Nanyanen! My Journey as a Japanese Government Scholar in Osaka

Osaka University
By Ferheen Abbasi

Ferheen Abbasi was a Japanese Government Research Student Scholar and completed her Master’s Degree in the Department of Medicine at Osaka University in March 2018.

I was selected as a Japanese Government Scholarship research student for the April 2015 school year at Osaka University in Professor Masahito Ikawa’s lab. After successfully passing the Department of Medicine’s Master’s Program, I became an official student the following year. Affirming how stereotypical this is, my experience in Japan truly changed my life. I have never felt more independent and happy in my entire life. I was able to explore and subsequently grow. Writing this article is tough on my soul as I left a part of it back in Osaka.

I was always fascinated by reproduction, and had the privilege of conducting research in Professor Ikawa’s world-renowned laboratory. My lab at Osaka University focuses on Reproductive Biology, and more specifically male fertility. While I had done experiments in my lab classes at UC Berkeley, I was definitely not prepared for everything I had to do! In the three years I was in my lab, I learned so many experimental techniques, but the most important was creating and analyzing CRISPR/Cas9 mutant mice. I also learned that research is extremely difficult and not everyone is a gifted scientist. I definitely was not. I loved reading and writing papers but the frustration that came from repeatedly doing experiments that ended in failure was agonizing and debilitating. There were a few times where I thought I would quit because my experiments were not going well. With the support of friends and family, I pushed forward and successfully graduated. I even published a review article and am on track to publishing my thesis as well. While I have decided to pause my career as a scientist, I hope one day to come back to research and continue learning about the intricacies of reproduction.
Himeji Castle
Osaka University
I truly learned so much in Professor Ikawa’s laboratory. One piece of advice I would give to STEM students who are applying to the Japanese Government Scholarship or are on it now is to keep learning! I regret not learning more lab techniques. Don’t be afraid to fight for the same treatment as your Japanese colleagues. Absorb as many lab techniques and experiments as you can and continue to ask for more so that you can help people in their research to get an authorship in their papers!! Also, make sure you ask about going to conferences. I missed out on the opportunity to go to conferences because I didn’t ask. However, also make sure that you value work-life balance. Working in a lab in Japan is difficult because your Japanese peers will be working incredibly long hours late at night. Whether or not you choose to follow that schedule is up to you (and your Professor) but I highly suggest choosing efficiency over long hours if given the option. Yes, lab is important, but enjoying Japan is also just as important. This will be a once in a lifetime opportunity so don’t waste it by spending 24/7 at work!

My first memory of Japan is taking the highway “limousine” bus from the Kansai airport to JR Ibaraki station, where my Professor and two PhD students in the lab picked me up. One of those students would become one of my best friends in Japan! I remember going to my very first conbini, a Lawson, right next to where I would stay for the night. I bought chocolate donuts (so sweet!), Luna yogurt (so delicious!), and green tea (so bitter!). The next day, the lab administrator took me to Tsukumodai Dormitory, where I would stay for the next 6 months. That summer, I would be awoken at 4am by howling cicadas and blood curdling chirps of the Japanese Bulbul.

I arrived in Osaka right as the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. While the Bay Area has cherry blossoms, I was blown away by the sheer amount of them in Japan. Wherever you went, the light pink petals that fell like snow surrounded you. Cherry blossoms continued to be a reoccurring symbol in my Japan journey. From being woven into my yukata’s obi, to finding a pressed cherry blossom flower in my textbook, to graduating in a kimono embroidered with the flower, I hold those experiences dear to my heart.
Mt. Fuji
Summit of Mt. Fuji
Another positive experience I had was being paired with a host family. Osaka University has a special “host visit” program where international students get selected by a family that lives in the area. I was paired with the Murakami family, who were absolutely life changing. It was due to their love and kindness that I was able to adjust to life in Osaka quickly. My host grandma and I had many adventures together. We went to museums and took photographs and ate delicious food and even went to Nagano! I am so grateful for my host family.

Climbing Mt. Fuji

Ever since I was young, climbing Mt. Fuji and watching the sunrise was a dream of mine. In August 2017, I challenged climbing the mountain (twice!) and succeeded the second time. It was physically the most difficult thing I had ever done in my life, especially because it rained and rained and rained going up and down the mountain. But, for a few hours right before sunrise, the rain cleared and I got to see the most beautiful starry night sky and sunrise in the world. And I ate a fuji apple on the very top of Mt. Fuji! To climb the mountain, you definitely need a lot of preparation if this is your first time climbing a tall mountain. Thankfully, my friend was a Mt. Fuji climbing expert (this was her 5th time!) so we were prepared. You absolutely need to stay overnight to get used to the low oxygen levels in a mountain hut if you want to see the sunrise. I also recommend making sure that all your gear is waterproof and getting a poncho as well as oxygen cans before climbing. Plan carefully and read a ton before attempting this climb! But it was worth it!
Ferheen Abbasi
Other fun things I did in Japan
  • Fed the friendly deer in Nara
  • Fed monkeys at the Arashiyama Iwatayama Park
  • Almost died at the Kishiwada Danjiri
  • Hanami at Himeji Castle under the cherry blossoms
  • Did a homestay in Izumo, Japan (Sister City to my hometown of Santa Clara, CA)
  • Went to TWO cat islands
  • Wore a yukata to the Gion Matsuri
  • Stayed overnight at a temple in Koya-san
  • Went to the Zao Fox Village in Sendai
  • Taking a sand bath in Ibusuki, Kagoshima
To be honest, I was not ready to go back to the U.S. because Osaka had become my home. It was not an easy journey but I not only survived, I thrived. I had the best adventure, ate the most delicious okonomiyaki in the world, and fell in love with so many things that it was hard to say goodbye. I am so thankful to the Japanese Government scholarship for funding me, to my Professor for allowing me to conduct research in his lab, and to my friends and family who supported me and affirmed me when I was there. Ookini, Osaka!

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