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Discover Our People
May 22, 2017
  • Cinya Chung
    Doctoral degree student, Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences
    Area of research: Bioanalytical chemistry
    Country/Region of Origin: Taiwan

Broadening My Horizons Outside of Taiwan

Inspired by one of my science teachers, I took an interest in chemistry and biology during high school, and went on to get my bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in chemistry at National Taiwan University (NTU). After working at my lab in NTU for a couple of years as a research assistant, I decided to study abroad for my PhD. I love Taiwan, but Taiwanese education and culture are all I’d ever known. I wanted to broaden my horizons while I was still young and had time.

Connections to Japan

I was considering the United States, but the system for studying there is so different that I would essentially have to redo my Master’s degree! So, I opted for Japan instead. In Japan, I would be able to go straight for the Doctoral degree after my Master’s—no time would be wasted in getting my degree. Besides, I really like Japan. My family took me to Japan for the first time on a vacation to celebrate my acceptance to NTU, and I came to Japan in transit for three days on the way to an international conference as a Master’s degree student. I enjoyed both of my short stays here.

Also, Taiwanese people have been influenced by Japan, so Taiwanese culture and Japanese culture share many similarities. My family has connections to Japan, too—my grandparents grew up under Japanese rule, and could speak the language fluently. My grandfather even went to college in Japan!

All in all, I thought that Japan would be a good choice for a foreign country to live in. I’ve always wanted to live here and experience the culture.

Coming to UTokyo

To study in Japan, I first had to find a professor in Japan who would accept me into their lab. My “boss” (supervising professor) at NTU kindly provided me with the opportunity to meet with professors in Japan; he helped me to attend a biophysics conference in Kyoto, where I gave a poster presentation on my research. I emailed a few Japanese professors in advance to let them know I would be there and was interested in studying in Japan. Several of the professors I contacted came to talk to me at the conference. I then kept in contact with many of them after the conference, including Professor Funatsu of the University of Tokyo. I finally decided to ask Professor Funatsu if he would take me as a PhD student, and he said yes!

As for why I chose the University of Tokyo, I think everyone knows that UTokyo is the best university in all of Japan; it also has the best resources. I felt that I could learn a lot by studying here!

I got in touch with the International Student Advising Room (ISAR) at UTokyo’s Graduate School of Pharmaceutical Sciences, and they gave me information on how to apply for the doctoral program. I then took the Graduate School’s entrance exam and got in! ISAR continued to support me once I was admitted, helping me obtain my student visa as well as my dorm room at the Oiwake International Hall of Residence, which is just a short walk from campus.

I also applied for a scholarship from the Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association at around the same time. The application was a two-stage process with a math and science test for the first part, followed by an interview by two Japanese professors. I found out I received the scholarship in late 2014, a few months after I entered UTokyo.

I am truly grateful for all the help I’ve received along the way.

Researching in a Different, yet Familiar Environment

UTokyo’s Hongo Campus is much smaller than I had imagined! I thought that a prestigious university such as UTokyo would have a huge campus, like the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) does. I feel quite comfortable here, though, because the architecture reminds me of NTU’s. National Taiwan University, like the University of Tokyo, used to be an imperial university, so the two universities share a similar architectural style.

Using microfluidic devices to learn more about microRNAs

My research involves studying exosomal microRNAs (miRNAs) using microfluidic devices. Exosomes are small vesicles (vessels) inside body fluids that contain DNA, RNA or proteins. According to the central dogma, DNA is transcribed into RNA, and RNA is translated into protein. Our physiological functions are all based on this process.

MicroRNAs are known to regulate gene expressions post-transcriptionally. miRNAs bind to messenger RNAs (mRNAs) with the complementary sequences, and mediate the translational repression. Our physiological activities are controlled by complicated systems of gene regulations. Irregular lacking or over-expressing a protein may lead to certain diseases. Research has shown that high levels of particular types of miRNAs were found in some cancer patients. It is believed that there is a strong connection between miRNAs and cancers.

Our lab developed a system to generate water-in-oil droplets using microfluidic devices. These devices are small chips with channels on the micrometer level that can generate droplets in picoliter-sized volumes. These devices are commonly used to encapsulate DNA, RNA, proteins or even cells; and since the droplet volume is so small, I can perform experiments with low amounts of samples. The biggest advantage of using these chips is that I can mass-produce droplets to conduct tens of thousands of biochemical reactions at the same time. Using these devices in combination with existing sequencing methods may allow for a better understanding of microRNAs.

Life in the lab

Our lab is divided into three groups. The group I’m in does research with microfluidic devices or studies the motions of ribosomes. Another group develops methods for understanding the temperatures inside cells, and the final group works with High-performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC), which allows you to analyze the contents of a mixed sample by injecting the sample into a content-separating machine.

Including myself, there are around 30 students in my lab, eight of whom are international. Another student and I are from Taiwan, and the other six international students are Chinese; I speak Chinese more than I speak Japanese with them. That’s not good for my Japanese, though! (laughs) I‘d been taking Japanese classes at ISAR for about two years, and I think my Japanese listening in particular has progressed a lot since I came here, but my speaking, on the other hand... well, it’s definitely better than it was before I came to Japan, but still not that great. My lab mates are nice and let me use as much Japanese as possible with them, which helps. Meanwhile, with my professor, I tend to use English, especially regarding research matters.

UTokyo’s strength lies in its resources

The main advantages of researching at the University of Tokyo are the University’s resources. For instance, the libraries here offer a wealth of information, while the lab has all kinds of chemicals and cutting-edge equipment available to use, not to mention access to international scientific journals. And it’s not only the material resources that make researching here great, but also the personal resources. Here at UTokyo, I’m able to work with one of the best professors in my field, and can also attend lectures given by other prominent professors. Studying here is beneficial for networking with others in my field in Japan as well.

How I’ve Changed, and My Future Plans

Despite all the similarities Japan and Taiwan share, I still experienced a bit of a culture shock. For example, one thing that I still have difficulty with is understanding whether Japanese people are saying yes or no sometimes. In Taiwan, people are straightforward and give definitive answers, but in Japan, you need to be able to read between the lines and consider the situation to know what people actually mean to say.

Learning to speak out

Since coming here, I feel like I’ve become more accustomed to thinking from the perspective of others. At the same time, living here has forced me to reach out and speak out in order to achieve what I want to accomplish. I became more confident and realized that if you don’t make the first move, you’ll never achieve your goals. I learn new things every day, and force myself to try new things.

My advice to students considering studying at UTokyo is to know what kind of field you want to study in before you come. Look at the websites of each department and find information there. Also, don’t hesitate to get in touch with professors or people already studying here!

I want to contribute to Taiwan

In my free time, I enjoy painting and going to art galleries and museums. As Tokyo is a large international city with lots of different resources, there are many excellent museums here, with events and exhibitions from all over the world. One of my favorite art galleries is The National Art Center, Tokyo. I like the fact that UTokyo students get a special discount on admission there!

After getting my PhD, I want to find a postdoc or some other research position overseas in the biochemistry field. I would like to see more of the world and understand how different people think. Since I’ve now lived in Japan, I want to experience other parts of the world, particularly the US and Europe. Eventually, though, I will return to Taiwan. I want to learn something useful outside so I can give back to my country.

Mementos from Her NTU Days

Messages from Lab Mates and University-issued Utensils

Cinya received these messages (left) from her lab mates at NTU when she left for UTokyo. She had been in the lab for a total of six years (four years as a student and two years as a research assistant), so she was close and shared many precious memories with them. The drawing is of her dog, a shiba inu named Shao Long (“small dragon”). Shao Long was well-known throughout her department; her parents live near the university, and her dad would take Shao Long on walks there every morning! On the right is a set of utensils from NTU, given to all freshmen when they enter the university. NTU encourages students to use these utensils instead of disposable ones so that they can be more eco-friendly and reduce plastic waste. Cinya still uses them every day!

Tantalizing Taiwan

Night Markets, Scenery and Culture

Taiwan is famous for food, from the shaochi (small portions of food) on offer at the night markets to the variety of delicious tropical fruit. Cinya also says its natural scenery, with both beaches and mountains, is breathtaking. Due to Taiwan’s history with people from other cultures (including Chinese, Dutch and Japanese), various styles of architecture can be seen throughout the island. Cinya says that Taiwanese are welcoming and tolerant of people from different backgrounds. Also, her hometown of Taipei has a number of notable temples. Before coming to Japan, Cinya went to the temple pictured here, Longshan Temple, to pray for her safety and good luck. She says that her religion made her believe that whatever difficulties she may encounter while in Japan, she would have the strength to overcome them.

Interview: March 1, 2017
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