Interview #13: Professor Takuzo Aida: Creating new knowledge for the next generation

Although it has been some time since the last interview, we have recently interviewed several famous chemists so we would like to continue onward with this interview series. Interview #13 presents Professor Takuzo Aida from the School of Engineering at The University of Tokyo, who was recommended to us by Professor Itaru Hamachi (interview #5). Professor Aida is a chemist who has a splendid ability to express creativity in research. Having received training in polymer chemistry—which is rather a macromolecular concept—he creates new materials in the nanoscopic world such as light-harvesting dendrimers, molecular pedals (or molecular pliers), as well as graphite/protein nanotubes. We have already introduced their recently synthesized high-water-content moldable hydrogel (“aqua material” with more than 95% water content) on our website. Why and how did such a person become a chemist? Let’s start here!


[su_dropcap size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap] What made you choose chemistry as a career?


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I was good in chemistry, but I really had no intention to follow the path of chemistry. That’s because back then, people only perceived chemistry and chemical industry as “pollution.” When I unexpectedly ended up studying chemistry in the faculty of engineering, it led me to philosophize and tell myself “that’s life, I guess.”

I was part of the “non-political student generation” right after all the student movements had ended (which was around 1960–1970). Back then, a degenerate atmosphere of “we don’t do things that require effort” pervaded across campus. But after living a degenerate student life of not studying for an entire year, it obviously came back to bite me, so I had to decide whether to study or to quit. My conclusion was that I would try to study chemistry in order to see whether I really liked it or hated it. Eventually, chemistry became fun, and I joined a physical chemistry research group in my senior year (4th year). There, I totally lost confidence in myself, and I almost wavered from my path again, but I then proceeded to study the field of chemistry I am still working on now. Thus, in graduate school, I met my admirable mentors, Professors Shohei Inoue and Teiji Tsuruta, who taught me the essence and fun of doing research. I proceeded onto the Ph.D. track in my graduate school, but I was still not interested in working in academia. However, in the second year of my doctoral program, I came across a scientific “discovery”—albeit small—and that’s when I trembled out of excitement. I feel that my life path was decided at that defining moment.

Since then, whenever I finished important experiments, riding home on my bicycle in the wee hours of the morning, I strongly felt that I would like to proceed with this sort of life if it can continue to emotionally move me. Fortunately, I was hired as an Assistant right after obtaining my Ph.D., which led me to where I am today. Including all the encounters I have made—if I had taken one step in a different direction, a completely different life would have awaited me, that’s for sure.


[su_dropcap size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap]

 If you were not a chemist, what would you like to be, and why?

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Previously, in an Angewandte Chemie interview, I wrote that I wanted to be a dentist while in high school—this elicited many comments (they were mostly like “seriously??”). I had many relatives in the medicine/dentistry/pharmacy business, and out of those, dentistry looked like the easiest job to do, so I maybe thought that it would suit me because of the inner lazy boy in me. But now I feel that it was good that I chose to not pursue a career that involves peeking into people’s mouths all the time (somewhat like the famous quote from Steve Jobs to John Sculley III when Jobs lured Sculley away from PepsiCo: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want to take the chance to change the world?”).

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 In general, how do you think chemists can contribute to the world?

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I think that the term “useful” is rather misunderstood these days. There are many students who graduate from school and go into industry saying, “I want to be useful to society so I will take up a job in industry”—the only thing that these students learn is that “industry = making money.” It’s not that the best products necessarily sell well, so even if you work really hard at developing something “useful,” if it’s too expensive, it might not be adopted as the company’s core know-how. In contrast, a chemist’s output transcends the barriers of location, culture and language to ascribe new value to materials and known principles. In an ideal world, there should be no financial restrictions to this endeavor, so researchers could pursue what they believe to be “useful.” The global system of research is also set up such that we can receive direct or indirect feedback from many other researchers around the world. Isn’t this a movement that can create something truly “useful”?

What is unfortunate, however, is that in order to truly appreciate chemistry, the one reading about new research findings also needs to be equipped with basic chemistry knowledge. Art and music directly appeal to the human senses, so one does not need additional knowledge or experience to appreciate such works. That is envious from a scientific researcher’s point of view!

One more comment: I am somewhat puzzled by the current trend of funding agencies awarding large research grants to projects that are “immediately applicable.” This is seldom possible without putting together existing knowledge from the scientific literature—in other words, this is a type of research that “consumes” ideas rather than generating new ideas. If the world is going to end in a few more years, this model of funding is fine, but since I am an academic researcher in the 21st century (when natural resources are being continuously depleted), I feel that I have the responsibility of “creating new knowledge” for the next generation. If we are consuming all these ideas without generating new ones, I feel that we would not be able to leave anything for the next generation of humanity.

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 If you could have dinner with any famous person from the past, who would it be, and why?

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The racer, Ayrton Senna da Silva, or Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs. The reason for this is simple—these are people who have lived in the same generation as me at some point, and they displayed instances of “making the impossible possible” by putting their life on the line. What they have accomplished is not fiction—it’s pure reality. Rather than debating whether something at the limits of mankind can be achieved or not, they knew that showing how it can be done is the best method of persuasion. However, even if I were given the chance to have dinner with these people, I would probably not be able to swallow my food!


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 When was the last time you performed an experiment in the laboratory, and what was it about?

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It is certain that it has been over 20 years since my last experiment in the laboratory. It was a time where analytical tools rapidly shifted from analog to digital format, and I remember giving up while trying to understand how to use the latest analytical machine.


[su_dropcap size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap]

  If you were stranded on a desert island, which book or song/piece of music would you like to have with you? Please single out your favorite example.

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I would not need books or music. I think I would take that rare opportunity to enjoy my surroundings.


[su_dropcap size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap] Do you have any suggestions as to whom we should interview next?


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Professor Eiji Yashima at Nagoya University or Professor Tomokazu Iyoda at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. If permitted, I would love to have them contribute to this interview series by responding in a full-blown Kansai dialect. Professor Yashima is very knowledgeable about a Kansai pro wrestler called “Ebessan,” and Professor Iyoda is called “Boss” (referring to a Yakuza boss) among friends. They both have the “destructive” ability to take action at any given moment.


Regarding the grim outlook for human resource development in Japan

Finally, in this special edition, we have received Professor Aida’s opinions on human resource development in Japan, and therefore we present that below:

Some time ago, I was given the opportunity to dine with the CEO of a very popular, high-class corporation. During the conversation, we discussed the corporate hiring process. According to the CEO, “new hires now consist of 30% foreigners and 25% women, and the rest are Japanese men. It’s not just about the ability to speak foreign languages but also their enthusiasm—that’s why we are hiring more and more foreigners. The women that we hire are enthusiastic as well, and their vision for the future is quite clearly stated. In contrast, Japanese men do not have much experience overseas and their English abilities are poor. If our company did not prioritize the objective of remaining a Japanese company that provides services to Japanese people, the demographic trend of new hires will change more and more. We are currently at the edge of being swayed by a large wave of globalization. We are a profit-driven company, so if we judge that new Japanese graduates are no longer useful from a business perspective, we would probably not hire new Japanese graduates preferentially.”

The Japanese business industry has always competed for the best new Japanese graduates. The value of new graduates used to be based on their ability to adapt and to learn new concepts quickly, but now, this value is becoming less important. Without warning the future generation of Japanese students, companies are trying to change the course of their business direction. The new era that we live in asks for real abilities and diverse experience. Can Japanese students keep up with that sort of demand? These days, new Japanese graduates consist of less than 60% of the new hires, and they need to be cognizant of their “rivals,” who are from neighboring Asian countries.

When watching TV one day, I came across a program that describes the job-searching process for new graduates: students who have a job lined up are becoming “teachers” for their junior students by conducting mock interviews. These senior students were giving detailed advice such as “shoes are better if they have laces, ties are better if they are tied with a dimple.” I became immediately worried about the future of this country. Little know-how like this can sometimes get a student a job by pure luck, but in today’s era, workers get laid off easily if their contribution to the company is insufficient—I was shocked that universities are involved in promoting this kind of insignificant career advice.

Large corporations like Apple or Google apparently do not hire new graduates unless the student has ample experience such as developing a popular app or software. What is real value, real talent? This is starting to be requested of Japanese students. Big corporations these days simply do not have the time and resources to educate new personnel. If they decide that something takes too much time and effort, they easily change business direction. Japan is a country that cannot exist without its specialized skills. If science and engineering students are aiming to become researchers or skilled technicians, I would like them to aim to acquire “real value and real talent” without being influenced by the meaningless trends of the world today. I feel that this is the only way to live one’s life in harmony with oneself, without regrets.


[su_box title=”Biographical sketch of Takuzo Aida:”] Born in 1956. After graduating from Yokohama National University in 1979, he moved to the School of Engineering at The University of Tokyo and obtained his Ph. D. in 1984. Rising through the ranks of Assistant then Assistant Professor at the University of Tokyo, he has been at his current post of Professor in the School of Engineering at the University of Tokyo since 1996. He was a project leader at Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) between 2000 and 2005, and he has had a joint appointment as a group director at RIKEN since 2009. He has received numerous awards, including the Chemical Society of Japan (CSJ) Award in 2009, the Fujiwara Prize in 2010, the Purple Ribbon Medal of Honor in 2010, and the Alexander von Humboldt Research Award in 2011.


Japanese version written here  on  Nov 24, 2011 ; English translation written on Nov 9, 2014.