People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Fumiaki Imamura: The international road to scientific success

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

The academic life is a tough and often lonely one. For Fumiaki Imamura, a nutritional epidemiologist who studies diet and its impact on our health, it’s only in the past few years that he feels he has finally found his feet. Since 2002, he’s lived in the U.S. and the U.K. and his research has taken him from Bangladesh to Guatemala.

Now a senior investigative scientist at the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge, one of Imamura’s main research projects is studying the links between diet and diabetes, to better understand how diet influences the risk of diabetes and what it means for different societies.

In a recent interview, he talks about how the food industry is reacting to social pressure, though not uniformly: How, for example, some manufacturers are reducing salt and sugar content in processed foods. One of his key concerns, he says, is how information, especially pseudoscience, can spread so easily and quickly in the age of social media. He is working in precisely the field he had hoped for when he was a young student.

Imamura left Japan after completing undergraduate studies in chemistry at Sophia University in Tokyo. He wanted to use his background in basic science, he says, and apply it to providing solutions in areas such as nutrition, public health, toxicology, bioethics or environmental health. He also wanted to study these public health issues on a global scale.

He applied to various colleges and was accepted to pursue a masters in nutrition at Columbia University in New York. He had already studied briefly in the U.S. — a few weeks at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his third year at Sophia University.

“At that time, I felt I wanted to apply for graduate school (in the U.S.),” he says.

It was just coming up to the first anniversary of 9/11 when Imamura arrived in New York. The city was still in the early stage of recovering and Imamura says he could sense the different emotions that were playing out. Though confident, having having graduated top of his class, he says, “there was a lot going on for me, too.”

One of the big difficulties he remembers was how much easier it was to use English in Japan than it was in New York.

“Speaking in English in Japan was perceived as great, no matter what I talked about,” he says. “But when I went to Columbia University. Well, every student needs to understand what’s given in a lecture, discussions should be refined to some extent, and we had to deliver good English for professional purposes. That was really different (from Japan).”

Imamura’s chosen subject to specialize in — nutrition — was also something he had never formally studied before. “In so many courses I was naive about the content,” he recalls.

And when it came to interaction with lecturers, he discovered that he wasn’t as bold as his classmates, who were “passionate and competitive” and keen to make an impression on teaching staff.

“I felt my cultural background was very different,” he says. “Discussion was so hard and so harsh. It’s basically everyone trying to speak up.”

But Imamura’s persistence and the dedication he paid to honing his English, especially his writing, paid off. After completing his masters in New York, he moved to Boston in 2003 where he completed his doctorate in nutritional epidemiology at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Then, in 2009, he moved yet again, this time just a few miles away, to the Harvard School of Public Health (now the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health), where he became a postdoctoral researcher for four years, before moving to the U.K.

While Imamura’s 10 years in Boston were not as hectic as that intensive first year in New York, he poured himself into coursework and research, on many occasions, staying in the lab overnight.

“What was hard for me was the pressure to survive in academia,” he says, acknowledging that it is par for the course for burgeoning academics around the world.

At the Harvard School of Public Health, Imamura’s research focused on diet quality in more than 100 countries. In Cambridge, he is continuing those studies, while also teaching and supervising students.

Although he was studying diets, as a young academic in the U.S., Imamura explains that to meet deadlines and conduct research, his own lifestyle and diet suffered. At Harvard, he would often stay two nights a week in the lab. He had a portable electric cooker, he bulk-ordered dried beans on Amazon and kept pepper and salt in his drawer at his desk.

“It was stressful and I was so sedentary at that time,” Imamura recalls.

Now based full-time in Cambridge, he says, “It’s very comfortable for me here.” Life in the 810-year-old university town, it turns out, is closer to life in Japan, than his experiences in Boston or New York.

Yet it hasn’t tampered Imamura’s dedication to the cause. In 2016, unafraid to be a guinea pig in the name of research, he says he “successfully gained 5 kilograms over eight weeks.” His fellow researchers wanted to examine physiological responses to sudden weight gain.

When the experiment concluded, Imamura took to running to shed the weight. It was an exercise that also offered him a chance to understand the science of physical activity and how nutrition affects physical activity. But running helped him in an even more important way, he says: it helped him socially.

The year following the weight experiment, he took part in a relay race for charity. The social aspect of that event propelled Imamura to do more races, and he’s since completed numerous half-marathons, full marathons and a few ultra marathons — all in the U.K.

“In New York and Boston, I didn’t do much in the way of socializing, but joining these running events I think I have become more socially open and I can enjoy my environment and (enjoy) nature,” he says. “And that’s changed my life.”

Profile

Name: Fumiaki Imamura

Profession: Researcher, nutritional epidemiologist

Hometown: Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture

Key moments in career:

2002 — Moves to New York to begin masters degree in nutrition at Columbia University

2003 — Moves to Boston to begin a doctorate in nutritional epidemiology at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

2009 — Joins Harvard School of Public Health as a postdoctoral fellow

2013 — Joins the Medical Research Council’s (MRC) Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge as a tenured scientist

2015 — Selected as reviewer of the year at The BMJ (British Medical Journal)

2016 — Receives the University of Cambridge’s Best Impact Award, with Nita Forouhi, for the MRC Epidemiology Unit’s work on “Sugar, fat and health — building evidence, awareness and policy impact”

Things I miss about Japan: “Family, friends, food, culture and the nature.”

Words to Live by: “Persistence pays off.”