Okinawa college breaking new ground

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Okinawa college breaking new ground

by: Alex Mutuc | .
Stripes Okinawa | .
published: December 28, 2014

Hidden in the northern part of the island, the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology is serving as the new frontier in academia and research. At first glance, OIST is a college, a premier graduate facility. However, the entirety of the institute is something much bigger, something grand and intriguing for researchers, local citizens and students.

OIST as an institution is a very odd concept. It is a graduate university that is serving as a sort of experiment, not just for its financers, the Japanese government, but also for the field of higher education. And although the inception of OIST comes from Japanese tax dollars, the environment revolves around international influence with English as the central language.

There are students and professors from India, Romania, the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, practically every stretch of the globe, giving its campus one of the greatest concentrations of diversity on the island. These students and professors are flocking to this university that opened in 2012 for its unconventional approach to education, for its unique structure and for its unparalleled dedication to quality research.

Let’s take a tour
Kaoru Natori, the head of institute’s media department, was kind enough to guide me through the campus and give me insight into the dynamic institute. The tour started in the main entrance, a long curvaceous hall with walls displaying videos and photos of students and staff. Natori explained that the unorthodox architecture was used to preserve the surrounding environment.

Instead of flattening large acreages of trees and creeks, the entire campus was built to conform to the natural area. The final result is a collection of pods that are connected with bridges overlooking the ocean.

When we reached the main elevators, Tsumoru Shintake, the professor for the Quantum Wave Microscopy Unit, greeted us as he stood next to his latest project. Towering over him was an upside down wind turbine. He explained that he and his fellow researchers adopted the idea of the wind turbine, which produces clean energy, flipped it and attached a buoyant pod to its end. They then tested it to see if it could produce energy from ocean currents.

“Imagine if you built windmills under the sea – surprisingly, it can generate power from the slow moving current,” said Shintake.

With two years of development already done, Shintake is looking to test the device in open water near the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, where a consistent current provides harvestable energy, he said. Saddened but inspired by the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Shintake hopes to promote sustainable energy for a safer, cleaner future.

It is just one of many projects the students and professors are pursuing to change the world.

No barriers
We continue walking around the campus where people of every ethnicity pass by. Natori says that while diversity is key to the dynamic environment, it is never a priority. OIST pushes first for quality in the selection of its students and professors. While many professors started in some of the world’s most prestigious institutions, they all came to the Okinawa campus for the exciting freedom and new approach to education.

Professor Ulf Skoglund, the leader of the Structural Cellular Biology Unit, explained the unique pleasure of being able to research and teach here. I asked Skoglund which department he headed. His reply was earnest and confusing. “There are no departments.”

Colleges are usually divided among numerous schools – college of arts and sciences, college of engineering, the business school, and so forth. But OIST has no divisions between its subjects. Instead, the entire university integrates its subjects to cultivate a unified student body, connected and harmoniously woven together.

When asked how this method fares with the traditional environment, Skoglund’s reply was immediate, “There’s no comparison.”

The lack of barriers allow students and professors to learn and progress together, sharing their expertise to pursue a common goal. Skoglund, who said he had been bogged down by administrative bureaucracy at previous institutions, said this campus is different.

“The point of having no subdivisions means we all share everything in terms of discussion or usage,” he said. “So, it’s meant to enable more discussion between units.”

The institution is also pioneering a new approach to the ranking of faculty and staff. “There is generally a very large distance between assistant professor and full professor,” said Skoglund. And while the traditional structure contains many advantages, OIST is working to facilitate a better fluidity between students and professors of all stature.

“It creates a faster propagation of new things,” said Skoglund, who has enjoyed the diminishing of ranks. The unusual approach means that associate professors, students, and full professors can all contribute to the progression and course of research.

Even the architecture facilitates this motif of integration as buildings are not labeled “Physics Department,” or “Medical Department,” but instead, they are notated as “Lab 1” or “Lab 2.” The layout was designed to have students and professors constantly run into each other simply to promote discussion and further the environment’s interplay of subjects. Randomly scattered through the campus are tables and white boards, benches and lounge areas, all to encourage interaction.

New ideas
Like most publicly funded institutions, OIST needs to justify its presence. It needs to show advancements in order to survive and grow. Typically, the evaluations come around every 5 years, but OIST is well ahead of the game.

Shintake is working to promote a cleaner future, and Skoglund has made significant advances in producing 3-D models of proteins, which he hopes to use to aid the fields of biology and medicine.

Mary Ann Price, the professor for the Developmental Signaling Unit, has found biological parallels between the development of fruit flies and humans. Such a discovery has allowed her and fellow researchers to better understand stomach cancer and deformities occurring in humans upon conception.

Price has also made contributions to the community outside of the world of science. One of her proudest accomplishments at the school is the outreach program that she and a few colleagues host. Every summer Price allows local high schools to tour the campus and interact with students and professors. The program’s aim is to spread the word about OIST while allowing children to explore the intricacy of science and technology at a premier graduate facility. Price also wants to encourage more visits from Department of Defense and Okinawan schools during the academic year, not just the summer.

Whether or not OIST’s innovations will become norms in the realm of education can only be decided by time. Currently it is a school in its infant stages, not even operating at full capacity. Students undertake a 5-year intensive study – a personalized PhD program - in the numerous sciences offered across the institution.

The first intake of students was in November of 2012, which means that those first students are still a couple of years away from completing their degrees. Right now, OIST is currently operating with a little over 50 faculty members and about 75 students.

In about two years, administrators say the school should be operating at full capacity with around 120 students and 100 faculty members.

For now, students like Stefan Pommer love the youthful energy of OIST. “I can be a part of shaping this university, part of making OIST one of the best Universities.” 

How to get there
By the Okinawa Expressway toll road:
1. Exit the toll road at the Yaka Exit.

2. Turn left at the ‘T’ in the road after passing the toll booth.

3. Go through the tunnel.

4. Turn left at the “Onna Higashi” intersection.

5. At the ‘T’ intersection “Onna Minami”, turn left onto Highway 58, toward Naha.
a. Seaside House is a white building and will be 600m ahead, on the right-hand side.
b. To get to the main campus, turn left at the first traffic light. There is a small, white, Japanese sign above the road at the intersection which contains the letters “OIST”.
c. Going up the hill, you will see the letters “OIST” on the hill. Take a left to follow the road up the hill to the campus.

For more info, visit:
www.oist.jp/
Community Relations Sector: (+81) 98-966-8711