Montclair State University professors Carlos Molina, biology, and Mika Munakata, mathematics, led a six-student science program in Japan this summer. The students conducted research with world-renowned Japanese researchers during the nine-week program. The undergraduate and graduate students were selected by the two professors from 40 applicants for a unique research program that took place at three institutions across the country.
The students, who came from different universities, collaborated with researchers from the National Institute of Genetics in Mishima, the Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules at Nagoya University and the National Institute of Basic Biology in Okazaki this summer. Among the students working in pairs in each lab was Montclair alumnus Paolo Turano ’21.
“It was a great learning experience,” says Turano, who is now a graduate student in the Molecular Biology, Genetics and Cancer program at Rutgers University. “I’m Dr. [Noriyoshi] Sakai, the lab, the program, my mentors… It was honestly an amazing experience, both culturally and scientifically.”
Molina and Munakata fondly recall how they did postdoctoral research in France and studied abroad in Kenya, respectively, and how it expanded their world. So they wanted to offer a similar opportunity to students, especially those who are underrepresented in the STEM subjects. “Why stay in one place in the world? We can conduct research anywhere,” says Molina.
For this, the professors received a grant of 300,000 US dollars from the National Science Foundation in 2020. The program, postponed by a year due to the pandemic, offers students in Japan international research experiences for three consecutive summers. The stipend covers all student travel and lodging, as well as a $5,000 stipend. “It’s really like an internship,” explains Munakata, adding, “We wanted to make sure we were offering opportunities to students that otherwise wouldn’t take up these kinds of opportunities. We didn’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to make money in the summer.”
Molina and Munakata are currently accepting applications for next summer’s IRES: Summer Biology Research Program in Japan. The professors will again cast a wide net to attract traditionally underrepresented female students from women’s colleges, historically black colleges and universities, and Spanish-speaking institutions for the “US-Japanese study of novel genetic elements that regulate seasonal behavior in medaka fish.” recruit.
Tim White, Director of International Academic Initiatives, whose team supports study abroad and other international academic projects, says Molina and Munakata have “designed an immersive summer experience that enhances both research and students’ cross-cultural skills.” He encouraged students to apply, noting, “This research opportunity in Japan is absolutely fantastic for Montclair State students.”
“The purpose of the trip was for them to research current molecular biology projects and international collaborations to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to engage in teamwork and communication skills in an international environment,” says Munakata. “These are all undergraduates or graduate students who want to become researchers in science.”
Munakata says the idea is to give them these opportunities so they can “collaborate across language and culture barriers” in the future, and indeed, their data suggests students are considering international projects for their own programs or for theirs to start students. should they become researchers and educators in the future.
Luke Nicholson says that prior to his Japan research trip, he considered visiting other countries “disconnected from my career goals.” Now the Columbia University student says: “I would even apply for PhD programs in other countries. I could definitely imagine living in another country.”
Fellow researcher Jay Miguel Fonticella, a first-year graduate student at Harvard University, says, “At my university, people always talk about having a global perspective on science, but this experience opened my eyes to that.”
For the program, Munakata examines “the impact of this international experience on students’ understanding of science and their own perceptions of their own role in the scientific community.”
Despite occasional language barriers, students have been able to adapt, she says. “They have recognized that science is international. This was an important lesson for the students to realize that the US way is not the only way; there are different possibilities,” says Munakata. “Collaboration with international researchers is possible, but there are specifics that need to be considered.”
During their stay in Japan, the students worked in state-of-the-art institutions such as the National Institute of Basic Biology, where they used cutting-edge gene editing techniques and learned more about the role of genes in the behavioral sciences. In particular, they looked at how clock genes that affect the sleep cycle influence the fish’s mood or behavior. “Two students worked directly to find natural products that could affect clock genes — genes involved in our daily cycles, our sleep cycle, our seasonal cycles, and so on,” says Molina. “One idea is to see if they can develop natural products that can help with jet lag, for example. These genes not only influence our circadian rhythm, but also our behavior. So if we don’t sleep well, if we’re not well rested, it can affect your behavior and lead to other mental health problems.”
In the second project, students used zebrafish to study genes involved in neuronal functions by examining glial cells, which “are also very important for behavior change,” says Molina.
Meanwhile, Turano was working with inbred zebrafish. While he says nine weeks is not a long time when it comes to scientific research, it did provide some valuable experience that he may not have had the opportunity to at this point in his academic career.
Turano, who is interested in aging and research, was placed at the National Institute of Genetics. He and his lab colleague Yamil Negron, a graduate student at the University of Puerto Rico, used zebrafish as a model organism. The lab had previously developed an inbred strain of zebrafish. In doing so, they discovered that the inbred variety was aging prematurely, resulting in a 30% shorter lifespan, says Turano. “I was trying to figure out one of the possible reasons why these zebrafish age prematurely.”
Although one summer is too short to solve such a complex biological puzzle, Turano was able to develop a protocol that Japanese researchers are now using to measure telomeres, the physical ends of chromosomes, in zebrafish.
“My happiest moment was when I finally got an experiment to work in the lab,” says Turano with a smile. “The method we chose to measure telomere length is quantitative polymerase chain reaction, and it’s very simple, but it can be quite difficult and nobody in the lab had tried to do it before. It took me three weeks to get it working, let alone get the readings. That was probably my most memorable moment.”
Telomeres are extremely important. “In humans – and also in zebrafish – these become shorter and shorter with age, until they become so short that they simply die,” says Turano.
After being able to measure telomeres, he and his lab colleagues continued their research to determine if the fish had shorter telomeres to begin with, a condition known in humans as dyskeratosis congenita. “If the mechanisms that regulate telomere length are messed up in the first place, you might think you’re going to have a shorter lifespan,” explains Turano. “We initially thought that these inbred zebrafish might have short telomeres. So we measured the telomere length of the inbred zebrafish and the normal zebrafish chain, and there were no significant differences.” As is usual in scientific research, looking for answers is often about testing a hypothesis, a rule out a possible cause and then take a different scientific approach.
Turano says the experience also helped him improve his communication skills.
“Sometimes you really have to think: What is the simplest and best way to say this so that my message is clearly understood? This got me thinking about communication as a whole, not just necessarily with non-native English speakers, but just effective communication. This is so important in science: you want to get your ideas across clearly and effectively.”
Outside of the lab work, the highlight of Turano’s time in Japan was climbing Mount Fuji with his lab colleagues. Japan’s highest and most famous mountain was only half an hour’s drive away. It took them about 13 hours to climb and descend.
“There were so many cool things we did in Japan,” he says, beaming. “I am most proud of Mount Fuji. That was super cool. We had lots of fun.”
Applications for the next summer program are currently being accepted. The closing date for entries is November 9th. To learn more and apply, visit IRES: Summer Biology Research Program in Japan.
Story by Staff Writer Sylvia A. Martinez. Photos courtesy of Carlos Molina and Mika Munakata.