Developing ability to pursue research in the real world where there is no dichotomy between arts and sciences
Understanding the mechanisms of bacterial biology yet to be unraveled
I work as an Associate Professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst in the United States. I specialize in microbiology and biochemistry. I am currently looking into the mechanisms of how tubercle bacilli (bacteria that cause tuberculosis) infect humans and proliferate inside the host to cause tuberculosis.
It is said that about 2 billion out of the 7 billion population of the world carry tubercle bacilli. However, less than 5% of those who carriers develop tuberculosis in the course of their lives, meaning that 95% of the carriers will end their lives without even knowing that they carry the bacteria inside their body.
Why can tubercle bacilli continue to live in human bodies for decades without causing the disease to develop? Why do 5% of the carriers develop the disease? More than a million people die of tuberculosis every year, but what triggers or signals tubercle bacilli to rapidly proliferate? What stops their proliferation? There's still a lot to be understood and our goal is to elucidate those mechanisms.
Bacteria such as tubercle bacilli are taxonomically classified as prokaryotes which have very interesting features. Eukaryotes, like humans and plants, have numerous organelles enclosed in membranes inside each cell. For instance, DNA is wrapped inside the nuclear envelope. Various organelles are separated from each other by the membranes to ensure efficient functioning. In prokaryotes, however, they only have the outer cell membrane. Yet, they do have various functions and activities taking place in the cell, which are necessary for them to live, but we do not know much about how the different cellular functions are separated and organized within the cell. Our research team has discovered many phenomena that may hold clues to understanding this problem. We are on an exciting journey to elucidating the configuration of prokaryote cells.
Continuously thinking "what humans are" from various perspectives
Since I was a teenager, I have continuously asked myself the fundamental questions: "What are humans?" "Why am I living?"
Big Bang first occurred in space, molecules started moving around, and as a result, I am here, made up of molecules. Then, was it already determined from the first, when Big Bang occurred, that I would be present here today? If so, what is the meaning of living? Even if I changed my life with my own will, it may not be my own will if that change had already been programed at the beginning of time. If so, why do we feel that we are making our own decisions and choosing our own life?
I chose to study biology in college because I was interested in how natural science could answer these questions. I learned about ICU's liberal arts education from a teacher in a local Sunday school who sincerely listened to and faced my questions. I was thinking about proceeding to a national or public university, but after hearing what my trusted teacher told me and finding out that ICU had a unique atmosphere different from any other university in Japan, I started thinking "I may be able to meet people whom I wouldn't be able to meet in public colleges" and that "ICU may be a good choice for me."
One of the unique features of education at ICU is that even if you are majoring in a specific field, you can broaden your perspectives by taking courses in various other disciplines. I too, while majoring in biology, took humanities courses on Greek tragedy and classic Greek to study what humans are. I was so deeply inspired to learn how humanities pursue the question of "what humans are" employing approaches entirely different from those used in natural science that I took as many other courses as I could that Professor Shigenari Kawashima (ICU professor emeritus) was teaching.
As my learning biology progressed, I started wondering about advancing to graduate school and engaging in fundamental research on human beings. At around the same time, I participated in a study tour in the Philippines, influenced by Professor Koa Tasaka (former ICU professor in chemistry), who was committed to social activities alongside his academic work. Through this experience, I also became attracted to international careers that involve interacting with people of the world and helping other people in a tangible way, like the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers. I was unable to decide what career to pursue, in part because I couldn't find an answer to the question: "Is it right for me to continue pursuing fundamental research, something that may not produce any immediate outcomes to serve society?"
I consulted Professor Haruko Kazama (ICU professor emeritus), my senior thesis advisor, about my concerns. After discussing the matter over with her for a long time, it finally came home to me that "dedication to fundamental research could lead to producing great value to society." I can still recall the sight of the late afternoon classroom at that moment when I made up my mind to "pursue research to my best" and to "continue thinking what I could do for society even if my career was not the kind to directly serve society." I decided to proceed to graduate school. It was also the moment when I felt deeply thankful for the educational environment at ICU, where the faculty would provide consultation to each and every one of the students so sincerely.
Studying natural science in a liberal arts college
In our research field, we are required to reveal the mechanisms behind various phenomena at the molecular level. First, we build a hypothesis, which does not always turn out to be true. We must try to eliminate subjective assumptions, based on the premise that I might be wrong, and view things in an objective and logical way. I think I developed the skills and abilities essential for this kind of research on the basis of the critical thinking skills fostered through classes and discussions I experienced at ICU.
There is an academic discipline called immunology which looks at the mechanisms of infectious diseases from the other side of the story, that is, from the human mechanisms to fight infection. The ultimate aim of immunology is to understand how humans discriminate between self and non-self. When humans are infected with tubercle bacilli or other intruders, the human body tries to drive them out of the body as foreign substances. This would be impossible if the body could not discriminate between self and non-self. On the other hand, there are hundreds of trillions of intestinal bacteria living in our guts. They are regarded as part of the human body or harmless symbionts. When we dig deep into these phenomena, we ultimately arrive at a philosophical question of "what are human beings?" At ICU, a student majoring in biology can visit a philosophy professor to ask questions. I took advantage of that environment to seek answers to my inner questions and I appreciate having been trained to approach a question from different perspectives. I think it is extremely important for a researcher to incorporate multiple perspectives when thinking what "serving society" really means, as it is difficult to tell what consequences cutting edge research would bring to society. It may cause negative effects as well as positive and may also give rise to ethical questions as with the case of genetic engineering technology.
Let me give an example. When I was a graduate student, I used to study a parasite that causes an infectious disease called African sleeping sickness. This parasite causes serious sickness in humans and Asian cows brought in from outside of Africa, but indigenous African cows are seldom affected. Indigenous cows, however, are not suited for livestock farming. For the people of Africa to obtain food and jobs from farming, it is necessary to introduce Asian cows, which are better suited for livestock farming. Here, genetic engineering comes into play. By creating new breeds of Asian cows that are resistant to the parasite using genetic engineering, the lives of African people may become more affluent. Economic growth may enrich people's lives but may also cause cities to bloat, wild land to be overdeveloped and many living organisms to go extinct. If the parasites were playing an important role in protecting the natural environment and wildlife of Africa, is it really right for us researchers to go on with what we're doing? As I pursued research, I have continuously asked myself questions of this kind by viewing things from multiple perspectives. I feel that the education I received at ICU lies at the base of this attitude.
To study natural science in a liberal arts college like ICU, where there are no barriers between different disciplines, will help build a foundation for viewing things from various perspectives and digging deep down into the essence of an issue. Thanks to this foundation I gained at ICU, I was able to pursue research and continue to grow in the real world where there is no dichotomy between humanities and natural sciences
Yasu MoritaAssociate Professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst
1992 B.A. in Arts and Sciences (Biology)
After holding positions at Northwestern University (research fellow), Johns Hopkins University (Ph.D., the Michael A. Shanoff awardee), University of Melbourne (post-doctoral research fellow), Osaka University (research assistant professor) and University of Massachusetts Amherst (assistant professor), he was appointed as associate professor in September 2019.