Doing Research

Overview: Why International Research?
Overview: Undergraduate Research in Japan and the U.S.
About Research Projects
Reading and Understanding Scientific Research Papers
Laboratory Safety
Keeping a Research Lab Notebook
Data Storage – Back Up Your Data!
Research – It Never Goes Quite According to Plan
Working in a Research Lab – Summary

Related Topics
Funding of Research in the U.S. & Japan
Women & Minorities in Science & Engineering

Overview: Why International Research?

Scientific exchange has long been part of U.S. and Japanese relations, and it is an appropriate place to encourage cross-cultural exchange. As reported in the National Science Board’s 2016 Science and Engineering Indicators, currently the top three R&D-performing countries are the United States, China, and Japan and account for 57% of all global investments. Furthermore, the percentage of publications with authors from different countries rose from 13.2% to 19.2% between 2000 and 2013. Given that the global scientific collaborations are becoming the norm rather than the exception, students who choose to pursue graduate education in S&E fields should  have opportunities to participate in experiences that build the skills sets necessary to successfully collaborate and communicate with researchers from different cultural backgrounds, and international STEM programs may be one effective approach. International research experiences provide an opportunity for students to learn new technical skills while participating in cross-cultural scientific teams. For this reason, they may help students become ‘globally competent, empower students to make informed career choices, and acquire global or transcultural experience.  

The Nakatani RIES: Research & International Experiences for Student Fellowship seeks to address this need by fostering research and international engagement among young undergraduate students from both the U.S. and Japan.  The program was modeled off of the 2006 – 2015 NanoJapan: IREU program. The NanoJapan program model was shown to be highly effective and was nationally recognized in a National Academy of Engineering report as a best practice in Global Programs for “infusing real world engineering education”into the S&E curriculum. NanoJapan also received the 2008 IIE Heiskell Award as a ‘Best Practice’ in education abroad for the expansion of opportunities for S&E students. In an assessment of program outcomes, students identified three major impacts of the international research experience:

  • Enhanced confidence: Students report the experience conducting scientific research and living independently in Japan simply made them more confident in general. One student shared, “[R]elocating to a different lab in the U.S. will always pale in comparison to relocating to a lab on the other side of the world.”
  • Training for graduate school: Many students report that the international research experience provided a first exposure to the realities of graduate school. One shared, “. . . my NanoJapan lab gave me a realistic taste of graduate school life (the good AND the bad) that many students lack when they apply for graduate school. I know more than a few people that have left their graduate programs because research was not what they expected.”
  • Professional network: Many alumni report remaining in contact with their Japanese research hosts. They also say that the program provided them with a network of motivated peers in their field to discuss graduate school and career options.

By preparing S&E undergraduates in the U.S. and Japan with research, technical, and inter-cultural skills the Nakatani RIES Fellowship will ensure that participants have the skill sets necessary to pursue international research collaborations throughout their academic and professional careers.  For more on the impact of the Nakatani RIES Fellowship see our Alumni Updates page.

There are also a wide range of other international research, study, and fellowship opportunities available and these are highlight on our Other Related Programs: For U.S. Students and Other Related Programs: For Japanese Students pages.

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Overview: Undergraduate Research in Japan and the U.S.

Undergraduate Research in Japan
Undergraduates in Japan typically apply to join a lab in their B3 (Junior) year and only do research in their B4 (Senior) year. In Japan, most students who decide to pursue a master’s degree will stay at the same university and continue working in the same laboratory once in graduate school.  In Japan, students must receive a master’s degree first and then apply to the Ph.D. program.  Again, students will typically stay at the same university and within the same lab when they pursue a Ph.D. However, Japanese students who wish to pursue a graduate degree abroad, particularly in the U.S., will often first get their Master’s degree at a Japanese university and then apply to a Ph.D. program in the U.S.

Some universities in Japan, particularly in medical schools, are starting to experiment with expanding undergraduate research opportunities for their students; though it is still rare for students to do research prior to their B4 year.  The Nakatani RIES Fellowships is one of the few programs available that provide international research experience for Japanese undergraduate students at all levels – from B1 to B4.

For more on other programs see our Other Related Programs: For Japanese Students page.

Undergraduate Research in the U.S.
Undergraduates in the U.S. can start doing research as early as their freshman year, and some laboratories even have opportunities for high school students to do research during the summer.  How common it is for young undergraduates (freshman and sophomore) to do research varies by campus, but often students will shadow a lab or attend meetings the spring semester of their freshman year and may officially join a lab to in their sophomore year.  Undergraduate students in the U.S. may work in many labs over the course of their degree, both at their home university and through summer research opportunities at different universities in the U.S. or abroad.  Undergraduates in the U.S. often use these opportunities to ‘try out’ different types of research fields and help them make more informed choices about what type of graduate program and research they might be most interested in. Many universities in the U.S. have Offices of Undergraduate Research to support and encourage undergraduates to pursue various opportunities and some students select which 4-year university to attend, in part, based on the research opportunities/support available.

U.S. undergraduates who do research during the semester typically do so on a part-time basis and work about 10 – 20 hours per week depending on their class schedule.  Oftentimes, students will receive 1 – 3 credits for their semester research projects and receive a grade for this ‘class’ too.  So, in a sense, research during the academic year is like a part-time job. To make progress in their research and still do well in their classes, students must often work very long hours at time and must become very good at prioritizing their time. If they spend too much time doing research they will do poorly in their classes and their GPA will go down; this will make it difficult to get into graduate school.  If they don’t manage their time well and cannot come regularly to the research lab they will not make good progress on their research project and the host professor may not invite them back to do research again the following semester.

During the summer break (June – August), U.S. undergraduates can apply to do paid research through programs those funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for summer research experiences for undergraduates.  They can also apply to do an internship with a company by working with their university career services center or academic department/school to look up listings of companies hiring summer interns. Typically, these summer internships are in the U.S. though there are increasing numbers of international research opportunities, both funded and unfunded, that are available for students.  For more information on domestic and international opportunities for U.S. students, a both the undergraduate and graduate level, see the Other Related Programs: For U.S. Students page of our website.

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About Research Projects

Conducting a research project consists of:

  • Identifying an unsolved scientific question or an unsolved engineering problem
  • Designing an experiment to solve the problem or answer the question
  • Preparing an experiment (building an apparatus, making a sample, …)
  • Taking data
  • Analyzing data
  • Interpreting data
  • Drawing conclusions
  • Writing a paper and giving presentations on the results

Your job is to:

  • Understand the purposes and methods of your project as quickly as possible
  • Learn the experimental techniques used (under the mentorship of a Japanese researcher)
  • Become a more independent researcher while being guided by your mentor and other researchers
  • Work hard, be useful, and try to make significant contributions

Do’s and Don’ts

  • Dress up a little bit on the first day to show respect
  • In your first week, observe how they behave and adjust yourself.
  • Be polite, work hard, and show enthusiasm.
  • Work closely with your mentor, and adjust your schedule to his/hers.  Working hours may vary by lab and/or project. You will be expected to work in your research lab Monday – Friday during the normal working hours for your lab/mentor.  If your project requires, you may need to work late or on the weekend occasionally but you will not be required or expected to do this every day.
  • Try to show your interest in learning their language and culture.
  • Use your language skills as a bridge but also remember that interest in science/research is a shared passion with other lab members and if you are curious and ask questions about their research, even if that is not the project you are working on, you may develop stronger friendships with your labmates.
  • Participate in group activities with your lab members. Or, if you are planning to go out to dinner or do something on the weekend, as your lab members if anyone would like to join you or has suggestions for you.  They are all poor students as well so often will have really helpful, and money-saving tips!
  • Being on Time
    • For Students in Japan: Do not be late for appointments – e.g., when the appointment is at 9 AM, show up at 8:50 AM to START WORK at 9 AM.
      • Most labs in Japan have shared office space with all desks in one room.  This means everyone in the lab will know when you arrive and leave. Group cohesiveness and support is valued and often, even if their work is done, group members will stay late in the office to show support and encouragement for other members who may be working late on a paper/presentation.  However, as a visiting student you will not be expected to always stay as late as the other students and each lab is a bit different. Observe what your mentor/s and the other B4 undergraduates in your lab due and use that as a guide. You can use any ‘down’ time to read research papers or study your Japanese.
    •  For Students in the U.S.: Start times may be more flexible in the U.S. than they are in Japan.  It is always greatly appreciated that students be on time, but do not be surprised if occasionally things start 5 – 10 minutes late.
      • If you ask what time you should begin each day and are told “Most students come in around or about 10:00 AM” this means that some students arrive at 9:50, some students arrive at 10 and other students may arrive at 10:15, 10:30 or even later than that.  If you arrive early and are waiting for your mentor, you can always use this time to read research papers or study English.
      • In the U.S., a high value is placed on efficiency and effectiveness.  A common saying is “Work smarter, not harder.”  This means that researchers in the U.S. may spend fewer hours overall in the lab or office, but during the time they are working they may be very focused on completing their tasks for the day.  Once their tasks for the day are done, they are usually free to go home, and it is even okay for a junior student to leave earlier than their senior/supervisor if they are done working.  This does not mean that students in the U.S. don’t sometimes put long hours in, but this may not be every day.
      • Also, in the U.S. it is not uncommon for people to do some work remotely or from home rather than staying in the office long hours.  For example, at Rice you may often see professors in the Rice Coffeehouse or Brochstein Pavilion working on their computers or having meetings with students. So, just because someone is not in their office or the lab does not necessarily mean they are not working/writing somewhere else on campus.

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Reading and Understanding Scientific Research Papers

Prior to your arrival abroad, you will begin communicating with your research host lab via email and one of the first things your host professor or research mentor may ask you to do is to read some scientific journal articles related to the type of research you will be doing during your internship. However, reading a journal article is a bit different than reading a typical book or magazine article and if you’ve not done this before it can be a bit difficult to know where to begin.

Here are some helpful articles that describe, step-by-step, how to read a scientific journal article to ensure you can get the best understanding of these advanced research topics.  You should also keep a list of questions on the article/s you are reading that you can ask your host lab professor/mentor about or, if possible, even discuss with a professor/mentor or senior student at your home university prior to departure.  Remember, you will not likely understand everything in the article/s you are assigned to read but if you follow these steps you will be able to ask more informed questions and know which aspects of this research topic/field you may need to do further research on.

If you are not familiar with the general field or topic of your summer research project, it may also be helpful to ask your host lab for recommendations of textbooks or websites that you can review to learn the basics.  You can also look for YouTube course lectures and other resources online and/or ask professors at your home university for their recommendations of what you should study to prepare to do research in this field/topics.

Literature Reviews: You may also find reading literatures reviews to be a helpful way to immerse yourself in the terminology and background of your research topic/field. Try doing a search for your topic/field name and then ‘Literature Review’ to see if you find any helpful overviews of current literature/research in your field.

Laboratory Safety

Each university and research lab will have specific safety and equipment training that you will need to complete or will be given before you can begin research or use a new piece of equipment.  It is vital that you abide by all safety training and lab policies and procedures to avoid injury to yourself or others or damage of expensive research equipment.

When you arrive at your research host lab, be sure to ask your host professor and/or research mentor/s what lab safety or equipment training you will need to complete and how you can sign up if necessary.   The following general resources from Rice’s office of Environmental Health & Safety may also be helpful for you to review.

Please also watch the following videos:

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Keeping a Research Lab Notebook

It is vital that during the course of your research project you keep a detailed and up-to-date lab notebook.  Your notebook is your record of the work you have done and will be helpful for you to review as you write your weekly research internship reports and prepare for your final research presentation. Ask your research host professor and/or mentor if you must leave your notebook behind (as a resource for the next student working on your project) or if you can keep your research lab notebook and bring it home with you to the U.S.

For a helpful overview of best practices for keeping a lab notebook see “Guidelines for Keeping a Lab Notebook”.

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Data Storage – Back Up Your Data!

Not backing up your research data and related files stored on your personal or lab computer is a huge risk! If is not a question if your computer/s will fail – it is a question of when they will fail.  The personal or lab computer you are using may be old, the hard drive many not be stable, you may end up with a virus, and accidents do happen that may damage or destroy your computer.  Computers may also be lost or stolen.  There was even a case of a professor from the Hawai’i who had his laptop, with years of research data and a book that he had yet to submit to the publisher on it, stolen out of his car. Years, and years of work lost in one fell swoop – because he had not backed up. (Luckily, the laptop and one of the external hard drives was returned but the second external hard drive remains missing).

Don’t let this happen to you! One of the best things you can do as a young researcher is develop good data storage and back-up habits.  You do not want to be the master’s or PhD student who loses a huge chunk of their thesis or dissertation research data or writing because you failed to back up. (And yes, this does happen – ask any professor or department coordinator and they will know of at least 1 student who this has happened to).  Good data storage and back-up habits are just as important for short-term undergraduate research students too as you have limited time to work on your research project and loss of research data or documents could significantly delay your progress.

You should also ask your host professor how they would like you to store or back-up your research data. Is there a specific computer or drive they would like you to save this data on?  Is it okay for you to save your data on your own computer/laptop or must all data be kept on a university or lab computer? What back-up system do they use/recommend?

There are many options for data storage and back-up with some being cloud based and others being hardware (e.g. external hard drives). A combination of both can be most secure. Your home university may offer access to cloud-based data storage and back-up services for current students, faculty, and staff but also consider what may happen when you graduate or leave that position?  How will you transfer your data from the institutional cloud-based storage to your personal storage/back-up?  If the data is backed up but you no longer have access to it or the university automatically deletes the files of students who have graduated, what then?

Below are some resources on data storage and back-up  that you may want to review but there are other options out there too. Investigate your options and choose what works best for you.

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Research – It Never Goes Quite According to Plan

"New experiences lead to new questions and new solutions! Change forces us to experiment and adapt! That's how we learn and grow!" - Calvin
“New experiences lead to new questions and new solutions! Change forces us to experiment and adapt! That’s how we learn and grow!” – Calvin

Scientific research requires careful planning, coordination, and collaboration among all team members.  However, as the U.S. saying goes, “The best laid plans may often go awry.”  No matter how careful you plan, there will likely be bumps along the way.  Equipment breaks down, samples or materials you have ordered may be slow to arrive, you may get unexpected results that cause you to have to change your research plans, and so on.  While these setbacks are frustrating for all researchers (professors, post-docs, graduate students), they can be especially challenging for undergraduate students who may only have a few short weeks to work on their projects. However, these experiences are not uncommon or unexpected. In truth, it is a rare summer research project that does not have some delays, setbacks or frustrating moments.  Learning how to handle these situations is all a part of becoming a good researcher.

Students often worry if they will have anything ‘good’ to present at the end of their research project. However, remember that the goal of the research presentation is not necessarily to showcase your results (as it is often difficult to obtain ‘good’ results in a very short time-frame).  Rather, the most important part of your final presentation will be your understanding of your research project overall and what you did this summer.  Another key component will be the future research or future impact section, which will enable you to showcase your understanding of how your research project may be helpful to your research field overall.

Also, when you face frustrations or setbacks with your research projects, be sure that you turn to your graduate student research mentors and host professor in Japan and your U.S. co-advisor for advice, assistance, and encouragement.  They are all there to help you.

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Working in a Research Lab – Summary

  • Be polite, work hard, and show interest
  • There will be cultural differences; they are expected and okay.  After all, that is why you applied to Nakatani RIES – to do research in a different country/culture than in the U.S. or Japan.
  • Don’t get too self-conscious about these differences – it will be appreciated if it is clear that you are making effort to fit in
  • While abroad, you are a cultural ambassador of your home country, home university, and representing the Nakatani RIES Fellowship and the Nakatani Foundation.  Be sure you act respectfully and professionally at all times.
  • If there are any problems please communicate with the program faculty and staff – we are here to help you!
  • Maintain regular contact with your U.S. co-advisor and/or Prof. Kono about the status of your research project and any questions you may have.

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Related Topics

Funding of Research in the U.S. & Japan

In both the U.S. and Japan, science and engineering research is primarily funded by government agencies through grants awarded to universities or university researchers. National labs in the U.S. and Japan also play a vital role in advancement of research in an array of science and engineering fields. Industry R&D is also a vital component of R&D, particularly to apply basic research findings to products in the marketplace. For more information see the U.S. National Science Board’s 2016 Science & Engineering Indicators Report, particularly Ch. 4 Research & Development: National Trends & International Comparisons. Some highlights from this chapter include:

  • Most of U.S. basic research is conducted at universities and colleges and is funded by the federal government. However, the largest share of U.S. total R&D is development, which is mainly performed by the business sector. The business sector also performs the majority of applied research.
  • Universities and colleges historically have been the main performers of U.S. basic research, and they accounted for about 51% of all U.S. basic research in 2013. The federal government remained the largest funder of basic research, accounting for about 47% of all such funding in 2013.
  • The United States remained the largest R&D-performing country in 2013, with total expenditures of $456.1 billion, a 27% share of the global total, and an R&D/GDP ratio of 2.7%. China was a decisive second, with R&D expenditures of $336.5 billion, a 20% global share, and an R&D/GDP ratio of 2.0%.
  • Japan ($160.2 billion, 10% global share, ratio of 3.5%) and Germany ($101.0 billion, 6% global share, ratio of 2.9%) were the comparatively distant third and fourth. The other 11 countries/economies in the top 15 were South Korea, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, India, Taiwan, Brazil, Italy, Canada, Australia, and Spain—with the annual national R&D expenditure totals ranging from about $69 billion (South Korea) down to $19 billion (Spain).

One thing many students notice when doing research abroad is that, compared to the U.S., research labs at universities in Japan tend to have better and newer equipment overall than the majority of research labs at universities in the U.S. This is in part due to differences in the nature of funding for science and engineering research in these countries. For example, in the U.S. PhD students are paid a stipend and given a tuition exemption in return for their work as research assistants or teaching assistants. This means that most of the budget for research grants awarded to professors in the U.S. must be used to support student salary and tuition. In Japan, PhD students must pay tuition and fees individually. This means that more of the money in research grants awarded in Japan can be used to pay for equipment and other facilities. This is also why in the U.S. it is not uncommon for different labs, or even many labs at a university, to share expensive equipment through programs such as the Shared Equipment Authority at Rice University.

For more on funding of science and engineering research in the U.S. and Japan see:

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Women & Minorities in Science & Engineering

This section provide some background and data on women and minorities in science and engineering (S&E) in the U.S. and Japan and links to articles and other helpful resources for students who would like more information on this topic.

A view of Women & Minorities in S&E the U.S.

As the U.S. National Science Board’s 2016 Science & Engineering Indicators Report notes, “As researchers and policymakers increasingly emphasize the need for expanding S&E capabilities in the United States, many view demographic groups with lower rates of S&E participation as an underutilized source of human capital for S&E work. Historically, in the United States, S&E fields have had particularly low representation of women and members of several racial and ethnic minority groups (i.e., blacks, Hispanics, American Indians or Alaska Natives), both relative to the concentrations of these groups in other occupational or degree areas and relative to their overall representation in the general population. More recently, however, women and racial and ethnic minorities increasingly have been choosing a wider range of degrees and occupations.”
Most universities in the U.S. have specialized programs, offices, and support for women and minorities in S&E at both the undergraduate and graduate level.   At Rice University, the Women in Engineering page highlights female enrollment in engineering programs and university offices and clubs whose mission is to help and support female engineers.  Rice University has also be recognized for its success in the recruitment and retention of minority and female graduate students in the US News & World Reports article “Graduate Engineering Programs Beef Up Efforts for Minorities & Women”.

For more on women and minorities in S&E in the U.S. see:

A view of Women in S&E in Japan

As the MEXT and JST “Program to Support Research Activities of Female Researchers” outlines: “As a result of past efforts to support female researchers in Japan, the proportion of women in research roles has begun to increase; however, in comparison to advanced European nations and the US, Japan still has relatively few women in research. Unfortunately, there has not been much progress in the appointment of female researchers to leading positions. Not only from the viewpoint of gender equality but also to demonstrate organizational creativity (including the ability to adopt diverse viewpoints and ideas and to conduct innovative research), it is extremely important to increase the number of female researchers and to improve their research skills.

This program therefore aims to improve the research skills of female researchers and to support their appointment to leading positions. With the cooperation of universities, research institutions, and private enterprises, we are working to improve the research environment for women and to provide more opportunities for research, taking into account many women’s need to balance research against the demands of everyday life (henceforth referred to as the “work/life-balance”), including “life events” such as childbirth, childcare and the long-term care of elderly relatives. Flexible support will enable women to develop and demonstrate their research skills to the full.”

For more on the role of women in the workforce in Japan and science & engineering in particular see the resources below:

Other Related Articles on Women in Japan 

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