About Research Projects
Reading and Understanding Scientific Research Papers
Keeping a Research Lab Notebook
Research – It Never Goes Quite According to Plan
Working in a Japanese Research Lab – Summary
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
- Try to show your interest in learning their language and culture
- Work closely with your mentor, and adjust your schedule to his/hers
- 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
- Participate in group activities
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.
- Infographic: How to Read Scientific Papers
- LSE: How to Read & Understand a Scientific Paper: A Guide for Non-Scientists
- AAAS/Science: How to (Seriously) Read a Scientific Paper
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.
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.
- Rice University – Laboratory Safety
- Rice University – Biological Safety
- Rice University – Chemical Safety
- Rice University – Radiation Safety
- Rice University – Laser Safety
Please also watch the following videos:
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”.
Research – It Never Goes Quite According to Plan
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.
Working in a Japanese 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.
- 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 the U.S. and representing the Nakatani RIES Fellowship and your home university.
- 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 about the status of your research project and any questions you may have.
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:
- “Historical Trends in Federal R&D” (US)
- “Where to Search for Funding?” (US)
- “Who Pays for Science?” (US)
- “Who Picks Up the Tab for Science?” (US)
- “Activities of Japanese Funding Agencies”
- “Pro-Science Stimulus to Revitalize Japan’s R&D”
- “Japanese Science, Technology, and Medicine Resources”
Sharing Omiyage with your Research Group (and others) in Japan
Omiyage (お土産) play a key role in relationships in Japan. Omiyage are not souvenirs, they are gifts you buy for others when you are away from your group or that you bring from you home country when you are entering/joining a group to thank them for hosting you. In Japan, purchasing omiyage when you, for example, take a weekend trip is very easy as you can purchase a nicely packaged box of treats specific to the region from any train station or kiosk. In a sense, by bringing back a gift from the region/city you visited while you were away you are sharing a part of your trip with your group members and, in a sense, thanking them for any inconvenience that your not being there might have caused for the group. Omiyage does not have to be expensive, it is more about the thoughtfulness and aspect of sharing some part of your experience with others.
However, when you first come to Japan it may be a bit more difficult to know what to bring for gifts for your research host lab as in the U.S. we don’t have nicely packaged and individually wrapped treats specific to each region or city that you can quickly purchase at the last moment. Here are some tips:
- Candy or food treats are a good group gift as they can be left out on a table for group members to try at their leisure. If the candy or treats are specific to your home-state/home-town/region even better. However, American candy and treats are typically much sweeter than Japanese offerings. For this reason, small, individually wrapped packages are a better option than a large bag or box that may go stale/old. Past students have also said dark chocolate is sometimes a better option too as it is typically less sweet than American milk chocolate.
- Plan to bring a separate small gift for your professor and perhaps for your graduate student mentor/s too. A gift from your campus bookstore might be a good option.
- Don’t forget about your lab secretary/ies as well. They are the ones who have helped with processing any paperwork necessary for you to come to the host lab and may have also helped to make your research internship housing arrangements. A small, individual gift specific to your home-town/region and/or home university is a good option.
- When you leave the lab, plan to give a hand-written thank-you note to your professor, mentor/s, secretary/ies and others in your lab or host city who have been especially helpful to you. It’s also nice to include a photo of you with the lab group or the individual you are thanking. You can easily print photos out from a USB drive at the copiers found at all konbinis (convenience stores) in Japan.
- Bring some postcards or other small souvenir type items (keychains, etc.) of your home university or home-state/town as these are easy to pack and can be used as gifts as needed throughout the summer as well as there will likely be other people you want to thank for helping you along the way.
- Your alumni mentor will be a great person to ask about suggested gifts including what they brought, what they wish they would have brought, and the types of things your research host professor and lab group might most enjoy from the U.S. If you aren’t sure how many people are in your lab group, look for a group photo on their website and/or ask the graduate student mentor you were assigned to (if you already have their contact information). If your alumni mentor was at the same lab last summer they may also have good ideas.
- Also, don’t forget about thanking the on-site director and/or foundation staff. You might want to work with your fellow students to take a group photo that you have printed and framed (check out the inexpensive frames at the 100 Yen store). The back of the photo can be signed and/or everyone can write in a card and this can be presented at the end of the summer before leaving Japan.
Remember that the gift-giving culture in Japan is one that is meant to recognize the importance of your group membership, share a part of who you are or your experience with the group, and also acknowledge the person/group for the important role they play in your life (and that you play in the group as well). It is the thought/meaning of the gift that matters far more than what the gift actually is or how much it costs.
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.
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.”
For more on women and minorities in S&E in the U.S. see:
- 2016 S&E Indicators Report, Ch. 3 Women & Minorities in the S&E Workforce
- NSF: Women, Minorities & Persons with Disabilities in S&E
- AAUW: Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering & Math
- Office of the White House: Women in STEM
- Society of Women Engineers
- “We Need to Do More for Women in Science”
- “Women Still Underrepresented in STEM Fields”
- “The Untold History of Women in Science & Technology”
- “Meet 12 Women Who Just Broke the Glass Ceiling”
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:
- Japan Inter-Society Liaison Association Committee for Promoting Equal Participation of Men and Women in Science & Engineering
- Society of Japanese Women Scientists
- Japanese Women Engineers Forum
- Tokyo Tech: Women in STEM
- “Japan’s Science Women Seek an Identity”, New York Times, June 16, 2013
- “Japanese Women and Work”, Economist, March 29, 2014
- “Japan’s scientists: just 14% female”, Japan Times
- “Growing more women scientists”, Japan Times, April 30, 2014
- “Taking Aim at Japan’s Gender Problem”, Japan Times, May 27, 2014
- “Science Scandal Triggers Suicide, Soul-Searching in Japan”, Time, August 8, 2014
- “Ambitious Female Scientists Leave Japan to escape ‘male domination’, Times Higher Education, October 9, 2014
- “What’s driving women scientists out of Japan?”, Science, October 14, 2014
- “Gender Equality in Japan: The Equal Employment Opportunity Law Revisited”, Global Research, November 10, 2014
- “In Japanese universities, tradition meets globalization”, New York Times, December 7, 2014
- “The shameful final chapter for one of Japan’s most promising stem cell scientists”, Washington Post, December 19, 2014
- “To Rescue Economy, Japan Turns to Supermom”, New York Times, January 1, 2015
- “Foreign female dean opens doors for Japan’s working women”, Japan Times, January 11, 2015
- “Japanese Women at a Crossroads”, BBC News, March 10, 2015
- “Shared office spaces fostering female entrepreneurs”, Japan Time, April 25, 2015
- Commentary by Shinzo Abe “When women can thrive, so will Japan and the world”, Japan Times, April 27, 2015
- “Nations First Astronaut, Chiaki Mukai, Honored by France”, Japan Times, Feb. 4, 2015
- “The Struggle of Working Women In Japan”, GaijinPot, April 5, 2015
- “Still a Struggle for Working Women”, JapanTimes, April 8, 2015
- “Japan: Women in the Workforce”, Financial Times, July 6, 2015
- “Caroline Kennedy: A Ambassador Whose Role Transcended the Embassy”, New York Time, January 11, 2016