Nara Institute of Science and Technology Mini-Symposium to Connect UC Davis and International Scientists

Richard McKenney and Kassandra Ori-McKenney pose with their NAIST students.
NAIST students Saranpal Singh and Nhung Thi Hong Nguyen, pictured in the center, worked in UC Davis’ McKenney Ori-McKenny Lab, the joint space run by Assistant Professors Kassandra Ori-McKenney and Richard McKenney. David Slipher/UC Davis

Science is a global language and international collaboration is key to solving the most pressing issues facing our society. For more than 10 years, the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences, working in tandem with Japan’s Nara Institute of Science and Technology, has fostered an international dialogue in the sciences through an exchange program for graduate students and faculty.

On Thursday, Feb. 28, the College of Biological Sciences will host the Nara Institute of Science and Technology Mini-Symposium, which will feature talks on parasitic plants, chimeric animals and the molecular mechanisms of central nervous system formation, among other topics. The symposium will be held in Life Sciences Building 1022. 

This event features researchers from the Nara Institute of Science and Technology (NAIST) and will follow the most recent four-week student exchange program between the institutions.

“As science becomes more globalized, it’s important for students to learn how to interact with one another, and about different cultures and different ways of thinking about science,” said Executive Associate Dean of Academic Affairs John Harada, who is a professor in the Department of Plant Biology.

NAIST students check out some data in the lab
NAIST students Saranpal Singh and Nhung Thi Hong Nguyen learned new protein biochemistry techniques during their stay. David Slipher/UC Davis

Traveling across the globe to Aggie Land

This year, the College of Biological Sciences hosted 17 NAIST students for a roughly four-week stay on the campus. According to Harada, the international students participate in a homestay program and are paired with research labs on campus based on their academic and research interests.

Nyet Cheng Chiam, a Malaysian graduate student studying plant molecular biology at NAIST, was paired with Alan Rose, a project scientist and lecturer in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. She is currently researching the role RNA metabolism plays in plant shoot regeneration.

“As a budding scientist, this experience definitely serves as an eye-opener,” said Chiam, noting that she selected Rose’s lab from a list that was circulated among the NAIST students.

“I, personally, find this program to be very beneficial,” she added. “We are able to expose ourselves to techniques that are new and interesting to be adapted to our own project back at NAIST later.” 

Mohd Shahrizal, a NAIST student from Malaysia studying structural life science, worked in Associate Professor Enoch Baldwin’s lab, where he explored new protein crystallization methods.

“This program helps a lot especially in communicating English, both in the laboratory and with the host family,” said Shahrizal.

UC Davis graduate students also have an opportunity to study at the NAIST campus during the fall. Each year, Harada; Professor JoAnne Engebrecht, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology; and Professor Jim Trimmer, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior select roughly 10 students to participate in the exchange program.

“Part of the idea is to help the Japanese students with their English, but on the American side, the students get to see how the Japanese programs work and how it differs from our program,” said Harada.

Bringing home valuable skills and experiences

On the day before their flight back to Japan, NAIST students Nhung Thi Hong Nguyen and Saranpal Singh were finishing up protein biochemistry work in UC Davis’ MOM Lab, the joint space run by Assistant Professors Kassandra Ori-McKenney and Richard McKenney.

“We were less concerned with accomplishing an entire project but rather just exposing them to some new techniques,” said McKenney, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology. McKenney studies motor proteins and the cytoskeleton, the transportation system within a cell. “We went through a lot of protein biochemistry and then purifying proteins and then looking at them using the single-molecule microscope.”  

Singh and Nguyen said they’ll bring MOM Lab techniques back to their labs at NAIST. While busy with research, Nguyen said she had time to experience American culture and visited Sacramento, San Francisco and Yosemite during her stay. She noted that overall the experience helped her “improve and develop” as a scientist.    

NAIST students
Nguyen and Singh said they’ll bring McKenney Ori-McKenney Lab techniques back to their labs at NAIST. David Slipher/UC Davis

“I wouldn’t be surprised to hear from some of them in the future that might be interested in doing future work together, like a postdoc, something along those lines,” said McKenney. “It’s nice to be exposed to international students who you wouldn’t necessarily be able to be exposed to.”

And that’s what the program’s administrators want to accomplish by fostering this network.

“The emphasis for me is on the students,” added Harada, “giving them a chance to visit other countries and work with people in other countries on science.”