Facing the challenge - Postdoc Walter Meissl in Japan

During the recent Awardees Meeting in Kerala, India, Guntram Bauer and Martin Reddington from HFSP talked to Walter Meissl, a HFSP Cross-Disciplinary Fellow based at the Atomic Physics Laboratory at the Riken Advanced Science Institute in Saitama.  In this second article on the theme of foreign post-docs in Japan, Walter gives a personal insight into life there. 

HFSP Cross-Disciplinary Fellow Walter Meissl started his postdoc at the Atomic Physics Laboratory at RIKEN in Japan in 2009 after his PhD studies in physics at the Vienna Institute of Technology.  His project concerns the development of micro-irradiation methods for studying cell damage and irradiation repair in bacteria and mammalian cells.

When Walter Meissl made the decision to go abroad after completing his PhD in Vienna, Japan was at the top of his list.  This came as no surprise to his family and friends who considered Walter to be a “Japanophile” due to his interest in Japanese culture and martial arts.  Walter himself was impressed by the scientific opportunities and says, “scientifically Japan is very attractive, it has very good institutions and universities and you can do top notch science.” Walter had previously got to know his host supervisor in Japan at conferences; he was impressed by his broad understanding of science and believed that “with someone with that kind of perspective you can hope for good direction and to get some interesting results.”

Walter’s move to Japan went smoothly, largely due to support from Riken who helped him to rent an apartment and to deal with administrative red-tape but he admits that it was a challenging time, “after the PhD you are at a point in your life when you are basically independent, you know the rules and you go to Japan and find yourself at a child’s level,” he says, “You get a letter, need a haircut - you need help.  That is hard!”

Walter is the only foreigner in his lab; most of the foreign scientists at Riken are affiliated to the Brain Science Institute.  He considers himself lucky that everybody in the lab has a decent level of English and although group meetings are in Japanese, an English summary is generally made available following the meetings.  Walter already spoke a little Japanese before going to Japan but in spite of this, like Li-Foong Yoong, he found that the language barrier made it difficult to integrate both professionally and socially.    He is often not aware of other projects within his lab and once, when listening to a talk from a lab colleague at a conference they were both attending, Walter admits to thinking “ah that’s what he is working on, it sounds interesting!”   One thing that surprises him, though, is the lack of curiosity from his fellow Japanese researchers about life in Europe and he believes that they prefer to be based and employed in Japan.  Outside the lab socialising also proves to be more complicated than back home, foreigners are often unaware of social rituals and local etiquette and as Walter says “You misjudge a lot of situations ...”  but potentially awkward moments are quickly overcome due to the generous and accommodating nature of the Japanese concerning foreigners.

The excellent equipment in the labs at Riken is impressive and purchasing new equipment when needed is relatively easy; Walter appreciates the fact that he is given a great deal of freedom in administering his own finances.  He also encounters very little interference from his hierarchy concerning important decisions such as branching out in one particular direction of his research or publishing his results. 

Summing up his experiences over the past year in Japan, Walter says “You can’t say you want to go on an adventure and then complain about the challenges along the way. There are a lot of positive experiences” and he readily agrees that it could only be a good thing if more foreign post-docs were to come to Japan.

See also Crossing the divide - Postdoc Li-Foong Yoong in Japan