National / Science & Health

Japanese winner of L'Oreal-UNESCO award for female scientists looks to reshape materials research

by Alex Jackson

Contributing Writer

From a young age, Dr. Yukiko Ogawa knew she wanted to become a scientist. Growing up in Komaki, Aichi Prefecture, she would spend hours after school creating objects in her bedroom. It was this curiosity and early ingenuity when it came to designing novel things that led Ogawa to where she is today.

“Materials science is the foundation of modern society,” Ogawa said from her research base at the National Institute for Materials Science in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, one of Japan’s largest scientific research centers. “All products are made from materials, so any innovation or discovery in materials science has a direct impact on our future.”

For Ogawa, 2018 has been something of a whirlwind. The young researcher, still only 28, has received global acclaim for her innovations in the field of materials engineering. In March, Ogawa was selected as a winner of the L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Rising Talents. The prize honors 15 of the most promising young female scientists from across the globe.

“I was really honored and surprised to hear I’d been selected — I couldn’t quite believe it,” said Ogawa. She credits the support and encouragement from family, supervisors and laboratory members throughout her early career.

“The UNESCO experience has really encouraged me and had a big impact on my career,” she said.

Ogawa has since been invited to speak about her team’s research at universities worldwide, and is still getting used to the media spotlight.

Ogawa’s research focuses on next-generation structural materials — particularly lightweight ones such as magnesium alloys — that show promising potential to improve fuel efficiency in vehicles, make electronic devices more portable and open up new possibilities in medical devices.

However, the use of magnesium alloys has been limited as they are difficult to shape into new forms. But Ogawa succeeded in controlling the microstructure and mechanical properties of magnesium by heat treatment, which had previously been considered impossible.

Experimenting further by adding another element, scandium, to the alloy, her research group found something quite special.

“We discovered the world’s first magnesium alloys which exhibit shape memory behavior — meaning the material can be bent and deformed, but reverts back to its original shape when exposed to heat or electricity,” explained Ogawa, who studied engineering at Tohoku University in Sendai,. The impact of the research could prove to be very positive for the environment.

“The development of our alloy will increase the fuel efficiency of transportation systems such as automobiles and aircraft, as well as reduce the noise.”

Ogawa also believes the medical implications of this research are encouraging.

“The re-narrowing of blood vessels is currently a serious problem, which results from keeping a metallic stent in the human body,” she said. Stents — the tiny tubes doctors use to restore blood flow and keep open blocked passageways — are usually made of either metal or plastic.

“Meanwhile, magnesium is biodegradable and not harmful to the human body, so our alloy could be used as a human-friendly medical stent.”

The researcher hopes that through winning the UNESCO award, she can inspire more young women to get into science.

“The shortage of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields is a serious problem in Japan because the rate of female researchers is much lower than that in other countries,” Ogawa said.

According to UNESCO Institute for Statistics data, less than 30 percent of the world’s researchers are women. In Japan, the Cabinet Office’s 2017 White Paper on Gender Equality reported that just 10.6 percent of engineering researchers are women, while the figure stands at 14.2 percent for scientists. Across all STEM fields only 15.7 percent of Japanese researchers are women — about half the average proportion among OECD countries.

“Young boys and girls enjoy natural sciences in play without prejudices,” Ogawa said. “They are deeply moved by the life of insects, the crystal shapes of snow, the color of flowers and the mechanism of automatic car toys. We need to show teenage girls how products are made, particularly ones they use often, and emphasize how science is involved in our daily life.”

Ogawa explained how she was one of a small handful of women studying science both in high school and at university. However, a report by scientific and medical information provider Elsevier published in 2017 at the Gender Summit in Tokyo identified Japan as the only country where the scholarly output score per researcher from 2011 to 2015 was higher for women than for men. Japanese women published an average 1.8 papers over the period, which was 38 percent more than men at 1.3 papers.

“In our society, the stereotype where women have a responsibility for housework and child care is still sadly very much alive,” sighed Ogawa. “Many young women have to give up their careers due to marriage or child rearing. I hope that male and female scientists can coexist without any gender discrimination in the future.”

She does, however, believe the reports of a female brain drain in the sciences in Japan that, if true, should be a matter of national concern.

“Japan is at risk of losing many of its best researchers to other countries,” she said. “Brain drain from Japan to other Asian countries is a serious problem, regardless of gender.”

Ogawa has other concerns too. She mentioned frustrations over the time it can take to put new scientific ideas into practical use in Japan, as well as the country’s continued efforts to collaborate on the international stage.

“Japan needs to be much more open to international collaborations. Our global competitiveness relies on this,” she said.

A Digital Science report published last month found that in the period between 2009 and 2017, the increase of internationally collaborative papers in Japanese research institutions worked out at 6 percent per year, a 69.3 percent increase overall. It also showed collaboration with China was on the rise, but found South Korea is set to become the more prominent research partner in the future.

Ogawa remains optimistic about the future, though there are still many challenges she wants to overcome.

“I’d love to put our magnesium alloy into practical use, but first we have to improve its strength and the operating temperature over which it exhibits shape-memory behavior.”

Reflecting on what lies ahead, she concluded: “My dream was to become a scientist who can contribute to our society from behind the scenes. I hope I can continue enjoying my research and doing my best to help people.”