Yuko Ueno planned to work in science communication…
…But a supervisor suggested that gaining first-hand research experience might make her a better communicator. Today, she sells workshops to companies, schools and universities and teaches science to Sunday-school students at a private academy in Tokyo.
Smriti Mallapaty catches up with her to learn more.
Why did you become a researcher?
After completing my undergraduate degree in microbiology, I was undecided about whether to enrol in a mass communication programme or join a media company. The head of my lab presented a convincing case for me to stay in school — that to move people with science, I needed to have a more intimate knowledge of the philosophy — the way of thinking — of science. So I decided to join his laboratory.
What did you enjoy the most about being a researcher?
I was working in a small lab in a private Japanese university studying a tiny protein in heat-loving bacteria. At an international conference I met lots of researchers working on thermophiles who talked about their research as if it was the most fun and exciting subject ever. Science gave me access to a whole new world.
Why did you leave the lab?
Research can be very lonely. I wanted to be able to share and exchange knowledge with other people. Most PhD students in Japan begin job hunting after their first year. While searching for science communication companies, I came across Leave a Nest, a company run by former doctorate and graduate researchers aimed at bridging the gap between industry, science and society. I joined as an intern for one year. After I finished my PhD in 2013, I applied for a full-time position with Leave a Nest.
How did you convince Leave a Nest to hire you?
I told them a story. While working as chief editor of someone [a Japanese-language science magazine], I wanted to publish a special feature on the oceans. But a magnitude-9 earthquake and powerful tsunami had just hit off the coast of Tohoku in March 2011, and a lot of people suggested I change the focus of the feature. I disagreed. I didn’t want children to be traumatised by the sea. Instead I wanted to offer them hope, so my article about scientific deep-sea mysteries was published. Soon after, I received a letter from a student in Tohoku who told me that reading it had really helped him get through the difficult period.
What is your current role at Leave a Nest?
As general manager of the Human Resource Development Division I organize workshops for graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to help them communicate complex scientific subjects as well as come up with innovative business ideas. We also connect trainees with industry representatives. For example, I recently brought a group of Japanese students to Silicon Valley to pitch their ideas to venture capitalists and business incubators.
What is a typical day like for you?
I visit several companies a day to sell workshops until I have secured about ten projects, which I take to completion. At weekends I teach science to elementary school students at our Sunday school. I teach a doctoral course on thermophiles to children — I collect samples from hot springs across Japan, and we culture them together, screening for any undiscovered thermophiles.
Was your PhD important to the work you do now?
Yes, absolutely. I use my lab skills every Sunday at the children’s school. Also, when meeting potential clients who are researchers, I can connect with them at a scientific level by sharing my own story. More importantly, I apply the research cycle to help companies identify social problems and innovate.
What advice would you give to other PhD students?
A PhD isn’t just about becoming an expert in a specific subject and acquiring lots of information. The skills and experiences gained during the programme can be used to solve entirely different problems. Don’t hesitate to get out of the lab.
Smriti Mallapaty is a writer at Nature. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.