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Science and Diversity

Haruko Takeyama
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

My field of expertise is biotechnology and bioengineering. Recently, I have been doing genetic analysis of microorganisms living in many different environments, such as coral reefs, and research into the utilization of these genetic resources. One of the impressions I have gained through my research is that natural environments are unusually diverse, and that ecosystems are maintained through cooperation and reciprocal relationships between many different organisms. In addition to the relationships between the organisms themselves, their interactions with the chemical and physical environments that surround them are also important. A high level of diversity is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and a highly diverse ecosystem means a flexible group of organisms that is capable of adapting to environmental changes.

A coral reef, diversity is a sign of health

The same applies to human society. A society that is diverse in gender, age, nationality, etc., is likely to be able to come up with solutions to a variety of challenges in a flexible way and to advance. What about the discipline of science? Science has a variety of fields, which grow, change and develop in accordance with the times and with society itself. Relationships between researchers with a variety of different sensitivities, ideas and abilities help to ensure the development of science. Under these circumstances, diversity could be described as an increasingly important factor for science, a world with no limits and no finish line.

Universities as ecosystems

Universities are made up of units such as schools, departments and research laboratories, all of which rest on two major pillars—education and research. Despite the differences in the size of these units, they share a mission and all seek to build their individual capabilities and to produce results.

Let us consider gender, which can be regarded as the first factor for us to consider in terms of diversity. Higher education in Japan makes no distinction between the genders, and students are free to pursue whatever education they wish. However, at universities there are far fewer female students than males in the sciences, and this trend is seen around the world. The ratio of female students in the biosciences, which deal with living things, is somewhat higher than in other fields of science. Looking at my department, Life Science and Medical Bioscience, at Waseda University, in the past we usually had around 30% female students. However, in 2015 we now have almost 50%. In practice, I feel that there is little difference in ability by gender, either in education or in the laboratories where research is conducted. In science, I feel that research ability lies with the individual and that the variation among individuals is greater than the difference between the genders. It is said that similar numbers of boys and girls say they like science through elementary school, but then around junior high school the number of female students liking science drops suddenly. One cause of this is Japan’s social structure and cultural background. Girls may have an impression that they will struggle if they go on to study science. However, we need to remember that we will struggle with whatever subject we study -- there is no such thing as an easy subject.

Even in a small group such as a laboratory team, I believe it is better from the perspectives of cooperation, flexibility and mentality for the group to be composed in a balanced way, rather than for the group to be disproportionately male or female. In some senses, science is an individual pursuit. However, with the level of today's advanced technology, it becomes essential to collaborate with researchers in different fields and with new technologies, rather than carrying out research alone. In order to make this happen, communications skills, ability to build research systems, and operational capabilities will also be tested. For this reason, when an opportunity arises to create a functional unit, I believe that having female representation in the group can help it operate smoothly. The point I want to make here is that although gender difference has no impact on the research itself, I believe that we need to correct the unnatural situation in the science community, which is composed largely of men, and that going beyond gender difference and creating a scientific community in which all individuals can realize their potential will contribute to the advancement of science.

Global diversity

In the laboratory

Diversity of nationality is essential for a society that wants to globalize, and I believe that this represents an opportunity for Japan (which as yet has only globalized on a superficial level) and for its universities in particular to change their approach. My laboratory accepts exchange students from overseas, and this does teach the Japanese students the need to accept differences between nationalities and the need for cooperation. However, because the numbers are still very small, the impact is limited. In our laboratory, we actively seek joint research projects with overseas researchers, and we encourage our students to seize opportunities to conduct research with students and researchers of different nationalities at overseas laboratories. The students who have these experiences appear to gain a broader perspective on science.

Waseda University offers an international course in science and engineering in which all classes are conducted in English. The program is composed of exchange students from overseas and Japanese students who have returned from studying abroad. The classes are conducted in a participative question-and-answer style (although this may be explained partly by the fact that class sizes are smaller than the typical classes of Japanese students). This is something that Japanese university students should learn from. Debating is important in science and in this sense the presence of overseas students and researchers with diverse backgrounds is extremely important for Japan.

Valuing differences to move ahead

Japanese society has not always necessarily accepted “differences” in a positive way. I believe that science has valued differences, treated them as “individuality,” and used this as a source of creativity. Therefore I believe that the field of science has a culture of respecting differences. However, the reality is that as soon as an organization such as a university or laboratory is formed, Japanese customs are incorporated. If science seeks to advance through leveraging diverse human resources, it should expressly value and accept “differences” as individuality. In particular, Japanese science (like Japanese society) has experienced a period of stagnation, and I believe we should take on the challenge of increasing diversity as a way of regaining the vitality needed to move ahead.

Haruko Takeyama
Professor, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Waseda University

<Academic Background>
March 1984: Bachelor of Science, Department of Environmental Conservation, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology
March 1986: Master of Science in Environmental Conservation, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology
March 1992: Doctorate in Materials Science and Bioengineering, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology

<Professional Background>
April 1986 to March 1989: Researcher, Advance Co., Ltd.
January 1991 to March 1996: Researcher, Adjunct Assistant Professor; Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami
March 1994 to March 2007: Assistant, Associate Professor, Professor; Faculty of Engineering, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology
April 2007 to present: Professor, Department of Life Science and Medical BioScience, Waseda University
April 2007 to present: Affiliate Professor, Department of Biotechnology and Life Science, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology
April 2008 to present: Professor (concurrent position), Joint Department of Advanced Health Science, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology and Waseda University

<Areas of Expertise>
- Marine biotechnology, genetic engineering, molecular biology, microbiological engineering, environmental genome engineering
- Biomass energy, bio sensors, biometrics