Medical scientists of the future: An undergraduate program at the University of Tsukuba aims to transform science students into world-class researchers
While studying a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology in his home country of India, Lalhaba Oinam realized he wanted a career in medical research. To chase his dream he transferred to the University of Tsukuba’s International Undergraduate Program in Medical Science — an English language program offered to students in the third year of a medical or life sciences bachelor’s degree.
Oinam, now a recent graduate, describes his experience at the University of Tsukuba as even better than he’d hoped. One of the first intake of such students in 2012, Oinam was given full credit for his previous two years of study and secured a scholarship covering the costs for his first year of study in Tsukuba. Then, based on his academic performance in his first year, his full scholarship was extended to cover the second and final year of the degree.
During the third year the students undertake a research project and Oinam’s interest in stem cells led him to the lab of a leading expert, Professor Koji Hisatake. “I was interested in stem cells and got a supervisor who was a specialist in IPS [Induced pluripotent stem cells] cells,” Oinam says.
His research project investigated ways to improve the induction of IPS cells and, prestigiously, his results were included in a scientific paper, led by Professor Ken Nishimura, and published in 2014 in the journal Stem Cell Reports (see www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4235142/).
The strategic location of the university also meant Oinam was able to build networks that would last beyond his studies, setting him up nicely for the future. “Tsukuba is a science city which meant I got the chance to meet other researchers and make a lot of contacts in the human health area.
“Also, I had 24-hour access to the facilities for my research so I could do my research whenever I wanted. It’s a great opportunity for anyone who wants to start a career as a researcher.”
Dean of the University of Tsukuba’s School of Medical Sciences, Professor Haruhiko Ninomiya, says that in the brief period since the International Undergraduate Program in Medical Science has been offered, it’s admitted about three students a year. The program is designed for students with existing basic undergraduate education in medical or life sciences and the curriculum covers experimental, social and environmental medicine. Its value lies in its strong research orientation combined with its practical hands-on teaching in laboratories, he says.
As part of its strong research tradition, the students are required to research and write up a thesis. They are provided with investigation opportunities that range from biochemistry, human genetics and physiology to oncology, immunology and public health.
This English-based course mirrors a similar course that has been taught for many years in Japanese at the University of Tsukuba’s School of Medical Sciences and which has a long and successful history of growing medical technologists, says Ninomiya. The school comes under the university’s prestigious Faculty of Medicine, which has more than 300 teaching staff who also teach within the Schools of Medicine and Nursing.
Most graduates from the course go on to work in pharmaceutical or medical companies. Others further develop their academic careers through a PhD, a path that Oinam is following. To his delight he has already been accepted into the University of Tsukuba’s PhD Program in Human Biology.
“Ultimately, I would like to work back in my country but this field of research [stem cells] is very new in India,” he says.
Perhaps the answer to that, he says, will be for him to pioneer stem cell research in India.