Rice University’s award-winning NanoJapan program wins $4M grant
Undergraduate program combines study-abroad, research experiences
BY JADE BOYD
Rice News staff
Rice University’s award-winning undergraduate summer research program NanoJapan will soon expand, thanks to a new five-year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
NanoJapan, which is open to students from all U.S. universities, combines a traditional study-abroad experience in Japan with a targeted undergraduate research internship in nanotechnology. The program was created in 2005 with funding from the NSF’s Partnerships for International Research and Education (PIRE) initiative, which awarded a new five-year grant this month for continued support of the program.
“The status of the United States in science and engineering is changing,” said NanoJapan founder Junichiro Kono, professor in electrical and computer engineering and of physics and astronomy at Rice.
“More and more people outside the U.S. are doing cutting-edge research,” said Kono, the principal investigator on the NanoJapan grant. “Graduate students today are more likely to succeed if they are prepared to work in a cross-cultural, multinational environment, and that is one area where NanoJapan is particularly successful.”
Kono and NanoJapan co-principal investigator Cheryl Matherly, assistant provost for global education at the University of Tulsa, said NanoJapan is unique, in part, because it targets freshmen and sophomores.
“Most programs like this target juniors, seniors and graduate students,” said Matherly, who co-founded NanoJapan while serving as assistant dean of students for career and international education at Rice. “Our idea was that we wanted to touch students at a point when there was still time that they could do something with this information.”
Kono goes to great lengths to ensure that every NanoJapan student intern — 16 each summer — has a successful research experience. Kono personally visits each host lab prior to the students’ arrival. He also gets weekly reports from each student and makes a point of regularly telephoning faculty hosts to make certain the students’ research progresses regularly throughout their 12-week stay in Japan.
Although research and technology are heavily emphasized — all the student interns arriving in Japan have a three-week crash course in nanotechnology before going to their individual laboratories — Kono, Matherly and NanoJapan participants said the program’s language and cultural programs are what truly set NanoJapan apart.
Matthew Diasio, a Sid Richarson junior who interned at Hokkaido University this summer, said he focused heavily on the research component of the experience before leaving for Japan. “I was interested in learning about Japanese culture, but I guess I thought, ‘Oh well, that will just happen naturally.'”
In fact, the cultural orientation for NanoJapan interns begins the day before they leave the U.S., when the group meets for a session that, as one participant said, “ensured that we weren’t totally shocked when we arrived in Tokyo.”
Once in Tokyo, the students undergo three weeks of intensive language training — three hours a day — and this is complemented with field trips to important cultural sites like the Daibutsu at Kamakura and to cultural events, including sumo wrestling.
“This was my first time outside of the country, and it was a really nice experience to be thoroughly saturated in a new and different culture,” said Nicholas Riggall, a Will Rice junior who interned this summer at RIKEN, a national laboratory in Saitama. “The most fulfilling aspect for me was the realization that even though it’s a completely different culture — it doesn’t get much more different than Japan — I was still able to get comfortable and meet people. I was able to make friends who spoke virtually no English.”
Kono said the new NSF grant will allow NanoJapan to expand its internships beyond nanotechnology and into the field of terahertz science. The study of terahertz radiation, also known as t-rays or submillimeter radiation, is a hot topic in research laboratories worldwide because of potential uses in airport security scanners and a number of other cutting-edge technologies as well as in fundamental studies of a variety of low-energy excitations of charge, spin and vibrations in nanomaterials.
“The U.S. and Japan are both leaders in terahertz science, and this will give our students a chance to participate firsthand,” Kono said.
The NanoJapan research experience clearly makes a lasting impression on participants. Many program alumni have opted for follow-up internships or go on to graduate studies in science and engineering.
Kevin Chu, a Wiess sophomore who interned at the University of Tokyo, said, “In high school chemistry classes, you’re given a little cookbook. You follow the procedures step by step, and you get the results that millions of others have gotten. But in my lab in Tokyo, I was able to design my own experiment and carry it out and produce some really nice results. That kind of independence was tremendous.”
NanoJapan was honored at the United Nations in 2008 with an Andrew Heiskell Award for Innovation in International Education. The award, which was given by the Institute of International Education, recognized NanoJapan for “Best Practice in Study Abroad.”
Kono said the continued support and recognition of the program are welcome but not nearly as gratifying as the impact that the program has made in the lives of students.
Diasio said he expects the friendships that he formed this summer to last for many years. “My mentor and another graduate student from the lab that I was in are going to be at Rice in the fall, and we’re all very excited because now I get to return the favor and show them Houston and America.”
Other co-principal investigators and senior personnel for the new PIRE grant include Pulickel Ajayan, Rice’s Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and of chemistry; Rui-Rui Du, professor of physics and astronomy at Rice; Daniel Mittleman, professor in electrical and computer engineering at Rice; Jonathan Bird, professor of electrical engineering, and Vladimir Mitin, distinguished professor of electrical engineering, both of the State University of New York at Buffalo; Christopher Stanton, professor of physics at the University of Florida; Alexey Belyanin, professor of physics and astronomy at Texas A&M University; and Saikat Talapatra, assistant professor of physics, and Aldo Migone, professor of physics, both of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.