In the last article, I had a chance to interview a brilliant MEXT (Monbukagakusho) scholar in Japan from Thailand who is currently enrolled at the University of Tokyo. This time, I am interviewing Hyojae, a MEXT scholar from South Korea. Hyojae is currently in the first semester of her fourth year in the Faculty of Agriculture, Tohoku University. She is actively engaged in researches focusing on marine genetics. When she has some time to spare from her busy lab schedules, she loves engaging in extracurricular activities such as street dancing and participating in business case competitions.

Recently, Hyojae has been elected as the representative of Tohoku University’s STEM Student Network (理系国際交流団体). The group regularly organizes academic events and social gatherings for students in the scientific community. Apart from her passion in science, she also has strong interests in the business field, winning the APU Business Case competition in 2019.

As always, in this article, we will get to know our MEXT scholar, deep dive into her background, perspectives, and dreams for the future. Let’s hear Hyojae’s story.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I am South Korean, but I was actually born in China. We moved around from one country to another every two or three years since my dad is a diplomat. China is where I grew up, and also where I spent the longest time. I lived in China for about ten years in three different cities. I moved to Tokyo when I was in middle school, then I lived in Korea for about three years, then I spent some time in Poland – around three or four years.

Living in so many countries must have left quite an impression on you. What made you choose Japan, from all those interesting countries you can choose from?

There are two main reasons, one is personal, and another is academic. To begin with the academic one, Japan is definitely one of the leading countries in the scientific research area, especially in the fundamental and basic science area that I am doing. Japan is the country that provides a lot of support for those researches. Tohoku University, in particular, is very famous for its scientific research projects. When I was a high school student, I wanted to become a scientist, for that reason, I thought Japan would be one of the very good candidates for a college education. For the personal reason, I feel more comfortable in an Asian environment. From my experience of living in different countries, Japan is the country where I feel safe and comfortable. The culture also matches my personality. I like the food here; I like how safe it is; I like how transportation is so reliable. To put it simply, everything is so convenient here. Since I will have to spend four years at the university, I want to make sure that I do not only enjoy school life, but also the life out of school. For those personal reasons, I chose Japan. Not to mention that it is also close to Korea where my family currently lives.

Apart from school life, you also seem to have a lot of interests in other things as well. Is Japan’s college culture also one of the reasons you chose to come here?

(Note: In Japan, students are typically very active in extracurricular activities such as club activities, part-time jobs, and long-term internships. It is common to see many people working part-time and spending a lot of time at club meetings while studying in college. Compared to their peers in countries like the United States or Canada, students in Japan enjoy more free time due to typically less course workload.)

Actually, in my case, the student life I expected was completely the opposite of the word “chill.” For students who are enrolled in science field, the workload is intense.

Wow really? Do you have to sleep in the lab sometimes?

Yeah, sure! I do that sometimes when I have to do the experiments. (laugh) But my lab is actually not that “black.” * I can choose to stay or not to stay. Sometimes, I stay because there is so much work to be done. Basically, I go to the lab at least five days a week, but these days I go there seven days a week, spending at least six-seven hours at the lab. That is the student life that I kind of expected because research environment, especially in science field, researches can take a long time, and I really wanted to have an actual experience of working in a lab early on from my bachelor years. Unlike American universities where students are only busy with the classes, Japanese universities allow the students to actually get busy with real researches. That part was very attractive, so it’s very “black” as expected, but I also enjoy this kind of life I am having, in a sense. 

*In Japanese, “black” is generally used to refer to workplaces with harsh conditions such as long working hours and stressful working conditions.

You’re really dedicated to your passion for research. When and how did it all start?

First of all, my interest in biology started when I was really young. I think life is one of the most interesting things in the world. Of course, we can make machines, but things tend to be imperfect. The most perfect thing in this world is life, so I found biology really interesting. When I had to make a decision for college, there was the faculty of science and the faculty of agriculture. People always asked me, “what were the differences?”, but I have always wanted to go to the faculty of agriculture because I wanted to conduct studies that are close to our everyday lives, instead of purely theoretical stuffs. For the reasons why I chose marine biology and marine genetics, it is because I have always had interests in marine studies. I believe that it is one of the least discovered area of science. We still don’t know roughly eighty to ninety per cent of what’s living under the ocean. I really like that sense of mystery. It is also because Tohoku University has a great English-taught program for marine biology, so it was a perfect opportunity that worked out wonderfully for me.

What kind of research are you working on?

It’s a research in genetics field, specifically developmental biology. Basically, I am trying to study which genes are important to the development of pigment cells in fish. I am trying to figure out which genes have key functions in the development process, and the results from this research can be applied to two main areas: one is aquaculture and the other is medical science. In aquaculture, a lot of facilities are having problems. A lot of cultured fish products are showing physical abnormalities because they are being raised in an artificial environment. By knowing the genes that are responsible for that, we can try to fix that in an efficient way and improve the productivity of the system. Also, fish is one of the model organisms that can be used in the medical science field. The results from my research can also be applicable to humans because we share very similar gene structures with fish. We can also try to figure out how these genes in humans can possibly function.

That’s a very interesting topic. How long have you been working on it?

I have been working on it since I was a third-year student, so it’s been about one and a half year.

Is it an independent research project? How are the professors supporting you on this?

I always discuss with my professor on the next steps that I should take, but it’s basically me who is trying to find the direction and the professor is commenting on it, and also giving me advice. He is guiding me, but I have to lead my own research from the beginning until the end.

It seems like students really have a lot of autonomy over their research projects. That’s awesome!


How is life in Japan as a MEXT Scholar? Do you hang out with them often?

To be honest, I know MEXT is hosting some gatherings once in a while, but it always happens in Tokyo. It’s really funny because most of the MEXT scholars are living outside of Tokyo since many of them are studying at national universities – Nagoya, Osaka, Hokkaido, etc. Also, I’m really far from Tokyo so we don’t really go to those kinds of events.

I know most of the MEXT scholars at Tohoku University, but not many in the others. It’s probably because Tohoku is very geographically isolated from other universities. I feel that the community network can be pretty loose, and not that tight knitted, in my case.

Any application tips for people who might be interested?

Actually, Tohoku University has a special system for MEXT scholarships. I am currently enrolled in a program called FGL (The Future Global Leadership), which is the only undergraduate degree program taught in English at my university. Every year, about 10 students who have the highest entrance examination scores get recommended for the MEXT scholarship.

What kind of future do you envision for yourself?

Many people will be very surprised when I say this, but I lean more towards job-hunting and a corporate career. Lab is fun, but in scientific researches, you’re studying very deeply about a very narrow area. However, at one point, I will know this narrow area very well, but I know nothing about anything else. Because of that, I have tried internships and hanging out more with people outside the field. I figured out that it might be better for me to try out other kinds of stuff such as joining business competitions and extracurriculars. Things are more fun and dynamic in a corporate environment, as things are very slow in the research environment. While I am young and more energetic, I would like to challenge myself and do something more dynamic in my life. In the long run, though, I might go back to the science career later if I feel like I miss it. Otherwise, I might aim for a position in a company where I can make use of both my scientific background and business skills.

Now that you’re almost graduating, how do you feel looking back on the four years you have spent in Japan?

It was really fun. Thinking about it, I actually don’t want to graduate at all. (laugh)

Don’t you regret coming here at all?

Yeah! Many people asked me, “don’t you regret it?” That might be because, to be honest, student life as an international student at Japanese universities is not that easy. Foreigners are the minorities on university campuses, and many people might feel isolated and lonely about that fact. For me, I try to take things positively as there are many more chances for me here as an international student. I try to look for those kinds of opportunities: to learn more Japanese, to perfect my English, and to really show my abilities. Thanks to that, I was able take on multiple challenges. The university really gave me the opportunities and flexibility to do all that. I was able to do everything that I wanted to do, so I have no regrets.

Do you have some advice for people who’re thinking of studying abroad in Japan?

A bit of very realistic advice would be – make sure you learn Japanese well. Not only for making friends and taking classes, but also when you are trying to get a job, or any kind of thing that you want to do, you’ll get tons of benefits if you’re a good Japanese speaker. That is a realistic advice that I always give to my kohais (lowerclassmen). Learn Japanese and things will be much easier for you.

This is the second story of Humans of MEXT, a series of interviews that will deep dive into the story that each MEXT scholar has to tell about his or her journey in Japan.

If you enjoyed the story, or have any comments, please let me know through Stay tuned for the next article!