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

Coming this summer!

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Week 06: Preparation for Mid-Program Meeting

Coming this summer!

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

Coming this summer!
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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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