“Take full advantage of what Tohoku University provides”: The Dawn of President Ohno

In January this year, Arunava Acharyya, Manuel Campos and Trishit Banerjee of ‘The Sentinel’ sat down with Prof. Hideo Ohno, the newly appointed President of Tohoku University for an informal conversation about his research, his vision for the university and his favourite Udon from Akita. He shall succeed Prof. Susumu Satomi this April as the 22nd President of the university.
  1. First of all, heartiest congratulations on being appointed as the 22nd President of Tohoku University. Are there any changes expected in your term and where do you see Tohoku university in the future?

Thank you. I will follow on from my predecessors in continuing the work they have started.

As you may be aware, Tohoku University was one of three universities given the Designated National University status by Japan’s government last year. We are considered to be one of the top research universities in Japan. And in order to stay a top player in the global arena, we need to strengthen our research capabilities, shape education to make it in line with the globalized world, and increase social engagement including academic-industry collaboration. So a major role is to maintain the current framework, while building on what we have to adapt to society’s changing needs.

  1. What are your thoughts on english-language programs, the government’s G30 project and the overall internationalisation of Tohoku University ?

Well, I would like to see it enhanced further but I can’t tell you about any specific programs right now. We need English language courses to prepare our students as global citizens. Since the majority of the undergraduate students are Japanese speaking, a good portion of the undergraduate classes will still be continued in Japanese, however. On the internationalization front, President Satomi has worked hard and I will do the same to make the on-campus processes transparent to non-Japanese speaking students. I would also like to see a one-stop service established for providing such support in all administrative processes in my tenure as president.

  1. What are the major challenges that you feel the university needs to address?

Naturally, there are multiple challenges that we face. In terms of education, the challenge is to make sure that students are ready to contribute as global citizens following graduation. We also want to facilitate studies, which are not just curriculum-based, but that also nurture entrepreneurship and teach aspects such as those used by nonprofit organizations. In regards to research, although we have played a major role until now, we still need to strengthen our research base. Finally, in terms of social engagement, we have to improve our support for members of the faculty, students and staff who are keen to work on innovative projects with collaborators outside the university.

  1. The university implemented the labour contract law in 2012 and did not renew the fixed term contract of 3,243 workers as reported by The Japan Times in November 2016. What was the reason behind such a drastic step?

I am going to look into how it developed. My understanding is that the university is working very hard to ensure that the people who are working here are happy. We are striving to help our staff maintain a work-life balance too. If there is something that the private sector is able to do which we are not, I would like to learn from this and improve our policies where possible.

  1. You are an established researcher in the field of spintronics. Would you like to elaborate on the research you are currently involved with?

Electron has mass, charge and spin. In many cases, we utilize charge and mass. In other cases, we use spin but the basic idea of spintronics is to use charge and spin together. I started basic studies of spintronics in 1988. At that time, the study was curiosity-driven. We started doing experiments at 5 K or 50 K, which is much below the freezing temperature, but were able to show a proof-of-concept device that utilizes electric fields to manipulate magnetism, thereby using charge (electric field) to control spin (magnetism). I expanded my horizons during the course and we started to develop spintronics devices, which can be used in our modern integrated circuits. We developed material stacks which are now a de facto standard being used in the industry.

The reason we could make such developments was due to what we learned from basic research mostly done at low temperatures. The spintronics technology we have developed will shortly be commercialized as big players in the semiconductor industry are all involved. The CIES (Centre for Innovative Integrated Electronic Systems) at our university in the Shin-Aobayama campus is capable of implementing our spintronics devices in semiconductors so that we can combine it with transistors and demonstrate functionality. We can design such circuits using our own material stacks that we have developed which can help in realising new integrated circuits based on Tohoku University’s novel design. As a matter of fact, Tohoku University is the only public-sector institution in the world where you can do this.

The development of new semiconductor integrated circuits is a huge area. I have asked colleagues on campus to participate in the effort. Together, we design the circuit, process magnetic materials among other things. We aim to show the world that this is the way to build the integrated circuits of tomorrow. These circuits are high-performing circuits and consume considerably less energy which makes it particularly suitable for IoT (Internet of Things) and artificial intelligence. This is something that I am still involved in and our university is leading the world in this field.

  1. Considering the current advancements in nanotronics, what possibilities do you see in the development of nano sensors for medical research?

So far, I have spoken only about the spintronics research I am involved. Other people like Prof. Ando of Applied Physics at our university are involved in developing highly sensitive magnetic spintronics sensor. Prof. Ando has succeeded in capturing magnetic fields generated by a heartbeat. He is now working in capturing magnetic field changes in the brain. Today, it is done by devices requiring liquid helium, but in the future, his device enables us to do the same at room temperature and therefore, without using liquid helium. His sensor is extremely inexpensive and highly sensitive at the same time. This could lead to branching out of this idea into different fields for other potential applications. After all, until we show our results to the world, we do not know the value of our research.

  1. Tohoku University has contributed extensively in the revival projects after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Are there any other steps the university plans to take?

People are continuing their work in rebuilding the region. We are working together in the process and at the same time hoping to take it one-step further. Living in Japan, we have to face disasters such as volcanic eruptions, tsunamis and earthquakes. Our society must always be disaster-ready. We have to recover and rehabilitate in a short period of time and take care of those who have suffered. We have to develop this in the form of a package to help our communities prepare. It is our responsibility and Tohoku University is committed to contributing its expertise in disaster management.

Also, in relation to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, a center (Center for Fundamental Research on Nuclear Decommissioning) has been established, which is developing technology on how to shut down the Fukushima plant and other nuclear plants around the world. Such studies will be conducted on our campus too.

Green energy is essential in preparing us for a sustainable future and more research has to be conducted in this field. Tohoku University will definitely play an important role here as well.

  1. Any message for the students and our readers?

I would like to see our students take full advantage of what Tohoku University provides. We are here not just to disseminate knowledge but also to provide a ground to play and to use the knowledge gained so that students are fully ready for the next stage of life after university. The environment here is of a high standard for conducting research activities. While we are working very hard on this front, if you find any room for improvement, please let us know.

As spoken to Arunava Acharyya, Manuel Campos and Trishit Banerjee

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