How long do we wait for the seeds to sprout?
Fifteen years have passed since I established my research group at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology (a national university corporation). As one of the management policies of our group is to place an emphasis on autonomy, many of the students who chose to enter our group have “strong personalities”. In our group, students have the autonomy to formulate their own research themes, and there are no students who are the waiting-for-professor-instruction type. Therefore, even during the pandemic in 2020, research activities did not stop, as each student figured out how to conduct research without coming to the campus.
I found the book “The Outliers Make Evolution” written by biologist Yoshihiro Inagaki interesting because it described individuality and diversity using weeds as an example. Dr. Inagaki says that it is difficult to grow weeds intentionally. Weeds that have not been touched by human hands have individuality, and there is a mixture of species that germinate slowly and those that germinate quickly, but it cannot be said that the species that germinates quickly is superior. In this way, biology makes us aware of perspectives that are missing from the engineering mindset. I have been collaborating with researchers in agricultural sciences for 14 years and have been able to learn interesting research tips from biological systems, which is one of the axes of my ongoing research direction.
Working on biological systems will bring up new ideas, but I don’t think it is good educationally for me as a supervisor to pass on the ideas to the students in my group. Waiting for them to struggle (to germinate) is important for their later growth. When deciding on a theme, students begin with a literature search and understanding of the principles of analytical instruments, but I also try to make sure that the various “parts” are visible in the lab. Here the “parts” are, for example, particle generators, measurement instruments, droplet classifier (self-made), deconstructed ultrasonic cleaner, humidity regulator (self-made), pulse generator (self-made), oscilloscope, DC motor, pseudo-sunlight, infrared camera, gas sensor, tomato plants, insects, soil particles, etc. Once, a person who visited our lab told me, “It looks like junk, but it’s similar to the Don Quixote (the biggest discount store in Japan) method that inspires people to buy.
How does inspiration in research theme design occur? I expect students to come in direct contact with the many “parts” and come up with a combination of research topics they want (or could) do. I also purposely leave behind without disassembling the home-built devices that former students spent several years on and were unable to produce experimental results. According to our graduates, they remember their student days better if they entered the real-world in an incomplete state without producing any research results. However, for doctoral students, it is necessary to adjust the balance between failure and success because continued failure makes it difficult to graduate from the program.
Although I myself have been engaged in research in the field of particle and aerosol engineering, I have always tried to interact with other fields over the past 10 years. The key point there is how to let go of one’ s pride and expertise. For smooth encounters with new fields, it is necessary not to emphasize one’s own expertise, and it is also necessary not to “deepen” one’s own field to some extent in order to make time to learn other fields. In terms of student guidance, I believe that by seeing the professor placed in an away-from-home environment, students can consciously learn in an away-from-home environment. By having each person in the groups work on a completely different individual theme, we create an away-from-home environment for both students and professor, which leads to growth together. I myself have encountered a lot of hard times, studying as an international student for about 10 years since I was an undergraduate. I experienced a lot as a person involved, but now I feel that it was that away-from-home environment that raised me.
In the balance between “knowledge deepening” and “knowledge exploration,” I think the current university faculty in engineering is on a slightly deepening axis. That may be easier for students to understand and for research guidance. However, that “deepening axis” is said to have a “competency trap”. Competition for engineering graduates is global, and the professor has little time to be aware of global competition while in the university, so they are limited in what they can do. For the professors, whose research results are evaluated numerically, the ability to maintain balance is necessary, but if students are strongly guided toward the “exploration axis”, the system will produce research results that neither professors nor students can predict, and students will receive a great deal of rewards when they enter the real-world. The combination of agricultural studies and engineering in the case of our university will have a great educational effect, although it can be done with a combination that is closer to the “exploration axis” even in the same engineering field.
Approximately 10 students from my group have received doctoral degrees, and many of the more than 40 undergraduate students who did their graduation research have gone on to master’s course, with 35 having completed their master’s degrees. When I sorted out the jobs of the graduates in recent years, I found interesting results with diversity such as chemical and materials manufacturers, plant construction companies, automobile manufacturers, general printing companies, machinery and equipment manufacturers, members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, and more. Some of the master course’s graduates went on to doctoral program. There are about 45 organizations for about 45 people who have found employment within Japan. It seems that many students decide not to go to organizations with our group alumni when deciding where to work. Could it be because they place importance on individuality like weeds in order to survive in a tough society?