HOME arrowResearch arrow Researcher interview #01 | Prof. Ryota Iino

Researcher interview #01 | Prof. Ryota Iino

April 2020

Set sail from your comfortable home port,
and venture forth beyond the border of disciplines


Today, I will talk to Professor Ryota Iino in Department of Life and Coordination-Complex Molecular Sciences, Institute for Molecular Science (IMS). Prof. Iino is trying to capture motions of biomolecules such as proteins on video movies. Biomolecules literally "move" in our body like precision mechanical parts, or robots, but are too small to be observed with ordinary optical microscopes. Prof. Iino has succeeded in capturing these movements as movies by attaching scattering labels to the biomolecules. The results of his research are expected to be applied not only to examination of the operation of nanomachines such as biomolecules, but also to elucidation of chemical reaction mechanisms. 

Click here for Prof. Iino’s profile.

The Road to Researcher

First of all, please tell me why you became a researcher.
OK. When I was in my university, I had more free time than that I thought. So, I read a variety of general science books. I found many interesting books. The authors of the books were professors in universities. I thought the university professors were wonderful to write such interesting books. I wished I could become professor and write such books.

Then, didn't you want to be a researcher in your childhood?
No, I didn’t. When I was in my high school, I didn't have a specific vision for the future. But I could not imagine that I would become an office worker. My father ran a company. I thought it was amazing. Researchers are more like the presidents of small businesses than office workers, aren’t they? We, researchers, have some discretion in our time. We can also decide on our own policies.

Indeed. Did you encounter something academically important to you in your university?
Yes, I did. In my university, I encountered my field, biology, in the books. I was majoring in chemistry in my master's program. I changed my major to a more biologically oriented one when I entered my doctor’s program. Actually, in my high school, I’ve not taken any biology class.

Why did you choose your present subject within the field of biology?
When I was in my master’s program, a technique called “single-molecule imaging” was developed and spread worldwide. In this field, the contribution of Japanese researchers is great. At that time, I studied chemistry. I was very much impressed to see that single fluorescent molecule was really visible and was really moving in my eyesight. You know, we discuss molecules with molarity, an order of 1023, in chemistry. I wanted to perform single-molecule imaging. When I entered my doctor’s program, I changed my major to a field where I could perform imaging. That’s biophysics.

But I remember well that my supervisor was against my plan. He said, “There is no such thing as biophysics. You will regret it if you go to such an unestablished field.” But I had already decided to. I moved to biophysics. I don’t regret it at all. I am now happy to have moved at that time. But it was good for me that I studied chemistry in my master's program before I got into the field of biophysics, since the biophysics is based on the knowledge of molecules. That’s chemistry.

Do you mean something you’ve got in your career is different from that could be got in a career aiming directly at biophysics?
Biophysics is a so-called interdisciplinary field. At that time, we had some academic societies on the field. I think that researchers in chemistry and physics did not know what we were doing in the field. However, in such an interdisciplinary field, something completely new, such as single-molecule imaging, has emerged. So, even in my present subject, I think it is important to do unique, unconventional things at the boundary of fields.

Research Philosophy / Messages for Potential Researchers

Is it your philosophy of research?
Yes, it is. I like to conduct joint researches, working with various people. When my study does not go well, talking with people from other fields can solve the problem quickly. That's why I think it's important to actively interact with people in other fields and perform interesting researches. But the interdisciplinary studies tend to end unclearly. The interdisciplinary researches must be regarded as interesting in both sides of the boundary.

Do you mean that getting into the gap between disciplines tends to simply result in just doing things indecisively?
That's right. Wide and shallow involvement is not recommended in academic research. It is important to make your core of the study first and then spread it. One of my cores is knowledge on optical microscopes. I totally understand the optical microscopes from the fundamental. And the core of biophysics is knowledge on molecules, or chemistry, although the name is "bio-physics" without "chemistry." I have learned chemistry in my master's program.

So, to become a researcher, do we need to make a solid core?
Yes, right. To do that, you just have to pursue anything you find interesting. If you find something interesting, you can always go toward it. Believe in yourself. It will turn out fine. On your way, solidify your foundation. It is not advisable to go into a variety of fields without establishing your solid foundation.


Do you mean that we need to be trained strictly in a specific field?
I am recommending you to pursue your interest deeply rather than doing strict training. And then, expand your interest outward.

By the way, single-molecule imaging is a fundamental research, but has recently begun to be used for applications. For example, using the technology of "$1000 genome", you can read an individual's genome for $1000. The basis of this technology is single-molecule imaging. Although Japan is strong in fundamentals of this technology, applications have been developed in Europe and in the United States, very unfortunately.


Do you mean that Japan has failed to overcome the “boundary” between basic and applied fields?
Exactly, I am afraid so. This industrial field is exciting now. For example, you know, we have high-precision prenatal diagnostic technology. This is also an application of basic technology of single molecular detection. In that field, Japan has not shown its presence, although we developed the fundamentals of this technology. Therefore, it is important to always look around and think about getting over the boundaries.


Why did Japan fail to show its presence? Is it because of the temperament of Japanese people, or atmosphere in Japanese society?
I think that kind of things makes problem. In Japan, we respect the craftsmanship. In other words, there is a cultural difference between Japan and the western societies. In Japan, “Only I can do it” is great, while in Europe and the US, “I made it be able to be done by anyone” is great. We need to promote industries by learning the western cultures of automation and labor saving. You need to keep your eyes on what devices and technologies you have developed can be used in other fields. To do it, you need to recognize the limits of, and demands for various technologies used in today's society.
On the other hand, recently, students tend to say that they want to perform application-oriented researches. That's rather good. But it's also important to show the fun and importance of fundamental researches. I think it is one of the important missions of IMS.


Thank you very much. By the way, could I ask you something about a bit different topic, because I’d like to take advantage of this important opportunity to interview you, biophysicist?
No problem, please.

Origin of Life, Consciousness, Artificial Intelligence, and Scientific Literacy

According to a standard theory in biology, life began by chance. What do you think of it? Was there any special reason for the occurrence of life? Because my child asked to me, "where did we come from?" But I couldn’t find an appropriate answer.
Well, you are asking where to start to study the origin of life, aren’t you? I am interested in lower creatures, like bacteria, better than higher creatures. The bacteria grow and divide infinitely with proper nourishment. Somehow, they don’t look like creatures. They look like sophisticated machines. I'm interested not in such “mystery of life”, but the reason why such an elaborate machine was made. Insects seem to be very good robots that respond to stimuli outside. If you can artificially make such great machines, or robots, which were originally made by nature, you can understand them. This is, actually, my research.

Do you mean that we can understand why such great machines were made by extending the knowledge on physics and chemistry, and eventually we will understand what is life? You mean, well, we should not forcibly apply a veil of mystery to life.
That's right. I'm not very interested in human researches, although I’m often criticized for that. I'm interested in humans, actually, but I think it's very difficult to understand humans, especially to understand human brains, for example.

It seems particularly difficult to understand the human brains. Do you think that, for example, the "consciousness" in our brain can be understood by simply extending the laws of physics and chemistry? If it is so, can consciousness be implemented in the form of computer software? Or otherwise, does the emergence of consciousness require the discovery of some new laws of nature we have not yet noticed?
Hmm. I guess, there is no new, or additional, natural law necessary to understand consciousness. The neural network of the brain is very complicated, but if its connection as a logical circuit is clarified, I think that consciousness can be implemented as a software on a computer. My thought is basically based on "biomechanism."

Thank you for your opinion. Could I ask another question? My question might be a bit rude, I’m sorry. What does it mean for intelligent people who are not interested in your research field to know something about your research?
Well, first of all, for example, artificial intelligence (AI) is amazing recently. But in fact, computers running AI require a lot of power for calculations. Even if AI beats humans in Go and Shogi, it's not surprising, concerning the energy consumption of the computers. So that, you don't have to think that humans are worse than AI. Human energy consumption can be calculated from the amount of food you take a day, right? You can also find out the energy consumption of supercomputers. If you compare these values, you will find that humans are very energy saving. After all, creatures are amazing. The molecular machines I am studying also have good energy conversion efficiency and play their role with small energy.


I think it's a perspective that we can't get without learning science. Topics on AI in daily news can be understood from the viewpoint of such, well, scientific literacy and ...
Exactly, this is one good example which scientific literacy matters. With a common gauge, or a kind of ruler, to measure energy, you can compare things with different appearance. When we face daily news on AI and then compare AI and our own abilities, the idea of “performance per unit energy consumption” will allow us to receive AI news a little more calmly.


Amplitude of the “ups and downs” of life

I’m sorry to change the subject again. I heard that you like reading books. Could I ask your recent hobbies?
I like reading books even now, but recently I'm busy and can't make time to read. So, my recent hobby is to observe my child's growth. The child changes biologically, socially and, of course, intellectually. Recently, even if I do my best with playing cards, I cannot beat my child. I don't get bored watching my child’s growth. I think my child is very special to me, a researcher and a human.

My children are special to me too. But, dare to say, children are quite a burden, aren’t they?
I agree actually. I am sure that I have experienced both happy and difficult time with my child. But I am, and also you may be, swung around by the children. This increases the ups and downs of, or to be more precise the “amplitude of the wave” of, your life. It is good that the child gives stimuli to me. With my child, the wave of my life is no longer flat. Life is boring if it is without such big waves, although that might be a saying by someone.


Certainly, I am always swung around by my children. Then, is increasing the “amplitude of the wave” important in research?
It is important. It should be larger. Young students are afraid of failure. Once they fail, they tend to think they lose the game. There is no such thing. In research activity, we fail most of the time. The more you perform research, the bigger your amplitude must become. The important point is how high you can go up when you are riding your wave, although you may get wiped out into the sea afterwards. Try it always. It is important to challenge without being satisfied with the present status.


I would like to ask about your “wave.” You have worked for a number of universities, and after that come to the Institute for Molecular Science (IMS). I think you have experienced a variety of research environments. What are the differences in research environments between the universities and IMS?
First, about an advantage, there is remarkably little work other than research. To concentrate on research, IMS is wonderful. There are many important jobs other than research in universities, such as lectures and entrance examinations. Although we have SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies) and related jobs for it here, we have a lot of time available for research. On the other hand, the disadvantage of IMS is, I dare say, that the number of students admitted to IMS is small, so there is little change of people. Concerning this point, the “amplitude” tends to be small. Although entering in and moving out of many students may cause some difficulties, we do not have variety of things that might happen with collaborating many students. The research group consists of a fixed member for a long time, and all the members become older together. That’s not good. In order to improve that, it is important to circulate human resources. It is one of the missions of IMS.


At IMS, we put so much effort into the circulation of human resources. Is this not because the people at IMS often move, but rather because they tend to be less likely to move?
That's right. That’s important, meaningful effort. I want my lab to have more students if possible. But it's difficult and still not enough. The most important thing to think about in running of my lab is how to activate movement of the members and to keep the atmosphere in which the members can conduct research with fresh feelings.

So, are you keeping fresh feelings lately?
No, I’m lately not. I'm feeling a bit problem. I think that IMS is a good environment. However, if you stay long just because here is comfortable for you, you might eventually be unhappy. It is a general story not limited to IMS. No matter how comfortable you are in your “comfort zone,” you need to make an effort to get out of there. I’m enjoying research at IMS, but I have to go out someday. It is important not to be afraid of change, but rather to seek change.

Thank you very much.

Translated by Hideki Katayanagi
Photo by Miyuki Harada

Translated from Original (Japanese) Written by Hideki Katayanagi
Photo by Miyuki Harada
December 2019