Waseda Frontline Research Feature Vol. 19: Exploring Undiscovered Potential of Catalysts (Part 4 of 4)

Yasushi Sekine
Professor, Department of Applied Chemistry, School of Advanced Science and Engineering, Faculty of Science and Engineering
Research Field: Catalytic Chemistry

Part 4: Be Absolutely Honest and Humble

Professor Sekine does things his own way, engaging in research that is unique worldwide. The final part of this series will cover his outlook on life, his philosophy in tackling research, and what he feels are the benefits of doing research at Waseda University. (Interviewed on September 7, 2017)

Thinking about my career at 31

Looking back at my progress as a researcher, I clearly remember that things took off when I was 31 years old. Previously, I had obtained my doctorate and been lucky enough to gain a research associate post at my alma mater, the University of Tokyo. However, I feel that I was not as engaged as I should have been. Since my original interest was in architecture, I may have dragged on this sentiment while conducting research in chemistry.

Then eventually, the laboratory at the University of Tokyo where I was working as a research associate was shut down. While looking for a place to work elsewhere, I luckily found employment as a research associate in applied chemistry at the School of Science and Engineering, Waseda University. I already had a family and could no longer live without an income. I was trapped with no way out, and felt a sense of urgency as I realized my research to date was of little value, and that I would have to get serious or I would not be able to build on my career.

That was when I first began to think carefully about my future. I looked at myself and thought about how I needed a clear vision for my career path or I would end up leading a mediocre life as a researcher, which is when I fully realized that I would have to devote myself to perfecting one skill to become a successful member of society. I was 31 years old at the time. At the age of 31, I had realized the importance of considering a career path, five or six years after other researchers. I worked particularly hard in my late 30s and early 40s in order to catch up. Although I was born in 1968, I feel that I have only recently managed to catch up at last with the standard career paths of other researchers.

PDCA cycle in research

I became an assistant professor in 2007 and established my own laboratory. The research themes I was tackling in those days were all fundamentally different from the research themes I am engaged in now. There is not even one research theme that I have continued to study throughout.

I consciously follow a PDCA cycle in conducting my research. A PDCA cycle is a sequential procedure: Plan, Do, Check, and Act. The importance of a PDCA cycle in corporate business activities is often mentioned, but it also applies to scientific research. In my case, when the “Act” part of PDCA is finished, I arrange my research results to that point in a paper, but then ask myself whether I have left anything undone on that research theme, and whether continuing that research would be meaningful or needed by society. If I conclude that it has been completely done or that there is no point in continuing, I switch to a new research theme and start working on that.

For example, when my laboratory was first established, we were studying methods of producing hydrogen from sugarcane and natural gas as raw materials. On this research theme, I managed to produce results which I could confidently consider as world-class. Having been able to thoroughly and completely conduct research and felt no further developments could be expected, I switched to a new research theme and began to study methods of making hydrogen at low temperatures.

Together with researchers from various countries

Gaining real insight than following trends

As a researcher, I believe in having an absolutely honest and humble attitude. That is also how I live my life. I want to progress with my own ideas while valuing the true nature of things, not following trends and being swept away.

I also have to spend money on necessities for my research including buying reagents and installing equipment, but I do not want to receive any personal profit, however small, from any patent income, for example. I think that because university professors always have students nearby, they should set an example as researchers themselves rather than enjoy the luxury of having a fancy office.

I have not bought one new ballpoint pen over the last ten years. Whenever a pen runs out of ink, I replace the refill. I have also continued to use the same meeting tables that I got around 2000, and I inherited some meeting chairs that were used by the Waseda Research Institute for Science and Engineering before they bought new ones. As for my bag, I only want to use one that I really like, so I own five that are the same design and color. I have also continued to use the same English dictionary that I first got in junior high school. Placing more value on gaining real insight than following trends is an idea that I have always stuck to also in research. I want to continue showing my way of life to the students in my laboratory in future.

Professor Sekine takes good care of things. Here, he is holding the English dictionary he has used ever since his junior high school days

Advantages of being in the heart of the City

Thinking about the research environment at Waseda University, it is certainly not the case that we can study in spacious laboratories. However, I feel there are two major advantages to doing research at Waseda University.

The first is its location. Nishi-Waseda Campus, with its science and technology undergraduate and graduate schools, is located in Okubo in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It is a prestigious address in the city center. Some days, my schedule includes seven or eight appointments such as meeting with our research partner companies or giving lectures, but the reason why I can manage such a tight schedule is because of the fact that we are located in the middle of the city. In 2008, Nishi-waseda Station on the Tokyo Metro was opened right next to Nishi-Waseda Campus, making our location even more convenient.

When making a pamphlet for high school students and their parents introducing the Department of Applied Chemistry in the School of Advanced Science and Engineering to which I belong, we purposely used a design that emphasized our proximity to the skyscrapers of Shinjuku, like a real estate advertisement. It conveyed the sense of a place where students can conduct advanced studies with Shinjuku right in front of them.

Figure: Pamphlet of the Department of Applied Chemistry in the School of Advanced Science and Engineering. “Looks as stylish as a real estate advertisement,” says Professor Sekine

“People’s Waseda” by students

Another great advantage of Waseda University is the high quality of our students. Conducting my research together with highly talented students means I can produce high-quality results. I believe that the expression the “People’s Waseda” comes from how gifted our students are.

Whenever I meet students in the laboratory or the classroom, I feel that many of them have both great personal qualities and intellectual abilities. They are equipped with social skills as well as cooperative and problem-solving skills. They can also carve out their own situations and often find serendipity through interaction (unexpected discoveries through communication). For instance, if Waseda University students were left behind on an uninhabited island and forced to lead a life of survival, I am most confident that they would certainly survive.

A student in the laboratory operating gas chromatography experimental equipment. Students can join the SEKINE Group as undergraduates after the second semester of their third year

The characteristics of Waseda University students being highly qualified and multilayered are envied by professors from other universities. When some of my acquaintances from other universities have the chance to interact with students in my laboratory, they comment on how good my students are and how quick they are on the uptake and to respond. Even though it is less noticeable for those of us within Waseda, instructors from other universities always say that. The overall quality of our students is a great advantage.

I hope that the “People’s Waseda” will continue to evolve in the future.

Profile

Professor Yasushi Sekine
Professor Yasushi Sekine obtained a Ph.D. (Doctor of Engineering) in 1998 in applied chemistry at the School of Engineering, the University of Tokyo. After serving as research associate in applied chemistry at the University of Tokyo, and research associate and assistant professor at Waseda University, he became professor at Waseda’s School of Advanced Science and Engineering in 2012. Since 2011, he has concurrently served as fellow of Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST). Professor Sekine has received awards such as the Japan Petroleum Institute Award for Distinguished Papers, the Advancement Prize of the Japan Institute of Energy, and the Research Advancement Prize of the FSRJ (Research Association for Feedstock Recycling of Plastics Japan). For further details, visit The SEKINE Group website.

Major Achievements

Publications

Honors and Awards

  • 2005 Japan Petroleum Institute Award for Encouragement of Research and Development
  • 2007 Catalysis Society of Japan Award for Young Researchers
  • 2009 Research Association for Feedstock Recycling of Plastics in Japan Most Progressive Researcher Award
  • 2010 The Japan Institute of Energy Progressive Researcher Award (Academic)
  • 2015 Japan Petroleum Institute Award for Distinguished Papers
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