5 years of President Satomi : A Grounded Approach

In August 2017, Team Sentinel interviewed President Susumu Satomi of Tohoku University. President Satomi’s presidency shall come to an end with this academic year. He speaks about his fondest memories, idea of internationalisation and the revival of Tohoku University post-2011.

Q1) You became the President of the university in 2012, the year following the Tohoku Disaster. What were some of the challenges that you faced then and how did you overcome them?

When I assumed Presidency, the campus was still damaged from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. At that time, we were working on both restoration and reconstruction of the campus. We were also working on the location to set up the new campus for the School of Agriculture. Around the same time, I developed the Tohoku University Broad vision at that time which consisted of the Satomi vision and the Faculty vision. It was also necessary to inspire and motivate the students and the faculty who lost their positivity. So, I asked one of the alumni members, Kazumasa Oda, to write a new song for the university. This is how the song Midori no Oka came to being. This made students revive their positive spirit which subsequently translated into them winning the National 7 Universities Athletic Meet for 3 years consecutively and Tohoku University being honoured as an institution in the list of ‘Designated National Universities’.

Q2) In the aftermath of the Tohoku Disaster, the entire region has suffered immensely. How has the University given back to the Tohoku society in the recovery and stabilization of the region?

As the director of the School of Medicine at that time, I sent medical officers on the ground and accepted several patients affected by the disaster. Many students worked hard as volunteers to clean the debris. We also established the Tohoku University Institute for Disaster Reconstruction and Regeneration Research in which we undertook 8 main projects and 100 other reconstruction project plans. One of the projects out of the 8 main was to establish the International Research Institute of Disaster Science for practical disaster mitigation. The other project was the Tohoku Medical Megabank Organisation under which we collected the genetic and medical data of 150,000 people to develop next-generation medical care system. Other projects like New Information Communication Systems helped extremely during the disaster. We are also very committed in the decommissioning of the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant and we have also put in place entrepreneurship training courses to enhance jobs. After the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction was held in Sendai, Tohoku University has become a global centre for disaster statistics and creation of Tsunami early warning systems using high speed computers in collaboration with Osaka University.

Q3) Since you assumed the role of President in 2012, we understand you have made various changes with your leadership on the management of Tohoku University. What kind of changes have you made over the past 5 years?

In the field of education, I set up the Institute for Excellence in Higher Education to expand the Admission Office entrance exams in order to match the international standards. Course numbering, GPA and Quarter system were a result of this. Few years ago, the Tohoku Global Leadership Program was also established and student exchanges were promoted under the Study Abroad Program. I also established the International Joint Graduate program in Spintronics and Data Science and Tohoku Forum for Creativity where, world-renowned researchers visit and guide students and younger researchers. The Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences was established under my tenure to develop outstanding young researchers to whom we may also offer tenure positions.  I also established the Global Research Hub under which institutes like WPI-AIMR (Material Science), CIES (Spintronics), ToMMO (Medicine) and IRIDeS (Disaster Prevention) came into being.

Q4) Can you tell us about some of your fondest memories being President of the University in the past 5 years?

Some of my fondest memories include construction of several buildings on the campus and rebuilding of infrastructure affected in 2011. Students resumed their activities and won the National 7 Universities Athletic Meet for 3 consecutive years. Recently, Tohoku University was also selected as a designated national university. These memories remain very dear to me.

Q5) We know that Tohoku University has eagerly tried to promote internationalisation in each department.  We are here as a result of such a move.  Would you tell us your personal feelings and motivation for such a move? And what is your view on the internationalisation of education in Japan?

In 1967, I entered Tohoku University. At that time, Okinawa was still under the American occupation. I learnt many things during that period and I thought that I would like to offer these opportunities to other international students too. Therefore, I wanted to increase the number of international students and building the new university dormitory in Aobayama is one of the few steps towards taken in this direction.

Q6) While internationalization certainly begins with bringing in more foreign students to study in Japan, it does not end there. The entire system of education must be transformed to truly be called international. There have been some challenges in this aspect such as the language gap, the Japanese society’s inertia to Internationalization etc. How have you dealt with these challenges to improve a situation?

It is necessary to change the language education system in Japan. Japanese people have translated western science, ideology and philosophy to Japanese so that we can understand it in our own native language since the Meiji restoration. Therefore, I think that it is important for us to keep our identity and originality first. I do agree that English language courses are necessary in the graduate level but I have my own apprehensions about introducing them at the undergraduate level.

Q7) Where do you see Tohoku University in the next decade, in terms of research, education and it’s influence and engagement with society? 

Today, all the campuses are located within 9 minutes of travel time from Sendai Station. I would like to see many more companies building research centres on the campus. My dream is that Tohoku University becomes a leading research hub in Japan in the next 10 years.

Q8) What advice would you like to give based on your personal experience to the students, staff and all the members of the University especially with reference to how they can give back to society through their research or educational activities and strive to solve the problems in it?

Our duty is to give back to the society and strive to make a peaceful and just world. I think that it is difficult to do that today but there is definitely many possibilities. So, do your best and become a true member of the elite!

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Interviewed by : Rohan Raj

Photograph and Video : Reyhan Daffa Athariq

“Learn to accept and share knowledge” : Dr. Ryuta Kwashima

The Institute of Development, Ageing and Cancer recently celebrated its 75th anniversary but the man who is leading it today is a name that most people know of : Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. An alumni of Tohoku University and the person behind Nintendo’s popular ‘Brain Games’, he speaks exclusively to ‘The Sentinel’ reflecting on his life, work and his infamous rejection of a million euros salary.

When was the first time you realised that you were interested in neuroscience?

It goes back when I was a junior high school student and I didn’t want to die. I wanted to see the end of the humans with my own eyes. I imagined if I could integrate my brain with a computer then, I could definitely see the end of the world with my own eyes. This was the inspiration.

Your research has been highlighted in various schools and institutes across the world. Did you ever expect the incredible public response?

Actually, No. When I published my book ‘Brain Training’, neither the editor nor I trusted its success but within a year, it already sold 1 million copies! It was then that Nintendo approached us to make a video game version of the same. Nobody trusted it then.

You graduated from Tohoku University in 1985. It has been 31 years since then. What do you think are the most significant challenges in the university regarding your research in neuroscience?

In the initial phase, there was not so much budget allocation for neuroscientists from the government or the companies. When it was highlighted in the US in 1990s, Japan followed the US. Huge grants were received but ended in 2000s. These days, there are machines like MEG and Cyclotron (since 1980s) that can be used to measure the brain activity.

You have famously rejected a 15 million euros salary from Nintendo. Why did you do so?

There are two reasons for this. First, the amount of money is too big for my pocket (laughs) and secondly. I did all my work as a professor of Tohoku University. I did not spend any of my personal time or money. Hence, this huge amount of money is well deserved by the university and the government who provided all the support. Hence, I cannot accept such a huge amount.

Could you share a memory/experience from your life when you realised that your research is truly changing lives?

When I was 50 years old, I felt that my ability to think clearly was weakening and I feared Alzheimer’s 10-20 years down the line. It was at that time when I used my own program and within 2-3 months, I became absolutely normal and hence, this itself stood as a proof that it was changing lives. Also, I did several randomised studies and improvements in cognitive function amongst people suffering from dementia was significantly observed.

Your work has met with criticism from doctors and researchers according to a feature report by ‘The Independent’ in May 2013. How have you personally dealt with criticism?

I welcome criticisms as it is very useful but, there are only few reasonable criticisms. One of them was the randomised control study. The control group was not enough to be controlled and hence we created finer controlled groups. The other was about the outcome measures and we accept these criticism too. All other criticism seem to have emerged from jealousy and hence were not acceptable. Anyone can criticise but not everyone can create a new thing. It is only a select and knowledgeable group of people who can create something.

Any message for the readers of ‘The Sentinel’?

Tohoku University has everything and is an universe within itself. You can find a professor for any information. You are free to ask any professor since you are a student. Learn to accept and share knowledge.