By Jerry Grillo
Minori Murachi is a young biomedical engineering student from Japan who dreams of helping humankind explore and colonize Mars.
But first she has to build a resumé of research here on Earth, and her recent involvement in the Nakatani Research and International Experience for Students at the Georgia Institute of Technology is helping give her a head start on that.
“I’m aiming to become a researcher who is active overseas,” said Murachi, who is nearing the end of her five-week stint at the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. “I particularly want to be involved in research and development in the United States.”
The Nakatani-Coulter BME partnership gave her a taste of in-depth, collaborative research with international partners, culminating with a symposium and competitive poster session in late March. It also exposed her to new cultural experiences and valuable networking opportunities, inspiring her to think even more deeply about a career in space exploration.
“Presently, we can get to Mars in a month or two, but the stress on the human body on the return from Mars is a problem, because the gravity environment is different from that of the Earth, and the human body is damaged by the effects of radiation and muscle atrophy,” Murachi said. “This is just one exciting area that I could help find solutions for with like-minded people I’ve met through the Nakatani program. There is a golden opportunity to explore myriad scenarios in cooperation with international engineers and scientists.”
Murachi is a first-year grad student at Doshisha University in Kyoto, where she’s studying materials science in a biomechanics lab. She was one of 11 students from Japan in the Nakatani program at Tech this semester.
Launched in fall 2019 as a student exchange, the Nakatani program was put on hold along with almost everything else during the Covid-19 pandemic. So far, Japan has sent students to Georgia Tech, but no Tech students have engaged in research in Japan — yet.
“We anticipate that happening this summer,” said Coulter BME Professor Shuichi Takayama, director of the Nakatani program at Tech.
“Covid messed up most of the first two years, so we’re playing catching up,” said Georgia Tech Research Scientist Soojung Lee, program manager of the Nakatani Research and International Experience, who emphasized the importance of a tactile experience for participants, as opposed to a virtual one.
The program is designed as a research experience for undergraduates, but it’s also much more than that, Takayama added: “The emphasis also is on creating some cultural experiences for these students visiting the U.S., and on making connections and collaborating.”
That’s where Nakatani mentors come in. They’re expected to fill multiple roles over the five- to six-week student exchange experience. In addition to teaching and fostering basic research skills, they also act as hosts and cultural tour guides, taking the students to family dinners, or barbecues at Stone Mountain, or hikes in Northeast Georgia.
For Luna Nguyen, a grad student in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the big challenge was balancing her role as a mentor to three different students: Nakatani participant Naka Ida plus two full-time Georgia Tech undergraduate students.
“I wanted to give my Nakatani student the best possible experience, to nurture her interests in science, so I invested a lot of my time discussing how to do research with the hope that she would see the beauty of logical thinking,” Nguyen said.
Her lessons must have been useful; Ida won the research poster competition in March.
Nguyen works in the lab of Vinyak Agarwal. Her interest in the Nakatani program bloomed after she collaborated with the Takayama lab on a research project. Originally from Hanoi, Vietnam, she remembered what it was like being an exchange student in the U.S. and Canada during her undergraduate years, and how she sometimes felt excluded.
“I encouraged Naka to ask questions, and I encouraged my other two Georgia Tech undergrads to share their knowledge with her,” Nguyen said.
It left a lasting impression on Ida, who came to Georgia Tech specifically hoping to make those kinds of connections.
“I wanted not only to study and absorb as much knowledge and as many skills as possible, but also to learn the philosophies of Georgia Tech researchers,” said Ida, who was finishing her bachelor’s degree when she was accepted to the program before the pandemic and now is a second-year grad student in organic chemistry at Japan’s Hokkaido University. “I hoped to establish friendships with other Nakatani participants and other Georgia Tech students, to talk about our majors, our future dreams, our life plans — to build long lasting relationships that might lead to future collaborative research.”
This summer, at long last, the other half of the Nakatani program will send 11 or so Georgia Tech students to Japan for 10 to 12 weeks. They’ll work with researchers at Osaka University, Kyoto University, or the University of Tokyo.
As she neared the end of her Nakatani experience, Murachi was grateful for her weeks in Atlanta and offered some advice for students who will follow in her footsteps.
“This is a valuable and precious experience, and I strongly believe it will improve your ability and potential as a researcher,” she said. “Studying abroad will broaden your vision for your future. This is your life. Seize your moment.”