2017 Savannah Cofer

Savannah Cofer
Home University: Rice University
Field of Study: Mechanical Engineering, Computational & Applied Mathematics, and Japanese
Status: Freshman
Expected Graduation Date: May 2020
Host Lab in Japan: The University of Tokyo – Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, Maruyama-Chiashi Laboratory

Why Nakatani RIES?

When I first learned of the Nakatani RIES Fellowship, I was immediately captivated by the prospect of spending a summer in Japan while performing research related to my current work. Almost 60 years ago, my grandfather emigrated from Japan to the United States. While I have visited Japan only once, I have always been fascinated by its unique culture and have been eager to be immersed in the country of my heritage.

For my entire life, I learned from my grandfather about the Japanese perspective on the pursuits and motivations of the American scientist, and this allowed me to see that there is tremendous value in studying abroad. I am curious to experience how the Japanese culture influences the way that groups work together and collaborate towards a common goal. I hope that the experience through the Nakatani RIES program this summer will help me answer many lifelong questions, and even discover new questions that I could not have dreamed of before.

Goals for the Summer

  • Experience Japanese culture through experiences at the host institution.
  • Improve Japanese language skills.
  • Gain perspective on fundamental approach to research in Japan.
  • Develop closer connection to my family heritage.

Excerpts from Savannah’s Weekly Reports

Week 01: Arrival in Japan

I love milk. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I often drink a nice cold carton of milk three meals a day, and sometimes even steal an extra one to help me get through those late night problem sets. Skim, 2% or whole, milk is an integral component of both my body and my soul. And, now that I reflect back upon my first week in the Nakatani program, I realize that milk was the turning point that completely changed my perception of Japan and my personal cultural identity.

Have you ever consumed a glass of old milk? It is not an easy experience to forget. I have only traveled to Japan once before to visit family, in fifth grade, and upon the prior knowledge that I was an American child they purchased some milk (because American kids like milk). I choked down the vile-tasting milk as my mother whispered in my ear to be polite and not to pull any faces, not to be disrespectful. For the rest of the gathering, I miserably sat in the corner with my great grandmother and folded origami. We shared the common bond that we were unable to communicate with the rest of the party: I was young and unable to speak a word of Japanese, and she was elderly and nearing the last few years of her life.

Taking a selfie my grandmother’s brother! I’m smiling because the milk tasted great! ~ Savannah Cofer

This week, I returned to the same house where I once drank the milk over eight years ago, and I instinctively felt a turning in my stomach as I imagined the milk. My family members were there too, once again, but this time was far different. In fact, I had a great time. I was able to speak roughly in Japanese and communicate a lot of things through lots of gesturing and using an old, yellowed translation book. We gossiped about family members, talked about food, and made jokes about Japanese and American culture. An old friend dropped by, who was also a mechanical engineer, and we were instantly able to bond and talk about robotics and industrial control systems by drawing and pointing. Sure, there may have been no milk this time, but my experience and perception of the experience was dramatically different.

It may seem like I’m milking this Saturday morning experience for all it’s worth, but it truly allowed me to skim away the superficial differences in food, clothing, and appearance and realize that my journey to Japan will gradually give me a more complete picture of what Japan is like. Before now, everything that I knew about Japan came from three sources: these fragmented memories of my first time here, my grandparents, and the book “Dave Barry Does Japan”. This book sat on top of the toilet in my home for many years, so I read his humorous commentary of the oddities of Japan many times over. My understanding of Japan has always been fragmentary, and often times inaccurate. I had always just assumed that all milk in Japan tastes bad. However, experiencing Japan in just this first week, these small generalizations and observations are contextualized in the same way that my singular memory of bad tasting milk was revised to a more complete picture.

Wow, Japan is beautiful. This picture speaks for itself. ~ Savannah Cofer

For the first three weeks of the Nakatani Program, we have Japanese language classes in the morning and cultural seminars or activities in the afternoon. In addition to taking Japanese language classes at Rice University this past year, the teaching of Japanese with a practical focus has tremendously improved my ability to communicate. I’ve also learned through the afternoon seminars about some of the nuances of Japanese culture and the underlying reasons behind certain behaviors. The Nakatani program classes teach more than just knowledge, they have taught me how to acquire more knowledge on my own.

As a result of these classes, I hope to gain a more complete picture of the reality of living in Japan and maybe even debunk some of the misconceptions that I’ve come to believe over the years. For instance, my mom once told me, “they just make milk differently here in Japan”, which I have fully believed for many years until tasting the Sanuki Club milk for breakfast, which was excellent. In this first week, I have had approximately zero bad milk experiences. In the infamous words of the eminent philosopher Will Funkenbusch, “How could I have been so rash?”

The book “Dave Barry Does Japan” talks a bit about the American song My Way, which I can now confirm is indeed quite popular in Japan. Notable lyrics include, “Regrets? I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.” Perhaps now I can echo the sentiments of Frank Sinatra and say that even in just one week I’ve realized both accuracies and flaws in my assumptions about Japan. I used to think that it was considered rude to rub wooden chopsticks together before using them because my grandmother always said so, but that is apparently not the case at all. Dave Barry gave the impression that the Japanese were straight laced, serious people unable to take a joke, but here I’ve been able to share at least a laugh with nearly everyone I met. Thus, a proof by contradiction is made, and I can conclude with certainty that I definitely have a lot more to learn about Japan.

Although I may have a long way still to go, I expect that the more time I spend in Japan, the more I will be able to understand the underlying reasons for these seemingly strange events or cultural experiences. Maybe, with luck, I’ll even find a good place that sells large quantities of skim milk to quench my unending thirst for my favorite bovine beverage. And maybe, with a little more luck, I’ll be able to quench my thirst for knowledge and the understanding of Japanese culture and society.


As Rice Owls, it was only suitable that we visited an Owl Café! There were around 10 owls of different species that could be petted and parakeets trained to land on your head. ~ Savannah Cofer

“You gotta do something crazy.” At the pre-departure orientation, I actually think I gained the most from the one piece of advice that the program coordinators probably did not particularly want to hear. On Thursday afternoon, we had a student discussion with a few of the Nakatani alumni who had participated in previous years. Ajay and I already knew each other from working in the same research lab this year and Nikcolas was my chemistry TA who also helped me prepare for the Nakatani application interview. However, the student discussion was my first time seeing the group of fellows interact and reminisce about their experiences in the program.


As we learned during the Intercultural Communication session on Friday afternoon, Japan is generally a color-between-the-lines sort of culture, unlikely to take as many independent risks as most Americans. This is important to take into account, especially when working together in the lab. On the other hand, spending an afternoon hearing all the crazy memories from years past made me realize and appreciate what a unique experience this would be, and that I needed to make the most of it. In a society always aims to fit in, the freedom to try new things and sometimes make a big fool of yourself can be all the more gratifying.

During the pre-departure orientation, I began to get to know the other Nakatani fellows (and immediately bonded over a collective love for science and exercising), and talked to some of the adult members of the team. We had lab safety training, seminars about research and culture basics, and an introduction to Japanese language. Ozaki-sensei was my favorite professor at Rice this past year, and in addition to language fundamentals we learned a fun kids song that has since plagued the ears of many innocent Japanese passerby during the past week. Overall, the pre-departure orientation provided a brief foundation and made me even more excited to come to Japan and maybe even do something crazy.

Overview of First Week of Orientation in Tokyo
Well, I know I said in the pre-departure orientation that I was going to do something crazy, but I never actually made any plans. Fortunately, doing crazy things in Japan is extremely easy to do and almost entirely unintentionally so. However, the many cultural seminars, lab visits, and program events have been very helpful in reducing the number of crazy occurrences by providing background information to understand the differences in Japanese society. As we would say in American college student terminology, we’re figuring out how to “take fewer L’s”.

Mr. Cain Gibbs, who came from America to teach science and math in English in a Japanese high school, gave one of my favorite talks about the experience of working in Japan as an American. He talked about the attitude towards working for a company, the Japanese productivity myth, and the style of learning and education that has lasting impacts on the way that students think. He shared primarily stories and anecdotes from his own personal experience, which helped give me a realistic picture of what working in Japan is like for am American. Touring the university research laboratories also helped provide a realistic picture of what work life is like in Japan.

I also learned a lot from meeting with the Japanese students. We talked about international relations in a lead discussion, from the Trump administration, to North Korea interactions, and Japan-China relations. Afterwards, we had dinner with the students and had the opportunity to just talk causally. I really enjoyed talking with Maho over dinner, who spent most of her life in Japan but spent a year of college studying abroad at Harvard. We had a fun conversation over dinner talking about shared interests in philosophy and common moral dilemmas, and it was interesting to hear her commentary on college life in Japan and America. For example, she talked about the duck-syndrome is even more prevalent in Japan than in America. Students may feel stressed out or overwhelmed, but they hide it like a duck paddling frantically below a still lake. I was very sad to hear that this tendency may be a contributing factor to the high rates of suicide of young people in Japan. Still, understanding these differences through conversation was enlightening and made me want to learn more.

Question of the Week
Are there any underlying reasons that lead to the Japanese tendency towards extreme cleanliness and order?

Introduction to Research Topic & Paper Summary
This summer, I will be working on the aligning of single walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNT’s). Carbon nanotubes also known as cylindrical fullerenes: long carbon allotropes shaped in cylindrical tubes (typically around one nanometer in diameter). These nanomaterials have many valuable properties, such as mechanical strength and thermal conductivity. Aligned CNT’s are advantageous because they have even greater electrical and thermal conductivity, and there are already known methods of aligning (such as using electric fields, gas-flow, or modifying the shape of the growth substrate). Currently, I do not know which method I will focus on this summer. However, I have talked with a few graduate students at Rice who have studied SWCNT’s and taught me a few basics, such as how to analyze CNT samples using Raman spectroscopy.

Paper Summary
The paper I read is called, “Synthesis of subnanometer-diameter vertically aligned single-walled carbon nanotubes with copper-anchored cobalt catalysts” (Nanoscale, 2016). This summer, I will be working with Professor Rong Xiang and Dr. Hua An, who both contributed this project.

The goal of this project was to grow subnanometer-diameter single walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) on flat substrates. We’ve already figured out how to grow vertically aligned SWNT forests, which has the advantages of being pure substance with controlled morphology, but unfortunately the average diameter of these SWNTs are larger than 2nm. SWNTs with large diameters have a narrow bandgap and are therefore not as good for use in photovoltaic devices. Therefore, finding a way to grow aligned SWNTs with small diameters while still maintaining high quality would be important.

In order to control the catalyst size, a Co/Cu bimetallic catalyst is used combined with the alcohol catalytic chemical vapor deposition (CVD) process. The paper also details and tests a proposed mechanism: basically, the strong adherence between Co and Cu is used to modulate the size of the catalysts, which affects the diameter of the SWCNTs. After synthesizing the samples, Raman spectroscopy and optical absorption spectra tests were conducted in order to characterize the results. SEM and TEM images were also taken, which visually supported these results and showed the growth of individual subnanometer VA-SWNTs.

In conclusion, vertically aligned single walled carbon nanotubes with an average diameter of 0.9nm were successfully created. These samples also had a band gap around 1.1-1.25 eV, which is larger than that of silicon. This work is important because it synthesizes a material that can have very useful applications in electronics and photovoltaic devices.

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Week 02: Language Learning and Trip to Mt. Fuji Lakes

Girls night! Rose, Etsuko and Nina (left to right) sharing an international love of MatLab and dislike of waking up in the morning. ~ Savannah Cofer

If someone were to ask me about the most surprising or shocking part of my trip to Japan so far, I would answer this question quite literally. At exactly 7:00am on Sunday morning, my iPhone alarm blasted in my ear with the default “Radar” ringtone. I have dreaded this sound every day for the past year. This time, however, it was not one phone, but four: all piping away simultaneously in a single hotel room on Mt. Fuji. I jumped up in bed, my heart beating furiously in my chest, and immediately saw the startled eyes of my three roommates: Rose, Etsuko, and Nina. Despite growing up on opposite sides of the world, somehow all four of us use the exact same alarm sound to wake us up in the morning.

Looking back, it might seem easy to romanticize the event, feeling the tangible connection between our separate cultures as we wake up to the same alarm clock sound every morning, much in the same way that we gaze at the same lustrous moon at night. But I’m not going to say that. At that moment, I felt as if I had woken up into a nightmare. This is because nobody likes alarm clocks, no matter how poetic you are.

The hotel provided a funny pair of pajamas for after a very hot but relaxing onsen. Me, Will, and Josh (left to right) might be getting Night Fever but at least we’re Stayin’ Alive. ~ Savannah Cofer

Well, I’m actually going to go back on my word just now and admit that maybe it was a bit fun. After the initial surprise wore off, we all started laughing and we continued to joke about the iPhone alarm throughout the day. I really enjoyed getting to know the 2017 Japanese Nakatani Fellows during our trip to Mt. Fuji because previously, I had only met Japanese students my age in a fairly structured environment. That’s a lot different from a large group of American and Japanese college students just hanging out together. Everybody goofed off, told dirty jokes, made fun of each other, and over the course of the weekend I laughed until actual tears came out of my eyes multiple times.

It may seem shallow, but I think this kind of bonding was truly a very special experience. Tomoya kept pulling dandelion weeds and flicking their tops off at people, and everyone joined into the 2017 Nakatani RIES Fellows favorite pastime of teasing Alex. I was also able to share an instant connection with Tomoyuki, who is also a mechanical engineer, and on the bus he helped us solve a mechanical engineering puzzle that our US group had been trying to figure out for the past week. (Aside: I saw a Planetary Gearbox toy at a department store and wanted to figure out how varying torques were translated through each gear set. Unfortunately for me, the explanation was all in Japanese.) However, I think some of my most enlightening conversations were with Nina, who is also studying at Tokyo University. We exchanged slang words (such as “RIP”, “Bet”, and the Japanese phrase “Maji Tsurai”), complained together about the challenges that students face, and the gender gap in Japan.

I had learned about the large difference between men and women in technology through the cultural seminars, but this was my first time hearing firsthand from another girl my age studying in Japan. Nina talked about how much more difficult it was for females pursing science and engineering, not just because they are a minority at around 10% but because they are treated much differently. For example, collaborating on problems and studying in groups is important, but most boys will not want to talk to the girls. There seems to be a fear on both sides that if they reach out to collaborate, it might be viewed as flirtatious. This may be a result of the fact that most high schools are gender segregated. Whenever I have a question about a class or want to collaborate, I realize that I usually do not even think twice about whether they are a guy or a girl. Perhaps there are subconscious biases or something like that, but gender does not often cross my mind with regards to ability in science or engineering. Even in America, in some aspects I think it may be easier to study mechanical engineering if I were a boy (national average of USA is 90% male), but talking with the Japanese Nakatani RIES fellows I gained a new appreciation and gratefulness for being an American student. There are definitely aspects that both cultures can learn from each other in terms of engineering education.

Meeting the Japanese fellows also helped me in my Japanese language development. In addition to continuing to study grammar and vocabulary in my daily classes, speaking in a casual setting was very beneficial. Actually, I learned that I have been making a big mistake and never knew it. One of my favorite Japanese phrases during this trip has been “Zannen desu ne”, which translates roughly to “that’s tough”, or “it’s a pity”. It’s a great and useful phrase because with the wide variety of things that can and do go wrong, having some sort of response is typically necessary. Spill a drink on yourself? Zannen desu ne. Konbini is out of Black Thunder candy bars? Zannen desu ne. Intimidated by the impeccable fashion sense of Japanese people? Zannen desu ne. Unfortunately, this isn’t really the proper connotation of the phrase. According to the Japanese students, the more suitable application would be if somebody died and you wanted to express your sympathies for the matter. As much as I love Black Thunder, I may have been a tad overdramatic. Fortunately, I gained a couple new favorite phrases! There’s the aforementioned “Maji Tsurai”, as well as “Shiniso” (I’m dying) and “Yabai no Yabai ne” (this weird thing is weird). Now I can complain to my heart’s desire.

On a more serious note, I really did enjoy meeting the Japanese Nakatani Fellows and I can’t wait to see them again later this summer. It also made me a little less nervous about getting to know people at my future research lab. The trip itself was amazing too: I’m not sure if the views were truly breathtaking or it was just the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere, but this weekend was one to remember.

Question of the Week
What is the generally held Japanese opinion on the inequality for women in STEM fields? It has been a hot issue in America recently, and it seems like the majority of Americans think that this is a problem that needs to be fixed. Is there a similar social movement in Japan?”

  • For more on this question, see the Women & Minorities in Science & Engineering section of our Research in Japan page. You may also want to incorporate this question into the interview you will do with a Japanese researcher for a future weekly report. You may also want to speak more with the female 2017 Japanese Fellows about this, either during the Mid-Program Meeting or while they are in Houston doing research at Rice University. What are their thoughts about the challenges, and opportunities, for women in S&E in Japan? What changes would they like to see and what do they see their role as being in terms of being a woman in S&E in Japan.
  • It may also be interesting for you to read some of the profiles and weekly reports of female students from the 2016 Nakatani RIES Fellowship and/or 2016 or 2017 TOMODACHI STEM Programs to gain insight into their perspectives on women in S&E during and after their international research experience in the U.S.

Introduction to Science & Engineering Seminar
This week, I learned that I know nothing. Well, actually I already knew that, but perhaps I now decreased to a subzero value (or remain at zero, if this analogy is multiplicative). Through site visits, engineering lectures and research seminars, we learned about many new areas of study in science and engineering that broadened my horizons and introduced a number of different topics. I definitely enjoyed these lectures and learned a lot from them.

JAMSTEC Supercomputer cooling fans got me channeling my inner Marilyn Monroe. ~ Savannah Cofer

On Monday, we visited the Yokohama Institute for Earth Sciences. One of my favorite experiences was viewing JAMSTEC supercomputer and learning the basics of how supercomputers work and the tasks they accomplish. We also got to see a large 3D model of the globe and how ocean currents, air temperature, and many other features change with time. Interestingly, the model was actually created by combining computationally generated models with actual empirical data! This allows the model to both mathematically model the past as well as predict the future. It is crazy to see the temperature gradient of earth in just a few hundred years if global warming trends continue at their current rates. We also got to see a hydraulic pressure experiment showing the impact of water depth on a Styrofoam cup. Last semester at Rice, I learned about the compressibility of air and various materials, so it was very interesting to see the real life applications of these principles.


One element of our site tour that had personal significance to me was learning about the seismic network in Japan to track and predict earthquakes. JAMSTEC has a real-time analysis of seismic data collected from many seismometers placed deep in the oceans off the coast of Japan (which is a seismically active zone), and is still conducting further research to predict and measure earthquakes and aftershocks. Since my grandfather immigrated to United States from Japan in order to study seismology, it is a topic that is of interest to me. However, much of his focus is lunar seismology (such as the seismometers that were placed on the moon during the Apollo missions in the ALSEP), which is very different from the type that we learned about this week at Yokohama. In the future, I am curious to learn more about specialized technologies in Japan that developed as a result of the earthquake problem and how they might be able have applications even outside of Japan. Maybe we can improve structures that undergo motion based on the earthquake resistant mechanical techniques perfected in Japan? Maybe we can learn from complex networks of databases used for seismic data for other applications? I think there seems to be a lot of potential in this area for interdisciplinary work, but I’m not sure what.

On Tuesday and Thursday, Professor Kono gave us introductory seminars to science and engineering. Much of the lectures focused on quantum mechanics, which I have never studied before and am still entirely baffled by. Richard Feynman once said, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”, although I am not sure whether that is encouraging or not. However, his lecture was definitely helpful because my research will be on single walled carbon nanotubes, which are a one-dimensional material and can often be considered as a quantum wire. This means that two of the dimensions are smaller than the De Broglie wavelength so we cannot use classical mechanics to describe the system. However, one dimension is much longer, so it can be considered as non-quantized. Additionally, Professor Kono taught us basics of how the structural properties of the materials impact the band gap, which affects the electrical conductivities of the material. These concepts are directly applicable to my research, and I plan to study more in order to understand the theory behind the research.

We also listened to lectures given by research professors on their field of study. Professor Itoh from Keio University talked about developing supercomputers by storing binary values in individual silicon atoms. This forms the basis behind quantum computing. We also listened to a lecture given by Prof. Kawata of Osaka University, who is studying photonics at the Laboratory for Scientific Instrumentation and Engineering (LaSIE). Some of the parts of Dr. Kawata’s seminar that are directly relevant to my research are the use of Raman scattering in order to characterize materials based on how different vibrational modes scatter photons, and the various ways of distorting CNT’s through twisting and stretching.

Overall, the Nakatani program’s science and engineering seminars have been both interesting and useful not only for my personal learning but also specifically for my research in carbon nanotubes this summer. I look forward to learning more about new fields of research and expanding my knowledge of those that I have some familiarity with already, and I am excited to begin work in the lab in just one more week!

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Week 03: Noticing Similarities, Noticing Differences

Imagine a glass of milk. Yes, I’m talking about milk again. As we all know, the optimist says it is half full, the pessimist says it is half empty, and the engineer says that the glass is twice as big as it needs to be. Personally, I would have probably already finished it all before any philosophical judgment can be made, but that’s beside the point. Over these first three weeks in Japan, I think that I have gradually progressed through the mentality of all three of these individuals, specifically when it comes to public transportation.

When I was back at Rice and boarded the inner loop shuttle bus (often to ease the treacherous 400m expedition from my dorm to class), I would occasionally be surprised to see that the bus was packed full! And by packed, I mean that around half the seats in the bus were occupied. For a bus with half the seats filled, it was surprisingly high entropy: students jostled and bumped into each other at every stop.

Yesterday I boarded a city bus in Japan with similar proportions. Again, approximately one half of the seats were occupied. “Where did everybody go? There’s nobody in this bus!” I thought to myself. I could almost hear the imaginary crickets chirping. Whenever the bus stopped, the doors would open briefly and a fluid stream of people would enter and exit as easily as water flowing through a semipermeable membrane.

My question is this: is the bus half or empty or half full? Can we attribute the difference to the wide variation in behavior between Japanese and American people? Or is it merely a shift in my own mindset as I habituate to this new environment with a large number of people per unit area? It is challenging to tell whether this is just a factor of population density or of inherent cultural differences. Also, where is the engineer in all of this who says that the bus is twice as big as it needs to be? Well, will get to him eventually.

Here’s an example of a prohibition sign… what could it mean? “No, don’t propose on FaceTime, even if the conductor wants to photobomb your proposal” ~ Savannah Cofer

My dad has been visiting Japan this past week, and he has been getting a huge kick out of taking pictures of all the prohibition signs and posting them to Facebook out of context. The general layout is a cryptic drawing with a large “x” over it, leaving us foreigners to wonder what exactly is being prohibited. So far, he has posted over one hundred of these photos. It is amazing that so many things could be not allowed. However, maybe this fun project provides some insight into the seemingly seamless (pun unintended) transportation system in Japan. By establishing a coherent protocol that everyone must follow, inefficiencies are reduced. From standing in specific locations before boarding the subway to reserving the right side of the escalator for walking, there is a methodology for everything.

We tried a Japanese photo booth at an arcade! I think the photo gets more disturbing the longer you look at it. ~ Savannah Cofer

One morning, during peak rush hour, I looked out over a balcony in the JR station into the heart of the crowd. When you are swimming in a sea of humanity everything is elbows and bags and I’m not particularly tall either, so it’s difficult to see the broader currents and riptides that flow. I’ve never seen a crowd like this before. In crowded cities in America, people try to cut through the crowd in whichever direction they like, or occasionally stop and loiter in the middle. Here, every single person walks in a fast, efficient current like a swarm of ants, or cars on a highway. In the same way that you shouldn’t park or swerve around in the middle of the interstate, people tend to follow the same principles when walking.

I am still trying to figure out what factors contribute to the efficiencies of Japan, especially since it seems like America can improve a lot in this area. Maybe it is because of all the “prohibitions”, but I also have another speculation. When I was younger I liked to play around with this freeway interchange simulation software where you could control the speed and quantity of cars and semi-trucks getting on and off an interchange. You could also modify how “aggressive” the drivers are, on average – in other words, being more eager to merge onto the highway. Interestingly, the highest average car throughput per minute was not when the drivers were extremely aggressive and self-centered, because they ended up blocking one another and jostling for space. And when there was extremely low aggression, it was also inefficient because cars would not merge as quickly as they could have. The highest efficiency, as it turned out, was somewhere in the middle.

Enjoying some Matcha green tea and yokan! ~ Savannah Cofer

I wonder if we can apply this car simulation software to the collectivist mentality of the Japanese people. We learned through the cultural seminars about how Japanese culture typically emphasizes the success of the entire group over success of the individual, from industry workplaces to in family life. In the same way that being less self-centered caused the average car throughput to increase, perhaps the efficiency of the Japanese public transportation system has been influenced by the behavior of individual people. Likewise, perhaps the opposite extreme end of the spectrum provides a reason for the almost-paradoxical inefficiencies in Japan. For example, most agree that the extremely prominent omiyange (gift-giving) culture wastes both time and money, yet the behavior persists anyways.

Ok, here is where the engineer finally comes in, who says that the glass of milk is twice as big as it needs to be. It’s one thing to see a half-filled bus in America as half full and a similar bus in Japan as half empty, but I think that the underlying cultures that contribute to these differences can have benefits on both sides. Even though the individualistic perspective has immediate advantages, it can sometimes negatively impact the group as a whole and lead to a noisy, congested bus. On the other hand, extreme collectivism can likewise lead to inefficiencies. Even through just the singular example of public transportation, innate cultural differences are obvious. I am excited to experience working in a Japanese research lab for the next nine weeks and am curious to see what more there is to learn!

Question of the Week
Prof. Saeki’s seminar on Friday made me curious about the fact that everything in Japan seems so cute! Cute drawings of animals, anime people, and even inanimate objects can be personified as something cute. I wonder how Japan became so “kawaii”?

Intro to Science & Engineering Seminar Overview

This week, Prof. Chris Stanton of the University of Florida gave a couple seminars outlining the basics of some of the science and engineering principles we will be using this summer, especially in quantum mechanics. We also learned about the research and cultural experiences of Dr. Gert-Jan Bekker, Prof. Kunie Ishioka, and Prof. Don Futaba, who are currently working in laboratories in Japan.

Prof. Stanton’s talks covered some of the basics behind quantum mechanics, which I have never taken a course in before so it was very useful. He began with the very basics of energy acting as both a particle and a wave, and described applications of these principles in our upcoming research projects. We learned about the band theory of solids, which is applicable for my research because it explains the reason behind some of the interesting SWNT properties due to the different band gaps. In order to make a specific band gap for an application, materials can be modified or combined in alternating layers in order to make a combination of two previously known materials. Professor Stanton also described how lasers work (both the CW laser and pulse laser), which was actually more related to my research at Rice University. Finally, he explained the concepts behind pump-probe spectroscopy, which I was not yet familiar with.

The most useful seminar to me over the course of the three-week orientation was Professor Futaba’s lecture on his research in single walled carbon nanotubes, which is exactly the topic that I will be researching. After explaining the basic types and chiralities of SWNTs, he explained the basic mechanism for CNT growth on a metal catalyst particle and carbon gas. One unique method developed by Prof. Futaba was water assisted CVD, which was actually discovered by accident when he ran a sample of the mica substrate through multiple times, which left behind a small amount of water. He also explained other methods of synthesis, such as floating catalyst CVD and using voltages to align the carbon nanotubes as they grow.

Final Research Questions
Since different types of SWNT applications have different useful properties, there are many, many methods of characterization and analysis. Sheet resistance, porosity, and photovoltaic performance are a few examples common to my lab. I will be working primarily in the synthesis of SWNTs, so I hope to gain a better understanding of “what to look for” in these materials.

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Week 04: First Week at Research Lab

First day at Tokyo University! ~ Savannah Cofer

This week, our wonderful Nakatani family reached its long-dreaded end as we all traveled to our respective research universities. The initial three-week language and culture orientation program was fun, but I’m excited to begin a new chapter at the University of Tokyo for the next nine weeks! I have also particularly appreciated the bountiful access to Wi-Fi in this new location, so that I can read deep and enlightening articles such as “Nano Engineering for Dummies” and “Wiki-How: How to Make Friends (with pictures)”.

While I can’t exactly say that the latter of the articles was particularly helpful to me (Examples include, “Look at their feet…people who have their toes pointing out are more likely to welcome you to join them” or “Consider wearing brightly-colored clothing”), I have definitely enjoyed meeting many new people from all different backgrounds in my lab and in my housing. The Maruyama-Chiashi lab is mostly Japanese, but there are many Chinese students who tend to speak English. There are no Japanese students in my housing, only international students from Thailand, India, China, and Germany. It is an all-girls floor, and they seem to be good friends. Maybe I should edit the Wiki-How article to include some more useful examples from this trip such as insulting each other in Japanese, watching cheesy game shows on late night television, and attempting to grill a banana on a non-nonstick pan (oops).

The banana incident was a little less than apeeling, but for some reason the concept of bananas have invaded my life all week. They seem to be readily purchasable at many locations, unlike most fruit in Japan, so I have been eating many more bananas than usual. Also, my name “Savannah” seems to be very difficult for Japanese to pronounce because of the “V” sound, so I put a picture of a banana on my introductory presentation at the lab group meeting as a mnemonic device. Now everyone can remember my name, or something close to it, but now I’m associated with a banana and it’s driving me bananas.

Struggling to take a self-timer picture with my awesome mentor, Ming and the metal sputtering system. ~ Savannah Cofer

My research mentor, Dr. An, has been at a forum in China for this first week, so I have been working with Ming Liu, who is currently a D1 graduate student. Ming is from China but has already completed her Masters degree at the University of Tokyo, so she has been living in Japan for the past two years and both her Japanese and English are pretty good. Although she is currently working on a different project, some of the equipment and methods of measurement are the same, so she has been teaching me how to synthesize and test CNT samples. I have also been reading specific research papers in order to provide a background for my work. Most of the members of the lab are very willing to help me learn the basics and answer any questions. Although my research project may have had a slow start because of my mentor’s travel, I think it was very beneficial to take the time to look deeper into previous works and methods of characterization.

This week, I also met Ming’s best friend Lisa, who works in a different lab here but is also half Japanese, like me. Lisa went to the United States to attend undergraduate school at the University of Texas, so she has spent considerable time living as a student in both places. In one of my previous reports, I asked a question about life as a woman in science and engineering in Japan, since it is very uncommon here. For Ming and Lisa, they are both one of the only females in the lab (and no females who are Japanese), but neither faced any major challenges. I have not noticed any problematic differences in my first week here, except for the nice benefit of not having to wait in line for the bathroom. However, we are all foreigners, so it is difficult to make any generalizations from our perspective.

One-half Nakatani Fellow reunion at the Iwatayama Monkey Park in Arashiyama! From left to right: Will, myself, Katelyn, Alex, Kaylene, Emily, and Yakub. Oh wait, that’s not Yakub, that’s actually a monkey. ~ Savannah Cofer

Another reason why the “Wiki-How: How to Make Friends (with pictures)” article was not entirely helpful to me is because I have been spending much of my free time with the other Nakatani Fellows. I have a two-week JR pass that expires midway through next week, so I have been making every excuse to ride the (expensive) Shinkansen bullet train and see as much of Japan as possible. Last week, I traveled down to Yokohama one night to hang out with Rose, got trapped in a cemetery at night, and almost missed the last train back by only three minutes. Also, over the weekend, I took a more extended trip down to the Kyoto region and we had a six-out-of-twelve Nakatani Fellows reunion! We went to a monkey park, took a very sweaty hike through Fushimi Inari-taisha (one thousand red gates), and walked through a bamboo forest that reminded me eerily of a growth of single-walled carbon nanotubes. Katelyn, Will, and I stayed in a capsule hotel for the first time, which was surprisingly comfortable and had a lot of amenities.

Looking back on our three-week orientation, I think the program has been extremely helpful and it made the transition to the lab relatively easy. Japanese language has been more valuable than I had anticipated, although my mentors speak English well, and many of the concepts I learned from the seminars have been directly applicable to my current research. I wish I had spent more time studying Chinese during those three weeks, but I am working on that now.

If I were to summarize this past week, I would compare it to a large bunch of fresh bananas. The bananas are mostly green and a bit too young, probably a little bit scared and with varying levels of experience. Together, the bananas develop and ripen with care, and because they are packed tight, they generally grow in the right direction. Bananas hanging on a tree grow just fine, but they don’t reach full ripeness until they are plucked from the tree and separated such that their amino acids begin converting into ethylene gas. The process is never perfect: the bananas might get a little spotted or bruised and they probably don’t know everything that’s going on, but eventually they arrive at the local convenience store and it all seems to work out in the end.

Question of the Week
This week, I kept getting the feeling from some of the Japanese students that they are scared of me, even though I am 5-10 years younger than everyone else in the lab. Am I misinterpreting their non-verbal body language, or could I be doing something wrong (such as talking too loudly or directly)? I usually smile and try to be friendly, but I feel like that sometimes makes it worse.

  • Americans can sometimes come across as too outgoing, friendly, loud/intrusive.  You may want to try a slightly quieter approach and see if perhaps that might work better. But, remember, that it can take time for friendships to develop when you enter a new work/research environment so be patient and see how things develop in the coming weeks.
  •  Try to use your Japanese language skills as a bridge as well.  It may be that they are little shy to speak in English so if you continue to try to talk in Japanese they may become less self-conscious.
  • Research/science can also be a helpful bridge as if you have questions about concepts or projects that are being done in the lab ask if they can help you.
  • Finally, ask for their tips/advice on what to do in and around the area. What restaurants should I try?  Where is the nearest post-office or bakery?  What do you like to do in the evenings or on the weekends when you aren’t in the lab?  What are their hobbies, favorite manga, favorite sports team… what ever. By asking specific questions that they can respond to (even ones you may already know the answer to) you may be able to strike up more in-depth conversations and friendships. 

Research Project Update
This summer, I will be working primarily with Dr. An Hua, Professor Xiang Rong, Ming Liu and Keigo Otsuka on developing a mechanical method of creating micro-honeycomb patterned vertically aligned, single wall carbon nanotubes (VA-SWNT). Most of my time (around 60%) will probably be spent focusing on synthesis, but I also will work on characterizing the new materials and maybe fabricating a few applications, such as in solar cells. However, the specific types of applications will depend heavily on the results of the first tests, so this element is still uncertain.

Previously, members of the Maruyama research group have synthesized SWNTs on a buckypaper surface with a unique honeycomb-like appearance have been synthesized through a repetitive water vapor treatment. After growing a vertically aligned carbon nanotube “forest” on randomly oriented SWNT films, the sample is exposed to vapor around 80C for around five seconds. This treatment process forms the carbon nanotubes into a vertically aggregated, hexagon-looking morphology. This type of material is very useful in SWNT-Si solar cells and has shown a very high fill factor of 72% and a PCE as much as 10%.

There are a number of ways to initially grow these vertically aligned SWNTs on a variety of substrates. This week, I focused on learning to use the equipment in a process using chemical vapor deposition (CVD) on a variety of metal substrates, such as cobalt. This involved using the sputtering machine to deposit a very thin layer of metal particles on a silicon wafer (or a different kind of base, whatever you like). These particles serve as a catalyst upon which the single-walled nanotubes can grow during the CVD process. By changing various conditions (temperature of CVD, rate of gas flow, type of catalyst, etc.), the properties of the carbon nanotubes can be modified. Most of my time this week has been spent learning this process and creating some samples.

Another finding that has been previously demonstrated is mechanically “stamping” these groups of VA-SWNTs. This is just what you probably think it is: make a patterned stamp, then press down in the same direction as the aligned carbon nanotubes. In the same way that society stamps down the dreams and ambitions of young children, stamping the carbon nanotubes is relatively permanent – they continue to stay in that position instead of returning to their original state. In order to fabricate these stamps, which are in a scale of around 10 micrometers, I plan to learn techniques of e-beam and photolithography from students in a different lab next week.

How can this interesting property of VA-SWNT be useful? We don’t really know yet, but one idea is to attempt to synthesize a micro-honeycomb network of carbon nanotubes using this mechanical method, instead of just through water treatment. In water treatment alone, it is more difficult to control the size of the cells and the network is not perfectly geometric, so figuring out how to replicate this material through a more controllable mechanical method could be significant.

Over the course of these next two months, I plan to start by taking a closer look at some of the square-printed VA-SWNT samples that Dr. An has already synthesized and applied a water treatment to. There are a number of aspects that can be characterized, such as sheet resistance or hydrophobicity. The results of these tests and how they are correlated to factors such as CNT height and the scale of the stamp will probably give a better idea of how to model the artificial micro-honeycomb and maybe even better than the material created by water alone. I will probably not have very much time this summer to look at specific applications, but if I miraculously become extremely productive then that would be the next step.

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Week 05: Critical Incident Analysis – Life in Japan

In this weekly report, I was asked to “describe a situation in which you were involved during your time in Japan that illustrates an example of cross-cultural communication that occurred in your daily life in Japan outside of your research host lab or working with your research group… that resolved itself successfully or unsuccessfully.”

Since I’ve known about this writing prompt for a few weeks now, I have been constantly bracing myself for some sort of inevitable but unexpected disaster to strike me sometime in Japan. Luckily, I have not experience any major catastrophes… so far. Despite my relatively good fortune in this area, I feel like almost every interaction I have has some nontrivial level of struggle, a crazy agglomeration of Japanese and English and a whole lot of hand waving. Since my foretold disaster is still yet to come, I’m just going to talk about a minor incident in the most dramatic and pretentious way possible.

It was a clear and temperate night, the air rich with urban energy and the full moon glowing lustrously in the Tokyo sky. Magnificent skyscrapers rose up around us in the heart of the city, millions of lights reflecting of the smooth surface of the Sumida River. I stood tranquilly on the bridge beside two other Nakatani Fellows, Rose and Josh, and together we contemplated the tremendous beauty of the Japan and the unique opportunities that lay before us. As my breath was taken away by this exhilarating scenery, only one thought remained in my mind. “Dude, this would make a really good Instagram picture”.

Nevertheless, such a simple task in the age of digital photography proved to be a slightly less than straightforward. How could we include all three of our very good-looking faces in the picture without invoking the suboptimal “selfie” option? I pondered this question for a brief moment before I reached my final realization of what I must do: ask someone else to take our picture. There was truly no better way of maintaining my aesthetic yet edgy online profile without capturing the lovely Tokyo nightlife.

It is quite the happy occurrence, I thought to myself, that we actually learned that exact phrase in Japanese Language class. All I had to do was ask a stranger, “shashin o totte mo ii desuka?” which translates directly to “A picture, is it okay to take?” After spotting an older businessman in a full suit and tie walking across the bridge, I confidently walked up and asked if he could take a picture of us, paying close attention to my pronunciation.

The man gasped, eyes widening in horror, as he took a sudden step away from me and clutched his suitcase tightly to his chest. “Daijoubu,” he gasped, which means, “it’s okay”. This phrase can be used as both a yes and a no, depending on context, and in this case it was a definitive no. As he turned and quickly walked away, our small group just stared at each other in amazement. What just happened? Maybe I approached him too suddenly, or maybe it was too late at night, or maybe I used too assertive a tone of voice.

The final product of our labor, part one. After a difficult experience attempting to ask strangers to take our photo, we finally managed this shot. ~ Savannah Cofer

Soon after, a casually dressed young man seemed to be making his way unhurriedly across the bridge. “He seems like an approachable target,” I thought to myself, determined to fix my mistakes and snap that perfectly aesthetic photo. This time I shuffled out cautiously, bowing politely and asking in a gentle tone of voice, “Sumimasen, shashin o totte mo ii desuka?” Despite my careful demeanor, the response this time was no better than the first. The young man recoiled slightly, shook his head no, and made an exit even hastier than the first.  I had asked as nicely as I possibly could, so this time I knew I must have made a Japanese mistake. Consulting Google-sensei, I finally made a shocking realization: I had not actually asked them to take our picture; I had actually asked if I could take a picture of them! It’s no wonder that everyone was horrified! As it turns out, the correct response would have been, “shashin o totte morae masu ka”.

After finally realizing my mistake, we finally were able to ask yet another stranger and she happily obliged our picture. Unfortunately, my face appeared a tad too greasy for my liking in the photograph, so the world will never see the hard-earned product of our labor. Perhaps the most rewarding accomplishments are those unseen by man. (Edit: This statement is false, as I have now decided to include the picture in this report). However, this slightly awkward situation made for a great learning experience, and I am certain that I will never make that mistake again.

Hip-hop dance, with all the hop but unfortunately no hip. ~ Savannah Cofer

On a different note, I think that this week as a whole has been full of many great memories, even despite the challenges. My mentor has finally arrived this week so my research is moving along more quickly, and I’ve been getting to know more of the other students in the lab. My welcome party was this past Wednesday and it was fun meeting some of the master’s students who usually work in one of the other rooms. Their English is not as proficient, so talking with the master’s students is a good opportunity to practice my language and hopefully fix some of my common mistakes. Josh and I also joined a hip-hop dance group at the University of Tokyo! I am not very good but it was a lot of fun and I really look forward to dancing with them again soon. There may have been a lot of “almost-critical incidents”, but I’m glad that my disaster is holding off for now.

Question of the Week
I am always amazed with how wasteful the packaging in Japan appears. Many products, especially food items, are contained within many, many layers of extraneous wrapping. Why does this behavior continue to occur in one of the most environmentally conscious countries in the world?

  • Keep in mind that Japan has some of the highest recycling rates in the world; especially for plastic.  Anything that can be recycled is separated out into many different categories of trash and put out at a very specific spot on the curb, at a specific time, on a specific day so that it can go to the proper recycling facility.
  • Trash that cannot be recycled is usually burned and the heat is capture and transformed into energy.  The waste from the incineration process is then used to build new land.
  • There are actually usually neighborhood trash monitors who will scold you if you fail to separate your trash properly.  There are many funny blogs about foreigners living in Japan who must try to adhere to the very complex and difficult trash and recycling rules.  Deciding how to throw things away in Japan is so difficult in large part because of the strict attention to recycling and this is often why many Japanese students who come to the U.S. ask the exact same question, “Why are American’s so wasteful? You throw all trash into one bin and all recycling into a second bin but how does that work?. Sometimes there isn’t even a recycling bin to use. Don’t  American’s care about the environment???”
  • For more, see the articles on Trash and Recycling in Japan.

Research Project Update  

The almost-final product of our labor, part two. These are samples of VA-CNT grown on silicon wafers, but before the stamping and water treatment process. ~ Savannah Cofer

Overview: This was the first week of working with my actual mentor, Dr. An Hua, who seems to be the primary expert with regards to my specific project. We began synthesis and some testing. My timeline for the next few weeks is slightly disrupted by availability: I will be in San Francisco at the 2017 Google Scholars program from Saturday (6/17) to Wednesday (6/21), but I will work remotely on a mechanical design (CAD-based) project while away and also make up lost time on the weekend when I return. This works well, because Google has a few fabrication tools that I can use that are not easily accessible at the University of Tokyo. My mentor will be back in China the full week of June 26, during which I plan to work with Otsuka-san on creating a patterned template using photolithography.

After working with Liu Ming during the first week to learn the basics of necessary tools in the lab and doing background research, I began material synthesis with my mentor. As described in last week’s report, the objective of my project is to combine the water-vapor treatment method in vertically aligned single walled carbon nanotubes (VA-SWNT) with mechanical patterning to replicate the natural micro-honeycomb (m-HN) hexagonal structure. This week, I began synthesizing a few different initial samples in order to prepare for testing a variety of characteristics. Previously, m-HN networks have been shown to exhibit interesting properties such as low sheet resistance, high optical transmittance, and increased hydrophobicity. By measuring these properties in a variety of new materials, it might be possible to optimize the structural and chemical properties for many different real-life applications.

The first step of synthesizing this type of VA-SWNT is through chemical vapor deposition (CVD) using a metal catalyst to regulate the growth of carbon nanotubes. This week, I used the dip-coating technique to add a thin-film Mo/Co metal layer (as a catalyst) on the surface of two different substrates: silicon and glass. Silicon is a very commonly used substrate as it is very “clean” and yields high-purity VA-SWNTs, but the glass has the advantage of transparency and thus can be used to measure optical transmittance. Both metal sputtering (which I used last week) and dip coating can be used to add a thin metal layer. Metal sputtering typically yields a more even metal distribution, but it is also complicated and very time consuming. I will probably be using the dip coating method more frequently because it is very simple: immerse the substrate in a metal particle solution for a specified period of time, and then carefully remove with a constant force. As the solvent (ethanol) evaporates, metal particles are deposited on the substrate.

After preparing the catalyst layer, I used CVD at 800C with ethanol gas to grow the VA-SWNT on the surface of the two different substrates. Hopefully, I will be able to use the chemical vapor deposition machine on my own soon. Since the hexagonal stamp is not yet (to mimic the natural made pattern), I used a square pattern which Dr. An had already tested with. Finally, I applied the water treatment method 25 times to the sample. At each point of the process, SEM images were taken to reveal the morphology of the sample.

While SEM imaging indicated that the patterning seemed to help the formation of vertical aggregated walls, the sample was not very consistent and this may have been due to errors in the pressing method (which was by hand). In order to fix this problem, I will be using Autodesk Fusion 360 to CAD design a mechanical press, and fabricate it next week at Google in Mountainview, California. To further characterize these synthesized materials, I plan to conduct sheet resistance, transmittance, and hydrophobicity tests. Finally, various types of hexagonal stamps will need to be fabricated using e-beam and photolithography in order to test a variety of cell sizes and wall thicknesses. I look forward to seeing if these new tests are successful!

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Week 06: Preparation for Mid-Program Meeting

At the Google Headquarters, “stimulating creativity” in an adult-size ball pit. ~ Savannah Cofer

This week, I went back to the United States! I spent four days in Mountainview, California for the 2017 Google Scholars Program (this is a $10,000 academic scholarship along with personal/professional development training). Even though it was the perfect length of time to get acclimated to the time change right before flying back, it was still a valuable cultural experience and I was able to continue my research while abroad and utilize some of the fabrication tools available at the Google Headquarters!

I have heard from a couple previous Nakatani fellows that the transition back to America is even more shocking than arriving in Japan for the first time, and now I can confirm firsthand that that is 100% true. I’ve only lived in Japan for six weeks so far, but it feels like much, much longer. Little parts of life  – getting involved in a couple student clubs, settling in with a group of friends at my lab and dorm, and finally figuring out the transportation system – have made Japan feel much more like home and I am surprised how quickly I have adjusted here. My stomach seems to have changed as well: I went to In-and-Out burger with a friend from Palo Alto and promptly felt sick for the next eight hours. Where’s the rice?

The San Francisco airport is loud, brightly colored, and not nearly as clean. As I stumbled through the airport a post-flight daze, I asked Asian-American security guard at the gate for directions… in Japanese. “What? Do you know English?” she said, clearly taken aback. “Um, yeah… how do you get to the shuttle?” I was so embarrassed that I even hardly heard her response, and instead opted to turn bright red and replay the awkward scene over and over in my head as I quickly scooted away. On a similar note, I have noticed that the habit of bowing slightly to people is very easy to make and very difficult to break. When everyone is bowing to you, all the time, it begins to come instinctively. Likewise, I forgot that Americans like to smile widely (with all the teeth) and make eye contact with every stranger on the street. Again, I am surprised and a little scared how quickly I have adjusted to Japan.

There are a couple other minor differences that seemed to stand out on my excursion to America. The first is diversity. People in my lab often ask me about American cuisine (besides hamburger), and I never know what to say because most restaurants are based on styles from other countries – Mexican, Italian, Chinese, French, Mediterranean, and frequently a blend of multiple places. In high school, my robotics team would sometimes travel to competitions hosted in rural midwestern towns, and it would make a few of my teammates uncomfortable because they were the only non-white people present. There may still be issues in racial equality, but coming back to a city as diverse in culture as San Francisco highlighted to me that I had been taking such a unique opportunity for granted.

Another difference that has often come up in discussions among Nakatani fellows is America’s car based society. The public transportation system in Japan is so efficient, why don’t we use it? Whenever I use Google Maps in Tokyo, if the driving time from point A to point B is 5 minutes, the subway time is around the same (or shorter), and the walking time is perhaps 7-8 minutes. When I was in San Francisco, I wanted to stop by Target to buy some peanut butter, and nice toothpaste (these are rare items). The GPS said it was just a 5-minute drive down the road, a straight path, so I decided that I might as well walk. This was a mistake. Not only was it the hottest day in San Francisco this summer at 102 degrees Fahrenheit, but also it ended up taking me 45 minutes. This is because I was walking along a large street where cars were traveling at 60+ mph, and “just down the road” does not necessarily mean close in proximity. At least the peanut butter was worth it!

Finally, the scholarship program at Google allowed me four days explore and ask questions about the work environment at a large Silicon Valley company. From the personal lives of employees to the general company values, many aspects were polar opposites of what I had observed in Japan. Most at Google work long hours (12+ per day), but there is a great deal of thought and money put into the physical/mental well being of employees: workout centers, beach volleyball on campus, comfy spaces for “creativity”, and an overabundance of healthy food that is entirely paid for by the company. This may be an atypical work environment even in America, but seems to be a growing trend especially in the tech industry. We received many presentations loaded with buzzwords like “innovation”, “hacking”, and doing something that has “never been done before”. Interestingly, I have heard the last one used multiple times at the Maruyama lab in Japan as the reason for NOT doing something: “It’s never been done before… so we don’t know whether it will work or not”. This is different from my lab at Rice University, where students are encouraged to try something new and crazy even if it ends up as a failure. There are probably lessons to be learned on both sides: sometimes it is necessary to balance chaos and practicality.

Posing for a group photo with futsal players at UTokyo! This is not everyone: we actually had around 20-25 players total. ~ Savannah Cofer

In addition to continuing my research upon returning, I also had the opportunity to join a futsal league at Tokyo University! It is like soccer, except in a hard floor gym with small goals and fewer people per side. I have been playing soccer ever since learned how to walk, so it was really nice to do something familiar and comfortable to me. Also, all soccer players across the world are fully bilingual in both their home language and profanity, the latter of which is used primarily during games. The main difference in Japan is that girls here either do not play soccer or not competitively, so I was always placed on the side with additional people (basically playing 4 vs. 5, or 5 vs. 6). Even though I am only average in skill compared to most of my female teammates back home, playing one person down makes a big difference regardless. As a result, whichever team I was on won almost every match (often very definitively), which meant that my team continued to stay on the field. Of course, this was very frustrating for everybody involved, so after two hours we finally switched to equal teams and it worked much better from that point on. This probably doesn’t count as my “biggest accomplishment” so far, but I do admit it felt pretty good to actually be able to prove myself.

My actual answer to my biggest accomplishment would be this: one of my main goals this trip was to become more integrated in Japanese culture and language and gain a deeper understanding of the thought processes that drive industry and academia. I think that this past trip revealed to me that I might have learned more than I thought I had before. Now, it is easier to understand the roots of general trends among people and differing perspectives towards teamwork, leadership, innovation, efficiency, and long-term goals.

The right side reads “Welcome to Japan”, the left side reads “Okaerinasai”, or “Welcome Home”. ~ Savannah Cofer

For my biggest challenge: this is an obstacle universal to any research endeavor, but I have to pay particular attention to collaborating with others and gaining independence to work on my own. This was mentioned briefly in the first report, but my research mentor was in China for the entire first week, I missed some time this past week, and she will be in China again this coming week. This means that I will only have been with my mentor for 6 days in total before the mid-program meeting. This is challenging because I have to take initiative and ask others in the group to teach me how to use equipment or for advice on my project, and many are busy. On one hand it is good to learn to be more independent, but I may not accomplish as much in the end.

When I arrived back in Japan after four days in America, I noticed something in the airport that I was not able to understand my first time to Japan. Right before the security exit was a sign printed on the right side in English, “Welcome to Japan”. On the left side was Japanese: “Okaerinasai” which means “Welcome Home”. Six weeks ago, I did not understand the left side of the sign. This time, it almost brought a tear to my eye. Much of my extended family lives in Japan, but to me it was a distant, confusing, and overwhelmingly foreign land that I had nothing to do with. Now, I can read both sides of the sign. “Welcome to Japan”. “Welcome Home”.

I forgot to mention this in the report, but Josh and I also went to a Western art museum in Ueno this week. Like bowing, it turns out that dabbing is also a contagious habit. ~ Savannah Cofer

Question of the Week

This is a question probably best answered through further research and browsing the all-knowing Google sensei: how does the Japanese attitude towards risk-taking affect technological innovation on a large scale? Japan is thriving in the field of advanced technology, such as in the electronics and automotive industry, and is known for creating extremely high-quality products. What are the primary factors that affect the nature of large Japanese and American tech corporations?

  • In Japan, the economy is still largely dominated by large companies many of whom are the subsidiaries or off-shots of the historical Zaibatsu, which were industrial and financial business conglomerates whose influence and size allowed control over significant parts of the Japanese economy from the Meiji period until the end of World War II. While the power of the zaibatsu was broken up following WWII, many large companies in Japan are still family owned and run and quite large.  For example, Toyota Motor Corp. actually originated as a textile and weaving machinery company in 1896 and then, under the company name Toyoda Automatic Loom Works, the founder’s son used profits from that company to develop a prototype automobile in 1935 and, in 1936 the company name was changed to Toyota.   Today, Akiyo Toyoda, the grandson of the founder, is president of the company. Japan also has the largest number of the world’s oldest companies. This means they may take a more conservative/long view of investment and innovation and their size makes it difficulty to quickly adapt to market and consumer changes.
  • However, the longevity of companies in Japan means that they have been very effective at investing in innovation/improvement over time, known as kaizen, and this business and manufacturing principle has been used as a reason that Japanese automakers and technology companies (e.g. Sony, Toyota, etc.) were able to build superior products at lower costs and came to dominate the consumer market in the U.S. in the 1980s and 1990s.  Kaizen has been the focus of numerous books and has been a topic of study at most business schools worldwide, including this HBS case study.  Today, the Kaizen philosophy with Six Sigma is used in many industries.
  • Therefore, Japan is a locus for innovation, but it tends to focus on incremental improvements to existing products and/or logical next steps in the development of technology (e.g. Sony cassette walkmans, to portable CD players, to MP3 players, etc.). However, when there are huge jumps in technology, such as the leapfrogging that has been done to cloud based computing in the past 5 years, then Japan’s technological innovation can seem a bit slow to catch up as Japanese companies tend to be hardware based.

Research Project Update

Summary: My research this week consisted of two main objectives: design and fabricate a VA-SWNT press, and measure the sheet resistance and transmittance of the first round of samples. I used fabrication tools at the Googleplex to build the press, and plan to use it for our second set of samples. Back the lab, I measured transmittance over the UV-IR spectrum for the quartz sample and began to create a metal mask to measure sheet resistance, which will be finished by next week.

Previously, after growing VA-SWNT on a silicon wafer through CVD and dip coating in Co/Mo metal catalyst, I attempted manually pressing a pattern (1 micron diameter circles spaced 1 micron apart) and then applying 5 seconds of water treatment 25 times. This water treatment process used the same methods that seemed to yield good results for unpatterned VA-SWNTs. While the patterning seemed to cause the vertically aggregated walls to appear more evenly spaced in some places, it only showed good results in a very small part of the sample but most of the sample appeared smudged or had collapsed SWNTs. In order to attempt to solve this problem, I designed and fabricated a mechanical press to accurately press the entire pattern and evenly distribute the force. Even though I tried to be as careful as possible just using my hands, it seemed like automation was necessary.

In order to make this apparatus, I used Autodesk Fusion 360, which is a computer-aided design (CAD). The final design consists of three separate printed components: a base with four supporting pillars attached, a removable lid, and a moving stage. The pillars can be reinforced with single threaded screws through the center of the column, which securely attaches the lid. I considered 3D printing lead screws and nuts as well (there are a few open-source models available), but was concerned about precision. Since 3D printing is an additive process, as opposed to molding, it is sometimes difficult to make smooth, precise edges in places that have a lot of detail. Instead, I ordered four lead screws from Amazon Prime in the United States and had them delivered to my hotel in San Francisco. Also, since it was difficult for me to find access to machining tools at Tokyo University, I contacted a couple engineers working at the Google headquarters and they gave me access to a fabrication maker-space called the “Garage”. This allowed me to turn my computer-generated designs into a real life apparatus.

In the picture, you might notice that there is a funny mistake. The CAD designs indicate that the patterns should be placed on the base plate, and the VA-SWNT wafer should be mounted to the downward facing side of the stage. However, I accidentally designed the lead screw nuts to be placed on the wrong side of the stage, so the press moves in the opposite direction. This was not a big problem because the stage can be simply flipped and the VA-SWNTs mounted to the “ceiling”. This discrepancy is only between the computer-generated design and the actual use of the device, and the quick fix ended up working just fine.

Back at the Maruyama lab, I also continued to work on measuring the properties of some of the previously synthesized materials. Dr. Wang Qing, a post-doc in my lab, is helping me measure the sheet resistance (four-probe). This is not completed yet, but we have made a metal mask so far. My mentor Dr. An Hua taught me how to use the UV-vis-NIR spectrometer in order to measure transmittance through a sample of VA-SWNT on quartz that we made last week. In both the treated and untreated samples, transmittance is slightly improved by patterning. Overall, water treatment improved optical transmittance (this has been demonstrated in previous papers as well).

Yesterday, I tested the new stamping apparatus on a growth of VA-SWNT with seven different patterns on a single sheet. Previously, this was not possible because it is not easy to maintain a constant force across multiple tests when pressing by hand. Another reason for creating a mechanical press is being able to provide an accurate comparison between different patterns: I hope to find out which pattern yields the most favorable results in order to design a new one that is more specialized. The next step is performing water treatment and evaluating the properties (sheet resistance and hydrophobicity). However, the initial SEM images seem to look much better than the first try because the stamping is visible through most of the sample, not just a tiny area. I am excited to see how it turns out! 

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Week 07: Overview of Mid-Program Meeting & Research Host Lab Visit

Fun fact – one of the top English phrases that you can use pertaining to weather is, “It’s really coming down out there!” ~ Savannah Cofer

In a nod to my first weekly report, I’m going to tell another little story that I feel reflects the essence of my Japan experience so far.

Anyone familiar with my previous reports should be very well acquainted by now with the fact that I love milk, or any dairy products for that matter. In the past few weeks, I have enjoyed incorporating my beloved milk, cheese, yogurt, and butter components into my cooking and channeling my inner Paula Deen, who was portrayed on SNL as rolling into an interview while chowing down on an entire stick of butter. I considered bringing a stick or two to my Mid-Program presentation as a light snack, but in the spirit of materials engineering I decided to instead bring half the periodic table in the form of a 99c box of Kraft Mac n Cheese.

Let’s be clear – this is not regular, boring old macaroni and cheese, the kind made from the stuff that comes out of the udders of actual cows. No, I’m talking about the bright orange powder that probably exhibits some sort of fluorescence if you shine a laser at it. The kind I purchased was even shaped like Star Wars characters, so I felt validated in walking 45 minutes in 100+ degree California heat to buy a package (see Week 6 report). I hoped to make the Kraft Mac n Cheese together with the other Nakatani fellows when we were all together on July 4th, perhaps as a tongue-in-cheek celebration of American culture. Meanwhile, Katelyn planned to make us all Jell-O in red, white, and blue.

Now, I wouldn’t consider myself an inexperienced chef by any means, but even the epitome of an easy-to-make food item is really, really tricky to make when you don’t have access to any cooking equipment. It takes a little bit of creativity. I’ve been cooking up a storm at my housing these past few weeks since we have a nicely stocked kitchen, but we were limited to a hot water heater and a few plastic bowls at our hotel in Kyoto. I tried to get some butter at a local convenience store, but all they had was margarine. I tried to drain the water from the pasta best I could, but sloshing the wet noodles from one tiny bowl to another just doesn’t make the cut. Katelyn’s Jell-O turned out surprisingly well, but my Mac n Cheese turned out to be a lukewarm watery soup, with partially disintegrated Yoda heads floating in a fluorescent orange emulsion.

Unfortunately, the Star Wars Kraft Mac n Cheese was not a success. We will try again at a later date. ~ Savannah Cofer

The next problem was disposal. We couldn’t exactly throw the entire concoction in the little hotel room trashcan, and finding public waste bins is very difficult in Japan. There was only one option: flush it all down the toilet. In all my life, I would have never imagined watching Will dressed in his yukata, shoveling macaroni down a hotel room toilet with chopsticks at two o’clock in the morning. I laughed so hard that I woke up Josh, who walked into our room and was startled to see me rolling on the floor with tears streaming down my face. At least Japanese toilets have the “ookii flush” (big flush) option.

(Nakatani RIES Note: For future participants, please don’t flush anything down the toilet in Japan but toilet paper.  While toilets may have an oki flush option, pipes are all one size and the plumbing in the building may be much older (i.e. smaller pipes) thank you might think. If you flush anything other than toilet paper down the toilet you run the risk of clogging/backing up the pipes and you definitely do not want to be that hotel/ryokan guest that causes a huge headache for the hotel manager. Even in the U.S. you should only flush toilet paper as our own plumbing and water filtration/treatment plants are designed to only deal with waste and toilet paper. Other items, such as wet wipes, can cause huge problems.)

If there’s one thing I learned from the Mid-Program Meeting, it is that we’ve all had to overcome challenges in both our research and in life. There are so many things that used to be simple, like making Kraft Mac n Cheese or disposing of waste, that are much more difficult now. I’ve made little mistakes, sometimes even big mistakes, but instead of becoming frustrated or discouraged you have to just laugh it off and find the joy in your struggle. You can choose to live an easy life, but that’s boring. I think that in the past two months, I’ve learned to just go with the flow, be creative, and always try my best. Of course, sometimes life can be poopy, but you just flush it all down the toilet and start again with nothing but an empty bowl and a funny story to show for it.

Right before the Mid-Program Meeting, I accidentally dropped a sample that I had been working on synthesizing for the past three days into a beaker of water. Watching the film of carbon nanotubes slowly sink to the bottom made me almost sick to my stomach because I knew how hard I had worked to make that little square of sample. I may have ended up with nothing but an empty bowl in my hands to show for my labor, but the knowledge I had gained from the synthesis process was far from empty. It’s about finding strength in your weakness, which sounds like a paradox but actually makes a lot of sense once you’ve experienced it.

Once all the US Nakatani Fellows arrived in Kyoto, Sarah-san and Prof. Kono lead a discussion about our first four weeks in our respective research labs. Some of us are in more English-speaking environments, some of us have made friends with lab members or roommates, and some of us have felt lonely or discouraged or lacking money or lacking motivation. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to get involved in extracurricular clubs at the University of Tokyo and bonding with my international roommates and lab mates. I also live very close to Josh and only one hour away from Rose in Yokohama, so we have been spending a lot of time together. Overall, my experience in Tokyo has been absolutely amazing, but all of us have had to flush our metaphorical Mac n Cheese down the toilet at some point in time.

When you caught a yukata, you gotta do what ya oughta. (I’m writing this at 4:43am the night before the deadline, it was funny at the time) ~ Savannah Cofer

Being reunited with the other Nakatani Fellows was a lot of fun, and again the Nakatani program organizers never fail to impress me with how much time and thought they put into coordinating an awesome agenda for us all. We were each fitted for a beautiful Japanese yukata (that we got to keep as a souvenir!) and participated in a Japaense tea ceremony, toured research buildings at Kyoto University and at the Sysmex Corporation, and visited traditional shrines and cultural arts centers. The five days in Kyoto were packed with many activities, and of course lots of good food. For anyone reading this online and considering applying to the Nakatani Fellowship – you definitely should. The Nakatani program puts incredible thought, care, and personal mentorship into every student to create an experience unlike anything I could have had on my own. And, for all the program organizers who are reading this, thank you for everything. I definitely don’t say that enough.

I’m going to end this week with a quote from my butter-loving inspiration, Paula Deen. “I am so blessed. I’ve been way over-blessed. At 64 years old, I look forward to going to bed every night so I can wake up in the morning and see what blessing is going to come my way that day. Because you never, ever know what God’s got in store for you”.

Mid-Program Meeting Research Presentation

The 2017 Nakatani RIES U.S. Fellows, some Japanese Fellows, and a few alumni at their Mid-Program Meeting Research Intro Presentations held at Kyoto University on July 3, 2017.

As part of the Mid-Program Meeting, on Monday, July 3 our 12 U.S. Fellows gave an presentation at Kyoto University introducing their research project and future plans. Savannah presented on the research she is doing in the Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, Maruyama-Chiashi Laboratory at the University of Tokyo entitled “Patterning Vertical Aligned Single Walled Carbon Nanotubes”. Click here to download a PDF of her presentation.

Question of the Week
Is rice healthy? This is a topic of much debate.

Research Project Update
This research update is a bit shorter than previous updates because of the Mid-Program meeting, but I think this past week has been important for the progress of my project. Previously, I synthesized a few samples of VA-SWNT on silicon substrates using chemical vapor deposition (CVD) and using Mo/Co dip coating as a metal catalyst for the carbon nanotubes to grow. After pressing a number of micron-scale patterns mechanically and treating the surface with water vapor, I was able to take a general look at the morphology of the synthesized material using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and determine some of the problems with the most recent round of samples just through appearance. This allowed me to begin this past week to modify a few conditions and begin synthesizing some new and improved samples. Unfortunately, I have still not been completed the process of finding the sheet resistance of all the different samples, which I hope to do as soon as possible.

One interesting thing that I found through SEM imaging of the first round of samples is that the pattern did not leave a significant enough indentation to impact the assembly of aggregated vertical walls. This “micro-honeycomb” network is desirable because it improves the power conversion efficiency for use in solar cells, compared to random CNT, and I am hoping that the patterning might allow us to mechanically control the size of these honeycomb cells. However, there was only a small amount of aggregation in the most recent tests and it was not very well controlled at all. By looking visually at the SEM images, it seems like there are a couple contributing factors to this problem. The most obvious is the height of the carbon nanotubes compared to the height of the pattern. The carbon nanotubes are around 10 microns in height, while the pattern is only 1-2 microns, so it was not physically able to leave a strong enough indentation. Second, since the micro-patterns have been used multiple times for different applications before, they are starting to experience wear and look “dirty” because of previous materials getting stuck. Third, I accidentally double-stamped when using the new stamping machine, which is sad because that was 100% my fault. Hopefully I won’t do that next time.

This past week, after the Mid-Program meeting, I started synthesizing another round of samples. Even though the basic process of making VA-SWNT is slightly labor intensive, starting fresh will allow me to make a few changes that seemed to be a problem in the past. I used the same metal catalyst application method (it’s not perfect, but metal sputtering is still an option if catalyst distribution is an issue). When growing the carbon nanotubes, I had previously run ethanol (EtOH) in the CVD for five minutes at 800C since this is generally standard protocol for creating 10 micron vertically aligned carbon nanotubes. This time, I ran EtOH for only 30 seconds in order to shorten the height of the VA-SWNT. In order to solve the patterning problem, I will be working with Otsuka-san and a few other members of the lab on e-beam lithography in order to create replacement patterns and also make a few of my own. I have been working on applying C++ macros to the LayoutEditor software to create tessellating hexagons with easily modifiable parameters. Finally, I’m still playing around with the stamper and designed a couple ways of either motorizing the machine or applying more torque. Finding physical supplies in Japan is really tricky, though.

Overall, even though the results of the previous tests were far from perfect, I think it provided good information on which direction to head. My mentor, Dr. An, has returned from China and she has been able to provide helpful guidance in this area. My next plans include analysis of sheet resistance, continued synthesis of VA-SWNT, and patterning using lithography.

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Week 08: Research in Japan vs. Research in the U.S.

Coming this summer!

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Week 09: Reflections on Japanese Language Learning

Coming this summer!

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Week 10: Interview with Japanese Researcher

Coming this summer!

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Week 11: Critical Incident Analysis – In the Lab

Coming this summer!

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Week 12: Final Week at Research Lab

Coming this summer!

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Week 13: Final Report

Coming this summer!

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Follow-on Project

Coming this summer!

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Tips for Future Participants

Coming this summer!

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