Polar pioneer sets her sights high


For her doctoral thesis, Kazuyo Sakanoi studied the mechanisms of flickering auroras — those luminous phenomena in the atmosphere that appear like curtains of light.

“Auroras twinkle at an altitude of about 100 km in the sky. They are phenomena in space actually, not on Earth,” says Sakanoi, who specialized in geophysics and is a lecturer in the natural sciences department at Komazawa University in Tokyo.

To do research for her thesis, Sakanoi joined a 40-member Japanese party overwintering near the South Pole in 1997, and ended up staying there for 16 months. In fact, she is one of the first two female Japanese researchers sent to the Showa Station, Japan’s Antarctic research base.

Being chosen as the first woman to join the overwintering team was itself a major achievement in her career. But more than that, Sakanoi says, she has never forgotten the tremendous shock she had when she first saw the South Polar aurora australis (the northern equivalent is the aurora borealis). The lights spread as far as you could see across the horizon, and sometimes the curtain of light moved very rapidly in just a few minutes, she recalls.

“I was thinking I knew about auroras because I was studying them and I had seen many images of them, but the real ones were nothing like I had ever imagined,” she says.

Sakanoi says that she enjoyed life in the pure, natural setting of the South Pole — but also remembers one day when a blizzard was blowing so strongly that she was afraid to go back to her hut, just a few hundred meters away, from her office.

For Sakanoi, 36, the South Pole had always been the driving force motivating her to pursue her career. She had been interested in remote and exotic places ever since she was a child, she says, and had never had any doubts about becoming a scientist.

On the other hand, however, she also learned how difficult it was for women to keep pursuing their goals when she saw a number of her fellow female students abandoning their ambitions out of anxiety about their future. Female students, she noticed, often studied science until they got a master’s degree, but then rarely remained in the field to gain a doctorate. In fact, Sakanoi was the only woman under her adviser at Tohoku University to have got a doctorate in the past 20 years.

Lack of role models

One reason for this, she explains, is a lack of role models for young female science students, which causes them to feel worried about such future plans as having a family.

“Usually, if you want to be a scientist you get a doctorate and then teach at universities. But the number of jobs in teaching has been going down. What makes the situation worse is that the timing of when women are looking for university jobs often overlaps with them starting a family — as in my case.”

Sakanoi was nine months pregnant when she was interviewed for her current job at Komazawa University three years ago. At that time, she says, she was worried that she may have had to give up her career temporarily if she didn’t get the job.

But now, with her husband, also a scientist in the same field and a teacher at Tohoku University, Sakanoi often stays at her parents’ house in Yokohama during the week to work at her university, while her husband takes care of their 3-year-old son at home in Sendai, near Tohoku University.

“We have a home in Sendai because of the environment, and that means my husband takes care of our son.” she says. “The lifestyle is hard but fun. I really appreciate that my husband married me knowing everything about my work. In fact, I had never thought about getting married before I met him.”

Another hurdle to increasing the number of women in science is the stereotyped idea that “women are not suited to science,” she points out.

“It’s not true. But because of that idea, when women fail in their studies, people are inclined to think it is because they are women. The idea tends to discourage women from pursuing science.”

While following her demanding but rewarding career path to study the cosmic phenomenon of auroras — and to teach young students as she now does — Sakanoi often also contemplates the fundamental question of how her studies can contribute to society.

That was a question, she says, that was raised by reporters when she was interviewed about her study project at the South Pole.

“I haven’t got the exact answer yet, but I think that if you do research only with the aim of making it useful in society, then you would not be able to have a significant result,” she says.

“I believe if you do research and find it very interesting, you will get results that contribute to society eventually.

“My work may be something that will help to deepen people’s understanding and enrich culture in the long run.”