Follow your scientific instinct - CDA awardee Yukihide Tomari

The HFSP Asia-Pacific Coordinator, Elfi Meissl, talked with HFSP Career Development Awardee, Prof. Yukihide Tomari from the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (The University of Tokyo) about his experience as a postdoc abroad and the challenges to return home.

Yukihide Tomari holds a HFSP Career Development Award at the University of Tokyo. From 2004 to 2006 he was working as a Long-Term Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester (USA) on small non-coding RNAs and their role in regulating gene expression. Having established his research group he moved on to study gene silencing by small RNAs in greater biochemical detail.

When Yukihide was considering his future career towards the end of his Ph.D., he encountered a “shockingly fascinating” paper on the mechanism of small RNAs. He was so excited about the paper that without thinking any further he immediately contacted the author, Prof. Phillip D. Zamore at UMASS Medical School, by email asking if there were any opening positions. He was invited for an interview, and soon he received an offer to come to the USA as a postdoc. His decision to go abroad was not really part of a long-term plan, “it just so happened”. Also he did not decide on a country but on a particular laboratory that offered the best opportunities for him. Several months into his work, his decision paid off since he was awarded a Long-Term Fellowship from the HFSP. While in the USA, the family kept growing and throughout the three years they enjoyed the new way of life. For Yukihide getting the timing right for going abroad is very important as for Japanese scientists the return may be more difficult as they become older. Competition is fierce and a younger person has a better chance to obtain a good position or to start a second postdoc back in Japan to become reestablished in the scientific community at home. He is convinced that research experience abroad is absolutely essential. The professional network expands and colleagues eventually turn into friends. In this regard, Yukihide strongly believes that the annual HFSP Awardees Meeting fulfills an important function in providing a regular platform to stay abreast with the development in one’s field of interest and to connect with colleagues from around the world. Besides, one’s personal horizons extend as one adapts to living in a new cultural environment. The relationships established during that time remain in place and there is a huge reciprocal benefit. “If I would like to do some bioinformatics I just email a friend in France and ask for his opinion or cooperation.”

Just like all good things a postdoc also comes to an end. Yukihide started preparing for his next move during his final year as an HFSP fellow but initially he had to face rejection. The move back is full of unknowns and is stressful since the hunt for a job back home coincides with a critical period of the fellowship when final experiments must be wrapped up and manuscripts await their final touches. At last, an offer from the University of Tokyo came through that brought his search to an end. Again “perfect timing” as he points out. His experience from that period is that his research interest had to match what the University department was looking for. Yukihide feels somehow privileged because he was rewarded for the second time in his career. The investigator’s position came at the right time and shortly thereafter he was successful in securing the HFSP Career Development Award which helped him to get started.

The bottom line for Yukihide is how important it is to show initiative during the Ph.D. and to have the courage to embark on the unknown. He could have chosen the easy way out in not opting to work abroad with the likely outcome that his international network would be less developed. However, there is one thing that he misses in his and other Japanese laboratories: the diverse international staff composition. Back in the USA he says “there are probably fewer American than international students”. He is fortunate to have found two students from abroad for his young team and is looking forward to increasing the number of foreigners in the future so as to drive the internationalization process further.