Brains in Bordeaux

Truly understanding the brain remains to be one of the biggest problems in modern science. It is so interesting because solving this is not only technically challenging but also deeply personal. We humans are innately curious as to how things work and continuously learn and update our models about the world, yet the organ that gives us these amazing abilities is itself poorly understood. This is what pulled me to study the brain and behavior and to become an aspiring neuroscientist and neuroengineer.

The University of Bordeaux, France

Thus, amidst the global pandemic, I was determined to learn more about neuroscience. I searched online for hands-on neuroscience training courses, and found that the CAJAL Advanced Neuroscience Training Programme was an excellent opportunity. A year before the course started, I applied to the program, but I still had to find additional funding to support my travel. Fortuitously, I received an email from the Japan Neuroscience Society (JNS) in partnership with the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies (FENS) about a travel grant to which I immediately applied. Thankfully I was accepted to both the CAJAL course and the JNS-FENS grant, but the coronavirus would end up delaying the course. Despite this, I was glad that the training would still be pushing through live, because I knew learning hands-on would be much better.

And I was proven right. Against all odds of travel restrictions and visa requirements, attending the CAJAL Course on Optogenetics, Chemogenetics, and Biosensors for Cellular and Circuit Neuroscience (OCBCCN) in-person was an unforgettable experience that helped me learn both broad and deep knowledge in the latest techniques for studying neurons and the brain. Furthermore, being in the Bordeaux School of Neuroscience, surrounded by facilities and people dedicated to neuroscience, was a refreshing atmosphere for me. The course directors, lecturers, and instructors were very welcoming. They facilitated interesting discussions and organized challenging projects. The students and participants were all very friendly and eager to learn. Overall, the environment was that of open-discussion and freedom to ask any questions.

At first, we introduced ourselves and our research in an oral presentation. Then we had a poster session over beers and pizza. The casual atmosphere helped break the ice and encouraged lively conversations about science. We were 20 students from around the world, and I was the only one from East and Southeast Asia. Throughout the course we would receive excellent lectures from the leading experts in the field – most of whom also attended live to have opportunities for in-depth discussions. We were taught the latest developments in optogenetics, biosensors, and optical technology applied to calcium or voltage imaging, optical neuromodulation, behavioral analysis, and many other interesting topics. I met the people whom I read from in journals, which was quite astounding. It was incredible that I could participate in scientific discussions and casual conversations with world-class neuroscientists and neuroengineers.

I also participated in 2 different hands-on projects. The first was on multi-color fiber photometry in freely-behaving animals, and the second was on ultrafast two-photon voltage imaging in vivo.  These two projects were some of the most cutting-edge techniques being used in neuroscience today. It was such a great learning experience because I was able to see the entire workflow of doing such experiments. They also taught us some additional tips and tricks, and I learned even more from performing the experiments hands-on. Since the experts were right beside me, it was very easy to get feedback and learn in the process of working. First-hand experience with the techniques allowed me to see the minute details and challenges from setting-up the experiments up until analyzing the data. We also presented our projects and results to get helpful advice and further insight from the audience.

Every day – from 9 am to 9 pm – we would spend time in the university for lectures and experiments, and so projects that would take several months were accomplished in less than a month. It was a very productive 3 weeks indeed, but we made sure to balance this with some fun as well. We only had 3 days of free time, so we used this to see the beautiful city of Bordeaux and its nearby towns. I was able to visit some historical monuments, city markets, and a light show museum. The food and drinks were wonderful, and even better was the camaraderie we formed. 

Given more time, I’m sure there was a lot more to learn and experience, but even so, the duration of the course was very well-utilized and already jampacked with great learnings and fun experiences. Near the end of the course, I remember feeling very accomplished because I was able to learn so many new things and meet new people. The course made me more eager to continue my PhD research once I got back to NAIST, and it allowed me to gain connections that may help in the future, especially when facing difficulties with my own project.

CAJAL Course directors, instructors, and students

I am very thankful to the CAJAL course organizers, directors, lecturers, instructors, and fellow students for the magnificent experience. I would also like to thank the JNS-FENS committee for helping me fund this once in a lifetime opportunity, and more importantly, for promoting international exchange. I would definitely recommend fellow neuroscientists to take this opportunity.

This experience would not have been possible without NAIST’s mission to train global researchers. I extend my deepest gratitude to NAIST, my laboratory, my sensei and staff for all the support and care they gave during this experience. I am sure my experience in CAJAL would help me, not only in my PhD, but also in my overarching goal of truly understanding the brain. This was a great opportunity for me to “Outgrow my limits”.

NAIST Study Abroad Fair 2021

Last October 9, 2021, NAIST held an online international study fair. Students from all over the world joined in a virtual gathering to learn and ask about life and studying at NAIST. Over 100 participants joined, and several of the NAIST faculty, staff, and student ambassadors attended in order to carry out the event.

At first, the NAIST President recorded a message for the event, and Masako Shimamoto, Ph.D. from the Division for Global Education gave a general introduction of NAIST. The presentation showcased the campus demographic, and as of writing, the Graduate School of Science and Technology accommodates 697 Master’s and 349 Ph.D. students, 196 faculty, and 167 administrative staff. This high staff-to-student ratio is one advantage of being in a tight-knit community like NAIST.

Proudly, NAIST is part of two flagship projects of MEXT, namely: the Program for Promoting the Enhancement of Research and the Top Global University Project. These programs fund NAIST to promote international and global research and higher education. In addition, NAIST has also produced thousands of graduate alumni who went into careers in academia, industry, and other worthwhile professions. Aside from the top-notch academics and research, Dr. Shimamoto also presented that NAIST has a sizeable international community that is well taken care of. Thus, the prospective students and applicants were very excited to know more about NAIST, and afterward, they were given useful information on the admissions process.

Each division then gave a brief overview of their research and laboratories. Prof. Taku Demura gave a presentation about the Division of Biological Science which features research areas in Plant Biology, Medical Biology, and Systems Biology. Prof. Demura highlighted that NAIST’s biological research tackles multiple levels of life from single molecules to whole organisms, and from basic to applied research. Next, Prof. Yoichiro Hosokawa gave a talk about the research of his division: Materials Science, which studies the structure, properties, and functions of materials — ranging from the subatomic scale to entire molecules and whole devices. Researchers interested in the fields of physics, chemistry, biomaterials, device engineering, and materials informatics will find a good program here with a focus on interdisciplinary photonic nanoscience. Finally, Prof. Keiichi Yasumoto presented the Division of Information Science, which was the first established graduate school in NAIST. The division offers a wide range of courses and projects covering Computer Science, Media Informatics, and Applied Informatics to any of those interested. With an internationally oriented program and the latest research facilities, NAIST truly offers a very good place to pursue graduate studies.

Finally, the most fun part of all was when the participants were able to go into different breakout rooms based on the three divisions and other extra topics. They were able to meet first-hand the faculty, staff, and students of NAIST for Q&A. Here, many of the interested students were curious about further details regarding both academic and non-academic life. Evidently, prospective students looked for a strong balance between research work and extracurricular activities such as campus life and international events. Thus, the organizers exhibited facilities such as the NAIST University Union, student dormitories, sports facilities, and leisure spaces. Overall, the event was a great way for NAIST to attract new international students and gave the opportunity for people abroad to see what life in NAIST is like despite the pandemic. This virtual event was a nice way to connect with those from far away, and hopefully, we get to see them in person once they become part of the institute we all know and love— NAIST.