Professor Akiyama's recent accomplishments in research include successfully flash freezing cells by using inkject technology, and collecting microplastics in water using acoustics. His unique approach to a variety of challenges facing the globe has earned him attention from fellow researchers and media overseas.
Why did you decide to become a researcher?
After graduating from undergrad, I started to work at a start-up company run by a professor from the University of Tokyo. When I was there, I worked with postdocs with PhDs. I felt that their academic ability and knowledge was far superior from mine, so I decided to get a PhD. After receiving my PhD, I started to work at an established Japanese company, but I didn't feel the work was very rewarding. Because this is my one life to live, I thought I should challenge myself and try the academic path. So, I left the company and became a postdoc.
Looking back, I've always loved making things and tinkering since I was a child. I remember collecting boxes of pill bugs, or baskets full of worms, and doing other strange things. When I think about it, I think that when I graduated and worked with other postdoc researchers, I thought that I wanted to become like them. That was the biggest inspiration to become a researcher.
What are some moments of research you enjoy?
There are a few that come to mind. When I conduct various experiments and it works out as I expected. Or when I receive an award for an academic achievement. I'm happy when a paper is accepted to a journal. And when a research fund is granted. These are all moments that makes me happy.
Another positive aspect of research is that the work allows one to remain mentally youthful. I think researchers tend to be more flexible in thinking, not sticking to old conventions, and more playful than people in other professions. I think the reason is that we continue to try new things. In order to conceptualize a new research theme, you must first study the area and then you must question the obvious. I think this process makes ones thoughts flexible. It also may be because we are always in contact with students. On the flipside it means that we can never "coast" and we have to keep putting out good work, but I'm enjoying it for now.
Would you like to see the lab for a moment?
I am culturing muscle cells. I want to build strong muscles, so I'm applying electricity to make them contract. Electricity makes the muscles work out through contraction and relaxation.
I also use magnets to move particles. A current is generated to produce a magnetic field which can be used to move cells.
I look forward to the details when the paper is published. Do you make your own computer too?
No, that is not a computer. I want to use the laser processing machine for another purpose, so I bought cheap parts from China and am making a laser machine. I've frozen cells rapidly without cyroprotectant, but thawing must also be done rapidly. I am making this laser to thaw cells for that. People currently thaw cells in warm water.
You can really do anything! It's amazing.
No, I'm not so talented.
Let me show you, this machine is for the research on the collection of microplastics. I'm still in the process of altering the microscope to be able to observe it side-ways.
Where do your research ideas come from?
For example, I am freezing cells with an inkjet to freeze them quickly without the use of chemicals, or cyroprotectants. When I worked at a lab in Osaka previously, my boss was shooting cells with an inkjet, expelling the cells to make a pattern, like letters. So I thought, this is very small. There was also an inkjet commercial on TV that said "picoliter" (pico is 10 to the 12th power), and I thought that if it was that small, it could be frozen quickly. That was the trigger.
Do you come across challenges when researching?
There are many things I want to do, but I don't have as much time as I would like. Most difficulties I face are when I have a lot to do, rather than something that does not go well. Sometimes I run out of time to do things, and then, I'm like, oh no! I have this to do and that as well. It's as though my work and hobby are one and the same so I tend to work late. I aspire to make more time to play with my child, who is six years old.
Do you have goals for the future?
I'm researching microplastics because it's a big problem facing society right now, but I'm personally interested in cell freezing technology. I think it would be good if human eggs and sperm could be preserved without using cryopreservatives. Currently such cells are frozen but with cyroprotectants. I hope to be able to freeze cells for fertility treatments without chemicals.
And because I work at a university, I think it might be better if I do something creative, interesting, maybe unusual. Unlike companies, profit is not the sole purpose of research.
Can you introduce us to your favorite books and work items?
1) The book "Theoretical Microfluidics" by Henrik Bruus. With this as a reference, I made a BAW device that collects microplastics using piezo forces. It was quite difficult to get the latest information in Japanese. Thanks to this book, I can supplement my fragmented knowledge of microfluidics.
2) I like this machine tool. 3D printers are popular now, but they can't compete with machining due to precision and choice of materials. Take this BAW device. This glass was machined to make this custom shape. There are diamond particles on this pin, so the pin turns and cuts it little by little. There are very few companies that process glass, and it is extremely expensive. So this is my favorite machine that I often use.
3) Last year, I was on sabbatical at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, USA. I worked at the lab of Professor Takayama. He invited us to his house a few times and we enjoyed amazing home cooked meals. I was staying in the States while my family stayed in Japan, so the Japanese food I had there is a great memory. I think Nagano prefecture has some of the larger homes in Japan but the American professor's house and yard was so large compared to houses in Japan. I felt the difference of magnitude on many levels. My colleagues held a farewell party for me. They presented me with this lasered brick which I now display in my office. It says, "most likely to have the best socks in the lab" because they had never seen five-toed socks.
Associate Professor Akiyama：