Kyoto-based Italian physicist blazes trail for foreign academics

Tenured professor, author or coauthor of over 500 papers, is recognized by Rome as one of 80 outstanding Italians overseas

by Jane Singer

Special To The Japan Times

Professor Giuseppe Pezzotti, 51, a materials scientist at Kyoto Institute of Technology, effortlessly switches from a newspaper interview in English to discuss research collaboration with a colleague in fluent Japanese. Even sartorially, he straddles East and West: While his torso is clad in button-down shirt, khaki pants and lime green sweater, his bare feet are crammed into Japanese zori sandals. This is a man not bound by conventions.

Pezzotti was born and raised in Rome, the son of an engineer ostracized by his aristocratic family for marrying a commoner from southern Italy. “I admired my father. He made a choice of love and was the kind of person who knows what he wants,” he says.

Pezzotti studied engineering at Rome University, his father’s alma mater, in the mid-1980s. “I became attracted to microscopy,” he said. “Japan then had the world’s best microscopes and free-flowing research funds. Scientific research in Italy at the time was extremely basic. We studied scientific theories in 15th century classroom buildings, did few experiments and lacked advanced equipment. I had read about atoms and molecules but had never seen them.

“One day I came across an image of the atomic structure of ceramic material provided by Osaka University, and I was fascinated by its clarity. I decided to study in Japan.” After graduating summa cum laude from Rome University, he arrived in Japan in April 1987 to study for his Ph.D. with the Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research at Osaka University.

Pezzotti’s professor spoke little English and Pezzotti no Japanese when he arrived. He recalls, “After a few months my professor told me I should give a five-minute speech in Japanese at the Japanese Ceramics Society, so I wrote up something, which was translated and written in romaji, then I memorized it. It went fine until people asked me questions.”

He became determined to master the language without attending classes, rejecting Japanese lessons because “studying language in a group with a set sequence is meaningless.” Instead, he selected 1,000 useful words from an Italian-Japanese dictionary and taped himself reading vocabulary and definitions. He then listened to the tape day and night.

Progress was slow at first. “An adult has less absorptive capacity than a child, so you must increase your listening time by several orders of magnitude,” he explains. “But eventually I started to understand what the world was speaking about. For me, this was the best way to learn.”

He learned to read Japanese characters while completing a 500-page Japanese-Italian technical translation job that a former professor had solicited. “In general, we Romans are lazy. I need an external driving force, but this force always appears, like my destiny,” he adds.

In 1991, Pezzotti received a Ph.D. in materials engineering from Osaka University, and he embarked on a research and teaching career in Japan, including stints with universities in Sendai and Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture. In 1996, after the education ministry policies for foreign faculty changed, Pezzotti became one of the first foreigners in recent times to be awarded tenure, becoming associate professor at his current institution, Kyoto Institute of Technology, a century-old national university with roots in textile, design and engineering.

He was only 39 when he was named a tenured full professor at the university. He is now professor of ceramic physics in the Graduate School of Science and Technology, overseeing 16 graduate students, half of whom are foreign and several of whom are Italian.

He teaches classes in ceramic physics, nanomaterials and ceramic chemistry in Japanese and has given guest lectures at universities throughout Europe and elsewhere.

Pezzotti also serves as a scientific advisor for the Italian government. “The former Italian education minister asked me to join various government councils and to assess scientific policy when I can do so, saying ‘If Pezzotti doesn’t go to Italy then Italy must go to Pezzotti,’ ” he says. In 2011 Pezzotti was recognized as one of “80 outstanding Italians abroad” by the Italian government.

Despite his seemingly seamless adjustment to life here, like many foreign researchers Pezzotti professes surprise at some Japanese academic practices.

“Japanese are reluctant to do new things and they dislike uncertainty, even though in fields like quantum mechanics we embrace indetermination,” he says. “But as with stones in cultured pearls, if you introduce something new to the Japanese — an equation, a recipe — and apply firm pressure, Japanese eventually reach a threshold of high activation energy, and then their achievements leave the rest of us behind.”

Having spent much of his early career snatching sleep on the couch in his laboratory, Pezzotti remained a bachelor until turning 40. At that point an elderly office secretary who was concerned about his health and longevity began to arrange for a young Kyoto woman named Takako to “fortuitously” appear at gatherings of Pezzotti and his friends.

Her machinations culminated in Pezzotti and Takako’s marriage in 1999. They now have a 3-year-old son, Iori, to whom Pezzotti is trying to teach his native tongue. “I wheeled my son around on my bicycle for two hours every day last summer, speaking in Italian the entire time. He now understands Italian pretty well,” he says.

Asked to describe his work, Pezzotti embarks on a lengthy explication of quantum physics, nanotechnology, Raman spectroscopy and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. It is while listening to this that the interviewer counts the 360 slim plastic drawers — each containing copies of one of Pezzotti’s published scientific papers — that line one wall of his copious office, along with part of his collection of ukiyo-e art. These are just a portion of the 550 scientific papers Pezzotti has authored or coauthored during his career.

Everything here is pristine and organized. “What you see in the room of the professor is the situation in his mind,” Pezzotti says.

Suffice it to say that Pezzotti and his students mainly apply principles of quantum mechanics by setting lasers on materials that cause the molecules to vibrate. As the molecules can only vibrate at given frequencies, part of the leftover energy is emitted as light, and the light contains deep physical, crystallographic and chemical information that is extracted via spectroscopic algorithms.

Pezzotti is particularly interested in orthopedic applications. He explains: “As you age, proteins in the cartilage of joints might degrade and you become arthritic. But the degradation occurs before the pain starts, so if you can identify the process early on, you can limit activity or take medicine to retard degradation.”

He also works to improve natural and artificial bone materials, he explains as he holds out a sleek white ceramic hip joint and a flat polymer tibia insert that are the foci of current research.

Pezzotti feels that foreign residents can play an essential role in improving Japan.

He draws on quantum physics for an analogy: “A ruby is a beautiful, expensive stone, but from a structural point of view it’s basically aluminum oxide containing a few parts per million of chromium. This foreign element, constrained in the crystal matrix, is capable of emitting a beautiful light. Yet without this ‘impurity’ the matrix would simply be white, while the chromium itself would be featureless. We foreign residents can similarly be regarded as intentionally inserted elements, or ‘dopants,’ which make the society more beautiful.”