NSF Sponsored International Research Experience for Chemical Engineering Undergraduates
The international collaboration between CNRL and Prof. Mukai Shin's lab at Hokkaido University (Japan) is sponsored by the National Science Foundation through Dr. Amama's CAREER award. Under this program, a few students visit Prof. Mukai Shin's lab each year to learn about their research, share our work, and experience Japanese culture.
"It is critical for universities to develop programs that equip students with international experiences and global perspectives that engineers need to succeed in the 21st century."
- Dr. Amama
Thomas Davis and I spent 2 weeks at Hokkaido University, Sapporo, Japan for a research exchange program funded by the National Science Foundation. We worked under the supervision of Chemical Engineering professor Dr. Mukai of Hokkaido University. We were welcomed into the group spending the first night having a traditional Japanese BBQ with several kinds of delicious meats. Throughout our time in Japan we had several opportunities to explore Sapporo and spend time with students in and out of the research lab.
In the lab we spoke with students studying several topics including lithium air batteries, carbon monoliths with straight micro channels, nano fiber synthesis and more. The students showed us their unique experimentation methods, such as using a microwave for heat treatment and fishing line for templateing the micro channels on the carbon monoliths. The fundamental approach to problems was very directed and methodical leading to specific criteria being controlled to test a hypothesis very efficiently.
In our free time Thomas and I were able to explore much of Sapporo and the surrounding areas. We saw the university gardens, the old government building, the Sapporo Beer museum, and a distillery in yoichi, Hokkaido where Nikka Whiskey is produced. One day we ended up going to the Sapporo shrine. This experience was unique and a special insite into cultural and religious differences within japan. These tourist sites were only half the fun, as traveling around was an experience in itself. The subway systems were expansive as well as all aspects of mass transit. There were large underground shopping centers and train stations larger than most malls, and full of stores! The vastness of these shopping centers was unlike anything I had seen in the Midwest, or the United States for that matter.
The food was always fantastic and inexpensive at all kinds of unique restaurants! I was very impressed with the large selection of food options and shops of 10-15 seats where one person ran the whole operation! Our favorite foods from our trip were the sushi, soup curry, and miso ramen. All vendors took a lot of pride in their craft and served each meal or purchase with care. I would definitely like to return to Japan to explore the country more fully and enjoy the great food!
In the summer following my senior year at Kansas State University, Bailey McAuley and I were invited to participate in a two-week international research internship to Prof. Shin Mukai’s research laboratory at Hokkaido University, in Sapporo, Japan.
We spent many afternoons shadowing the experiments that Dr. Mukai’s students were conducting and engaged in thoughtful conversations to help us develop a better understanding of how research is conducted in other cultures. For example, Shintarou demonstrated the effects of using microwave annealing to tune the defect concentration in graphene oxide by using a standard microwave with a reactor placed inside, and Takuya delineated a technique to induce straight microchannels in carbon gel monoliths by using a fishing-line template. Observing these experiments helped me understand the degree to which some of the standards, regulations, and methodologies employed in academic research can vary from country to country.
However, Bailey and I were not required to be in the lab every day from 10:00-5:00, like most of the other students. Instead, we filled our free time with various experiences around Sapporo. We visited numerous gardens/parks, toured a couple different museums, went hiking at Maruyama Park, ate at a variety of unique restaurants, walked around the Sapporo Station, explored the shops and restaurants in Susukino, and much more. We really tried to maximize our time in Sapporo by filling our days with as many experiences as possible.
Isolating one highlight from the entire trip is incredibly challenging, as nearly every day offered new memories to last a lifetime. However, if I had to choose, I would consider the moments we were able to interact with people outside of the laboratory setting to be the most memorable experiences. The two occasions that strike me the most were when some fellow researchers (Kasama, Takuya, and Shintarou) took me and Bailey to Yoichi and Otaru for the day to tour the Nikka Whiskey Distillery and walk around the Otaru Canal, and when the two of us engaged in conversations with some people at The Bar Caffeine in downtown Susukino. These moments were the highlight of the trip for me, because this is when I felt the most immersed in an unfamiliar culture. These moments taught me that speaking a different language than someone does not stop you from understanding them, laughing with them, and learning from them.
The biggest impact this experience has had on my professional responsibilities (at the moment) has been solidifying my desire to attend a graduate school in a culture I am unfamiliar with. Regardless of whether the university is foreign or domestic, I know that I want to immerse myself in a learning environment that challenges me beyond what is directly presented in the curriculum. The problems that chemical engineers solve are not unique to mid-western America, and I believe it is indispensably important to know how my skills can be applied in a variety of cultures.
Though my time at Hokkaido University was short, I learned a lot, especially about the cultural differences between America and Japan. Prof. Mukai and his entire research group made me feel very welcome, as they readily included me in their activities and introduced me to many different Japanese foods. I would like to thank Professor Mukai and the entire research group for their hospitality.
My research exchange to Japan was an incredible experience in which I learned about research adjacent to my own, the culture of research outside the United States, and the larger adventure of immersion in another country.
The research group of Shin Mukai at the University of Hokkaido was considerably larger than my own at Kansas State University, but the lab welcomed me and readily accommodated my shadowing and learning from their researchers. One of the areas of research performed in the Mukai group is on liquid-phase oxidation photocatalysis, which I was particularly interested to learn about as my own research was on the vapor-phase analog. I was delighted to learn from their depth of knowledge regarding both the synthesis and operation of their photocatalyst systems, particularly of titania-silica cryogels. I recall also being intrigued by the reaction engineering aspect of these cryogels, which are frozen unidirectionally to create honeycomb-shaped tubular bundles and allow for high surface area with low frictional losses. The information that I learned from their research was enlightening in many aspects, but also a vehicle for learning how academic research was conducted outside of my own group.
When I arrived in Hokkaido, the group was beginning their quarterly updates – a period of three days during which every group member presents a summary of their research from the last three months. I observed slides being tirelessly constructed and students striving to satisfy both thematic and aesthetic requirements. Through this process, I was able to gain a survey-level understanding of the breadth of the group’s research and admiration of the diligence and dedication to craft that many students displayed. After the updates had ended, several students were able to give me detailed and hands-on experience with their research. Slowly dropping cryogels into liquid nitrogen while discussing with a Thailand-native student the trials and joys of performing research in a foreign country remains as one of my favorite memories from Japan.