Opinion: How long do we wait for the seeds to sprout (germination)?

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This article was translated from original text in Japanese (オリジナル・日本語)## As the Preface to the journal of Japan Air Cleaning Association.

How long do we wait for the seeds to sprout?

Fifteen years have passed since I established my research group (lab) at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology. We set up the management policy of the lab as “thoroughly emphasize independence,” and many of the students who have applied for our lab have strong personalities. In our lab, 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 university.

In the book ” The Outliers Make Evolution,” written by biologist Hidehiro Inagaki, he discusses individuality and diversity, using weeds as an example, which I found interesting. He 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 reminds us of perspectives that are lacking in engineering thinking. I have been collaborating with agricultural researchers for the past 14 years and have learned interesting research tips from biological systems, and this is one of the axes of my current R&D policy.

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. It is important to wait the time for them to struggle (germinate) for their subsequent “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 laboratory. 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. A visitor to the laboratory once told me, “It looks like a piece of junk, but it resembles the Don Quixote (the biggest discount store in Japan) method that encourages people to buy.

How does inspiration in research theme design occur? I expect students to come up with a combination of research themes that they would like to (or could) do by directly touching numerous “parts” . 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 many difficult aspects of learning as an international student for about 10 years since I was an undergraduate student. As an international student, it was a difficult time for me, but now I feel that this away-from-home environment is what helped me grow as a scholar.

In terms of the balance between “deepening knowledge” and “exploring knowledge,” I think the current engineering professors are somewhat on the “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 “exploratory” 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 “exploratory” 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. A summary of recent employment opportunities for graduates shows that they have worked for chemical products and materials manufacturers, plant construction companies, automobile manufacturers, general printing companies, machinery and equipment manufacturers, members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces, and more. The results were interesting and diverse. Several of those who completed their master’s degree went on to doctoral studies. The approximately 45 who found employment in Japan were employed by about 45 different organizations. It seems that many master’s students decide not to go to organizations with former seniors in the lab when deciding where to work. Is it because they value individuality like a weed in order to survive in a “tough” world?

This article was translated from original text in Japanese (オリジナル・日本語)## As the Preface to the journal of Japan Air Cleaning Association