Crossing the divide - Postdoc Li-Foong Yoong in Japan

The HFSP Fellowship programs send postdocs abroad to broaden their scientific training and expose them to a different scientific culture. Since the start of the Program, very few foreign scientists have elected to spend their postdoctoral time in Japan, despite the outstanding scientific opportunities available there. Here, we present the first of two profiles of HFSP Fellows who are working in Japan.

HFSP Long-Term Fellow Li-Foong Yoong has recently taken up a post-doctoral position at Riken Brain Science Institute (BSI) in Japan. She took some time out during the HFSP Alumni Meeting in Tokyo in October, 2010 to talk to Guntram Bauer, HFSP Director of Fellowships, about her experiences as a foreign post-doc in Japan.

“The decision to come to Japan was personal as my husband is a Japanese scientist”, admits Li-Foong in response to the question “Why Japan?” but it was not the first time she had considered going there.  After completing her PhD in Singapore, Li-Foong’s two choices for a post-doctoral position were Japan and the United States but she eventually chose St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.  

However, when her husband found a faculty position in Japan, Li-Foong decided to join him and started to look for a host laboratory.  She  was already familiar with the BSI  but did not know her laboratory before  applying for a position, “Riken BSI has always been one of the top institutes for Neuroscience in Asia and it is somewhere Asian Scientists want to go”, explains Li-Foong.  The  decision to go to Japan was met with mixed views by colleagues and friends. Her PhD Supervisor agreed that Japan would provide the perfect opportunity to learn and hone new technical skills especially as Li-Foong was interested in learning live imaging whereas friends from home wondered about the difficulties of starting out in a new field in a new country. 

In spite of having studied Japanese at University, Li-Foong found the language barrier to be a major obstacle in adjusting to life in Japan.  However, she had very little difficulty integrating into her new lab, as English is the official language of the BSI and the main language spoken in the laboratory; 8 out of her 11 co-workers are foreigners.   She admits, though, that in-depth technical instructions in Japanese on how to use lab equipment sometimes prove to be a challenge and contact with scientists outside her lab and socially tends to be restricted to other foreigners.

As foreign post docs are not so common in Japan, there is very little structure in place to assist them.  According to Li-Foong the lab secretary plays a very important role in helping foreign post-docs settle in,  providing help with everything from “immigration papers to renting a house”.   The postdoctoral position receives very little recognition. Li-Foong’s status is one of “Visiting Scientist”. She suggests that the post-doc experience could be improved for foreigners  by the establishment of an organisation to support post-docs, something along the lines of the National Postdoctoral Association in the USA.  Li-Foong feels that this isolation and the lack of career advice and soft skills training could be a disadvantage for scientists leaving Japan and that their international competitiveness  could therefore be affected.  In spite of this she would consider staying in Japan after her post-doctoral training but wonders about the possibilities for foreigners looking for faculty posts given that there are only a few institutes, such as Riken,  to which foreigners can apply.  However, despite the challenges of living in Japan, the experience of working there has been rewarding and Li-Foong would not hesitate in recommending other scientists to seriously consider working in Japanese laboratories.   

See also Facing the challenge - Postdoc Walter Meissl in Japan