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Japanese geneticist discusses science education and globalization

We asked experts in a variety of STEM disciplines about their area of work and what skills they consider the most important for IB science students to acquire. Here, Katsuo Furukuba-Tokunaga, PhD, from the Institute of Biological Sciences, University of Tsukuba, Japan shares his thoughts.


Tell us about your area of work

I am particularly interested in the analysis of the brain networks involved in higher brain functions such as memory and cognition. As a geneticist, I am interested in the elucidation of neuronal mechanisms of brain development and plasticity using the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) as a model organism. My colleagues and I found an unexpected similarity in the genetic programs of brain development between fruit flies and vertebrates including humans. Indeed, many of the key regulatory genes that are shared with flies and humans play significant roles in brain functions despite the evolutionary distance between the two species.

Based on these commonalities, I am also interested in the study of the genetic mechanisms of mental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism using the fruit fly as a tiny but fascinating biological model. Fruit flies may not be ideal to study complex psychiatric symptoms such as delusion and hallucination, but we can make use of the power of the Drosophila genetics to study the fundamental mechanisms that are responsible for the alterations of the underlying biological processes. Molecular genetic data obtained with fruit flies will then help to identify the neuropsychiatric pathways that underlie the cognitive and mental deficits in patients.

What is the most important skill that you think senior IB science students should have by the end of their studies?

Logical thinking and good knowledge. To study science, having reliable knowledge is a necessary prerequisite, but it is also essential to have sound logic in your thinking. Biology is not the exception for this. Although there are diverse topics in a given subject such as biology, both knowledge and logic should proceed hand in hand to achieve a strong foundation for further study in university. It is also true that mastering a given subject requires learning of other disciplines because science in the 21st-Century calls for inter-disciplinary background in many fields.

You will be taking part in the IB’s first Science Symposium, what is the key area of focus for your presentation?

University education in Japan. In the past years, universities in Japan have been taking the endeavor of globalization. Conventionally, most of the students and professors in Japanese universities were Japanese with only a few exceptions. However, many of the universities in Japan are now recruiting non-Japanese faculties and accepting international students. The transition to global education is also emphasized in high schools and even elementary schools, where education in English language and exposure to diverse cultures are the keys. In line with this, the Japanese Ministry of Education provides strong support for interactive learning nationwide, where IB’s Diploma Programme curriculum presents an ideal example. I will be speaking of an overview of the university education in Japan and its current efforts on globalization.

In October 2016, we welcomed experts from a variety of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields to join us at our first IB Science Symposium. With expertise in areas like genetics, plastics and the circular economy, tackling complexity, and communications, discussions were broad and engaging. The symposium explored essential science skills and major themes in science education.