Dr. Haruko Obokata, the 30-year-old Japanese researcher who has drawn global attention for her stem- cell research, deserves all the attention she has received. She developed a breakthrough method for producing pluripotent stem cells, which can grow into any type of cell, by stressing cells with a light bath of acidic solution.
As her method is relatively simple and affordable, it has offered greater hope for finding practical ways of controlling cancer and regenerating tissue and organs.
Her research breakthrough has not only advanced scientific research but also underlined the need to improve conditions for aspiring female researchers. That’s good because, in Japan, they need a great deal more support. The percentage of female researchers in Japan is the lowest among developed countries at 14.0 percent. In Russia, by contrast, 41.7 percent of researchers are female; in Britain, 38.3 percent; in the United States, 34.3 percent, and in South Korea, 16.7 percent.
There are some signs that conditions for women in science are slightly improving in Japan. The percentage of female first-year university students in science, engineering and agriculture rose from 9.3 percent in 1990 to 19.7 percent in 2013. More girls’ high schools are expanding science in their curriculums, and the government has targeted 30 percent of future research positions for women. According to independent studies, women are on average paid less than men at research institutes and are more often given limited-term contracts than are men.
A better place to look for answers to improving conditions for women researchers is the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, where Obokata did her research. Obokata became a research unit leader at the age of 29, the second-youngest person to hold this position at the center.
Instead of following the typical Japanese practice of age determining one’s position, the Riken Center encouraged her on the basis of early achievements, potential and determination.
The center also evaluates researchers primarily on the basis of performance, going against the typical Japanese workplace’s seniority-based approach. The center also took active steps to encourage women. A merit-based system of advancement and promotion helped to encourage her work, and would likely benefit many other women, too.
Most articles about Obokata emphasized her unique ways of approaching research problems. Clearly, somewhere along the way, she was lucky to have had her creative, unusual way of thinking encouraged by teachers and mentors. There should be more such encouragement so that others like her can also develop their full potential.
There are many talented and motivated young women willing and able to study science, conduct research and contribute to society, if only they can be encouraged for what they do, not held back because of what gender they happen to be. Many future scientific discoveries will depend on the girls and women who get support now.