Ph.D Program in Human Biology

Using a postgraduate degree to make a difference: An interdisciplinary human biology program at the University of Tsukuba involves students in the ‘real world’ as they study

Creating a new product to reduce smoke inhalation from cooking stoves in the recently independent Southeast Asian nation of East Timor is not what most people would expect in postgraduate course. But that’s exactly what Kouta Niizuma did during his overseas placement when he signed up for the PhD Program in Human Biology (HBP) at the University of Tsukuba.

“Respiratory diseases associated with smoke inhalation from cooking in the home are very common in East Timor, particularly among young children,” explains Niizuma. “In fact, many people die each year in that country from these health problems.

“While I was staying with the local people there, it became clear that it would not be easy for them to change from using their traditional stoves. My colleagues and I had to come up with an inexpensive solution that would help them without interfering with their culture.”

The prototype design for Niizuma’s team’s answer to the problem comprises a simple, inexpensive hood and chimney system to fit over the traditional stove and minimize smoke dispersion throughout the home. In 2013, the product won Niizuma and his team of fellow postgraduate students a Gold Business Award in the annual See-D contest, which encourages innovation and entrepreneurship in Japan.

The University of Tsukuba created the interdisciplinary HBP degree in 2011 in response to a need for medical science and human biology experts, who are also highly trained leaders with excellent entrepreneurial and communication skills to meet healthcare and environmental challenges.

“We welcome applicants from all scientific disciplines and backgrounds,” says Akira Shibuya, of the University of Tsukuba’s School of Integrative and Global Majors. “Our HBP students train in various fields, including biology, medicine, computing and material sciences, and also learn from business and governmental organizations.”

To this end, academic researchers from a wide range of disciplines at Tsukuba teach the course alongside experts from 15 private companies and three Japanese government administrative agencies. The program is taught in English and all HBP students are given financial assistance through a grant to cover accommodation and living costs. From the outset, students gain invaluable hands-on experience through activities that range from on-campus internships and laboratory training to individualized overseas placements and ‘real-world’ opportunities to hone their business and design skills.

Now in her third year, Niizuma appreciates studying in such an international environment while still being based in his home country of Japan. “There are twice as many overseas students on the course as there are Japanese students,” says Niizuma, who has had the opportunity to co-author several prestigious scientific journal articles. “My main interest is immunology, and I’d like to contribute to developing therapeutic ways to manipulate the human immune system. The progress I make here will help me as a scientist on the global stage.”

Yuki Miura, a fourth year HBP student who was part of a See-D contest winning team in 2012, was also drawn to the course for its practical focus: “This degree offered me the opportunity to travel the world and develop the focused mindset I will need to resolve difficult scenarios in the future.”

For more information, go to the program website.