Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Young scientists at the JST 20th Anniversary Forum

So this is really why I was in Japan: I was invited to the 2016 Science Agora and the Japan Science and Technology Agency's (JST) 20th anniversary forum; in both programs, I was a member of panels composed of scientists who were tasked on discussing how science can be more relatable to society. My attendance to these two events were made possible by Dr Bruce Tolentino, IRRI's Deputy Director General for Communications and Partnerships. I am deeply grateful to him because he nominated me to attend when JST asked if IRRI could send a young female scientist who could communicate the relevance of her research to society. I am also very thankful to the JST for extending the invitation to me after Bruce's nomination... and to Ms Natsuko Kawazoe (JST's Centre for Science Communication) for all her efforts in making sure that all of us, invited panelists and speakers, were prepared for our topics. She also organised the logistics for us. 

So, the previous posts were really the side trips. Now for the real deal...

The JST's 20th Anniversary theme was "Creating Innovation for Tomorrow's World". I, again, was in a panel composed of young researchers. Nuwong was there with me again. We were joined by fellow PhDs Takuya Kitagawa (Rakuten) and Ken Endo (Xiborg). It was interesting because this panel was composed of researchers from diverse fields of science: Nuwong is in biofuels; Takuya is into big data; Ken is into prosthetics; and I'm into rice research.

Our discussion was moderated by the Japanese non-fiction writer, Dr Kazuma Yamane.

We talked briefly about our research interests but the discussion ultimately landed onto the topic of mobility. What can I say about technologies to improve mobility?!? I'm a food scientists, for crying out loud! I felt like I was in a beauty pageant's Q&A portion... but everyone onstage is dressed in business attire and we were supposed to talk about science, technology, and innovation... not so much abstractions leading to random mentions of world peace. Oh... and I'm the only girl on stage.

Anyway, the discussion was very interesting. Mobility is a valued ability here, it seems. After all, mobility was equated with freedom, relaxation, the great outdoors. We were asked what our ideas about improved mobility are 20 years into the future. Robotics and new sources of fuel were mentioned. Even working from home or living close to the office were put forward. I had to think on the fly, I nervously thought... All I know is that vehicles burn fuel. So I said, probably we'll develop technologies that can harness energy to run vehicles directly from plants without killing the plants. Just like those bio fuel cells. After all, plants generate energy through photosynthesis and respiration, right? If we can harness some of that, then we won't need to kill plants for biofuel or dig up for oil. At the same time, the plants assimilate carbon dioxide and generate oxygen. So basically, plant boxes on top of cars. Hehe.

Me and my wild ideas right? As if it ended there...

On another instance, because the question was directly on how to improve the traffic situation, I said why not develop those flying cars just like those shown in The Jetsons (me and my American cartoon references... I could have talked about those flying lions in Voltron, or time-space warps like in Shaider, but no!). That way, we minimise the cars jamming the roads. After all, what's science fiction in the past can be reality now and in the future.

Was it right to speak off the top of my head in front of a scientific audience? I don't know, but I had to wing it. It was difficult to assess their reactions because there's a delay in the simultaneous translation to Japanese. And probably because new ideas tend to get put to the side because they're so... I don't know... weird?

However, after the panel discussion, someone from the science and technology office of the South African embassy approached me, saying that she enjoyed listening to my ideas. She's exploring possibilities of collaborating in the future and this may be one avenue worth pursuing, especially since South Africa is big on space research. Let's see where this goes. As my GRISP leadership mentors kept saying before, No is not allowed during brainstorming sessions.