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Trials, errors, but expert kept chin up

Kyodo

On her path to success, 30-year-old Haruko Obokata, who began experimenting on stem cells in 2008 while conducting research at Harvard University toward a scientific breakthrough, had to face rejection and criticism.

The criticism of the results of the study that were published in the international scientific journal Nature has not, however, discouraged her from continuing with the research.

“It was really difficult, as no one believed in our study,” Obokata told reporters.

Upon advice from a Harvard University supervisor, Obokata attempted an experiment to reproduce stem cells from brain or skin cells in mice using thin glass tubes.

The findings in the study, which turned out to be surprisingly successful, prompted her to wonder whether cells are exposed to stress when passing through a narrow tube and can be rejuvenated.

Obokata’s study had to overcome hurdles from the beginning and kept seesawing because it was hard to find other researchers to join the project.

“I can’t even count how many times I cried all night,” she said. “I kept on thinking ‘I’ll do my best for one more day.’ ”

An encounter with Teruhiko Wakayama, 46, then a geneticist at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology who is now a professor at the University of Yamanashi, became a turning point in the study.

However, the first time they submitted their study results to Nature, they drew harsh criticism from the publisher, who claimed they were “making fool of centuries-old history of cell biology.”

It took about five years for the researchers to get the report accepted by the journal after their first attempt.

Obokata, who was born in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, said she became interested in regenerative medicine when she came across a feature article in a scientific magazine during her high school days. Inspired by the article, she thought that was the way she could contribute to society, Obokata said.

Although the findings in the study have impressed many front-line researchers, Obokata remained humble.

“We have not achieved anything yet,” she said.

Looking to the future, she added that she will continue her work, hoping she will be able to contribute to the betterment of life for future generations.

Obokata has always been passionate about her work as a researcher.

“I have kept thinking about the study day and night, during bath time or even on a date,” she said. Unlike other researchers, when in the laboratory, she does not put on a white gown but chooses an apron she received from her grandmother instead.

“I feel that my grandma’s assisting me,” she said.

Obokata also changed the color of the walls of her laboratory to pink, displaying Moomin goods on her desk and shelves that show a “feminine” side of her character.

Obokata also works accompanied by her soft-shell turtle, which has his own place in the lab.

“Since this guy came here, we got our research on the right track, so he brings good luck,” she said with a smile.

  • PouncingAnt

    In science there is a long history of final success after years of harsh criticism, Barbara McClintock is the example we’re given in Genetics lectures (a name worth looking up, in my opinion), and she was awarded a Nobel prize for her work.
    Ideas that challenge existing preconceptions in science are often the most valuable ideas. I hope this story inspires more young scientists to live by the title of this article.