Montclair State University professors Carlos Molina, Biology, and Mika Munakata, Mathematics, led a science program in Japan with six students this summer. The students conducted research with world-renowned Japanese researchers over the nine-week program. The undergraduate and doctoral students were selected by the two professors from 40 applicants for a unique research program that took place at three facilities in the country.
The students, who hailed from various universities, worked alongside researchers at the National Institute of Genetics in Mishima, the Institute of Transformative Bio-Molecules at Nagoya University and the National Institute of Basic Biology in Okazaki this summer. Among the students, who worked in pairs at each lab, was Montclair alumnus Paolo Turano ’21.
“It was a great learning experience,” says Turano, now a doctoral student in the molecular biology, genetics and cancer program at Rutgers University. “I’m super thankful, to Dr. [Noriyoshi] Sakai, the lab, the program, my mentors…It was honestly an amazing experience, both culturally and scientifically.”
Molina and Munakata fondly remember doing post-doctoral research in France and participating in an undergraduate study abroad experience in Kenya, respectively, and how it expanded their worlds, so they wanted to provide a similar opportunity to students, particularly those underrepresented in STEM fields. “Why stay in one place in the world? We can do research anywhere,” Molina says.
The professors were awarded a $300,000 National Science Foundation grant in 2020 to do just that. The program, which was postponed for one year due to the pandemic, provides international research experiences for students in Japan for three consecutive summers. The grant pays for all student travel and housing, as well as a $5,000 stipend. “It’s really like an internship,” explains Munakata, adding, “We wanted to make sure that we gave opportunities to students who would not otherwise pursue these kinds of opportunities. We didn’t want to take away their opportunity to earn money during the summer.”
Molina and Munakata are currently accepting applications for next summer’s IRES: Summer Biology Research Program in Japan (NSF Project #1952513). The professors will again cast a wide net to recruit traditionally underrepresented students from women’s colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Hispanic-Serving Institutions for the “U.S.-Japan study of novel genetic elements regulating seasonal behavior of medaka fish.”
Director of International Academic Initiatives Tim White, whose team supports study abroad and other international academic projects, says that Molina and Munakata “designed an impressive summer experience, which enhances both research and intercultural skills for students.” He encouraged students to apply, noting: “This opportunity for research in Japan is absolutely fantastic for Montclair State students.”
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