professor beforehand, because my application process was quite different from the other students from other countries. Get to know the professor beforehand, because then you know how they work and what they’re expecting of you. I think this is very important. Apart from that, I think, it’s not only UTokyo, but in all of Japan, you have to be prepared for the bureaucracy. I think if you keep an open mind, everything will work out. The students here are nice. So, there’s no problem. Yeah, I think the most important advice is to know the professor beforehand. Really.

Kate's Treasures

Treasured Items Packed with Scenes from the Past

Kate hails from the eastern region of Germany and subsequently lived in Berlin. Her treasure is a stuffed doll, which has been with her since birth. The name she gave the doll when she was 3 years old is “Pürzel.” Kate couldn’t stop exclaiming “so cute!” at the way the photographer arranged Pürzel.

“...and then,” Kate says, as she pulls, out with loving care, a photo collage her cousin created for her, and a portrait drawing of Kate and her boyfriend by their illustrator friend....items which both bring a little happiness to everyone who sees them.

Kate’s Favorite Places

Japanese Class

“What is more enjoyable than anything is to sunbathe while sitting in front of Yasuda Auditorium, and, of course, the Japanese language class!” The Graduate School of Engineering to which Kate belongs offers many classes in Japanese from Introductory to Advanced which are highly appreciated by the exchange students. We took a peek at the '”Beginning-2AM” class she takes.

The class is held entirely in Japanese and after working with kanji, moves on to debates. On this particular day, the students were divided into two groups, which were “pro” or “con” on the question of making high school students work part-time. Confirming with her teacher on the usage of “earning” in the context of “earning money,” Kate seemed to be enjoying the debate very much.

Interview: January 16, 2015
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