Yasuko Sasaki

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Flying Low is Okay—Just Keep Flying

Yasuko Sasaki
Professor of Agriculture

“Following a Dream”

 Ever since grade school I loved life and living organisms. In high school I even joined the biology club. My dream was to go on to medical school, but ill health compelled me to take some time off from high school and forced me to give up my dream. This made me feel like something of a failure. The sense of defeat never left throughout my undergraduate years. Still fascinated by life, and still longing to follow my dream, I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Tokyo. My health had recovered by then and, fortunately, finances were not an issue. At the time, tuition amounted to only several tens of thousands of yen each year, plus I had a scholarship. All of this made doctoral studies a wonderful experience.

“From University to Company and Back”

 At the time I was working on my doctoral degree, there were hardly any other women researchers. Without a solid career path in sight, and juggling a string of major life events—marriage, childbirth, and parenting—certainly I had anxieties and doubts about my future. I did not walk away though. I managed to go on thanks to three sources of encouragement. One, I obtained a postdoctoral fellowship. Two, I then secured a post as assistant professor of the Faculty of Agriculture at University of Tokyo (many assistant professors at the Faculty of Agriculture were also men—out of a hundred, only four were women). And three, my husband said he wouldn’t stop me if I wanted to quit, but would be a bit disappointed if I did.
 As an assistant professor I had such a difficult time balancing parenting and the assistant’s duties—it involved an array of odd chores—that I didn’t have much time to devote to my own research. At one point I wondered whether I was doing the right thing. After all, this was a crucial moment in life when I should have been maturing as a researcher. When an opening was posted at Meiji Dairies Corporation (currently Meiji Co., Ltd.), where my husband worked, I decided to take it. I left my university job of five years, and worked with my husband as a research associate at a private company for the next twenty years.
 The private company offered an ideal environment for conducting research. I was free to immerse myself only in the latest research, and even had technicians available to help with work that truly interested me. Unfortunately, there was not much chance of climbing the corporate ladder owing to the great gender gap. As a researcher, however, I was happy with my involvement in basic research, which didn’t carry the pressures of making products that sell.
 And now I am back at university, working as a researcher. I had developed an attachment to this setting during the first five years of my career, and always wanted to come back. True, university research does present unique challenges, like having to secure funding and deal with tedious routine tasks, but I love working with students and talking about research. The time I spend here is precious.

“The Joys of Research”

 My area of research focuses on lactic acid bacteria used to make yogurt. Yogurt is a fermented milk product that can only be produced when two species of lactic acid bacteria “coexist.” A single species will not produce proper yogurt. On the whole, my lab studies the genetics of lactic acid bacteria that make this coexistence named “proto-cooperation” possible. The ability to produce yogurt varies according to the strain and combination of lactic acid bacteria. Even products marketed as probiotic are made with the same two lactic acid bacteria, that is starter. Because many manufacturers in Japan import this starter from starter culture companies abroad, and thus find no need to develop it here, the only institution in Japan that devotes genetic research of proto-cooperation of lactic acid bacteria is Meiji University.
 Yogurt is fantastic. At convenience stores we often find it displayed next to the likes of caramel pudding and gelatin dessert. But unlike these sweets, each spoonful of yogurt contains live lactic acid bacteria in numbers reaching 10 raised to the seventh or eighth power. This works wonders for us, as it stimulates various functions and immune systems in the intestine. I recommend everyone give yogurt a try. The minimum number of bacteria contained in yogurt at the time of shipping is set by law, so the brand of yogurt you buy doesn’t really matter.
 The joys of research lie in discovering the unknown with our very own eyes. The work we do might be small. It might not win a Nobel Prize. But it always leads us to the truth or helps us find something new. I can’t imagine a job more attractive.

“Messages for Students and Young Researchers”

 Science is an ideal field for women to undertake graduate studies. Let’s say a woman and a man with the same undergraduate degree join a company. The more old-fashioned the corporate culture is, the greater the chances the woman will be assigned to a position under the man. A woman with a graduate degree, on the other hand, would put the company on its toes.
 If you do decide to undertake research, and at first the results you produce don’t live up to expectations, don’t despair and don’t worry about it alone. Unexpected results can lead to new discoveries. Failure can point you to the next step. At my lab we value communication. We report everything, including the mishaps, and talk it through.
 Finally, as I wrote in the title of this piece, flying low is okay—just keep flying. Research is endless. There is no limit to what you can do, no moment when your work is complete. Meanwhile, life happens. You have children. Your partner switches jobs. You care for your aging parents. These events may seem to take up all your time—time you could otherwise devote to your work and your research. Temporarily, you might have no choice but to fly low. This is fine. The important thing is to keep flying.