PRIME 2009, National Institute for Information and Communications Technology (NICT), Tokyo, Japan
How do you describe interning and living in Tokyo in 300 words? I could begin with a few visual words – glamorous, compact, vibrant, modern, historic – and try to explain why I picked those adjectives. Or I could talk about things that still flash into my mind now and then – the unique personalities of each district and the warmth of people. But I won't limit you to just that. Prior to my departure, I prayed and hoped for a purposeful trip; I did not want to be just a visitor. I arrived at Narita Airport without any expectation of what life in Tokyo would turn out to be. And I completely fell in love. But perhaps not for the same reasons why many of my peers do. Japan’s (and Tokyo’s) charm is not just about its fashion leading role, pop culture, embracement of other cultures, or well-developed public transit system. The environmental awareness, culinary art, cleanliness, and preservation of history and nature are more than just inspirations. The reasons are beyond my admiration for people's work ethics, mannerism, consideration, hospitality, and relationships among each other.
Through my research internship at NICT, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Ph.D. researchers from Tokyo, Florence, and Kyoto in addition to my mentor in the United States. Our interactions helped me understand how the different cultures and backgrounds shaped the way we approached, analyzed, and solve problems in a professional, academic setting. The research helped me develop essential skills and attitude as a working professional in a private industry today. After this fortunate opportunity of working in a national research institute among the country's best pick researchers, a doctoral degree no longer seems like a long-reach, quietly kept dream. Instead, it becomes an inspiration and a necessity at the same time.
PRIME is a program very close to my heart. Started in 2004, at that time only nine students were given the opportunity to travel abroad for a summer internship project with host institutions in Australia, Japan, and Taiwan. Fast forward five years in 2009, it was my chance to be a part of this stellar program. In five years, the number of participating students went up threefold – a total of 33 students in my year.
The screening process was very selective; students are pushed to take the initiative to contact participating professors at UCSD, create a project proposal with one of these professors, and go through an interview with four acclaimed professionals directing the program. I later found out that the team of principal investigators and program coordinators really looked for the "fire" in the students when interviewing.
Being immersed in a completely new environment definitely allows a person to be a more globally aware citizen. I was sent to Tokyo, Japan and a week before departure, each day closer to my departure flight, it was hard to believe the reality that I was about to leave the country for two and a half months. It was a very surreal moment in my life but before I knew it, I was being squished on the Japan Railway at the world's busiest station at Shinjuku.
Upon arrival at the National Institute for Information and Communications Technology (NICT) located in Kokubunji, about 30 minutes away from Shinjuku, Isabelle (the other PRIME student based in Tokyo) and I already had a meeting scheduled for the morning! Ten weeks may seem like a long time, but once the ball gets rolling, we realize that we lack time! Business trips to Kobe, collaborations with different specialized groups (e.g., professionals in space environments, network analysis, and 3D graphics), 40-hour work weeks, weekly progress reports, and even a weekly Japanese language course for business professionals. A major take-away from the program was that if the answer to a problem was not clearly written in front of us, we were motivated to figure it out on our own, whether by the Internet, online forums, or seeking advice from professionals in the field by email.
For my specific project, the goal was to visualize space environments successfully (i.e., different planets, even a model of an international space station) and network analysis (i.e., to see the process of data transfer from different locations of the global network) onto a newly set-up tile display wall. For special open house events and for my final presentation in front of many accomplished individuals (mostly Ph.D.s), I was able to present on my progress throughout the 10 weeks, clearly explain the ups and downs of the project, and most of all share what I learned.
At the end of the 10 weeks, I felt very motivated in my future goals. A graduate degree no longer seemed out of reach and actually, the summer following in 2010 – I was very hopeful in finding a program similar to PRIME. As a result, I joined 1,220 others in applying for the RISE program based in Germany and joined about 300 students accepted from the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. That experience in itself would require a whole new article, but there were a lot of parallels with me being in a different country understanding the similarities and differences in lifestyle and work culture.
* Excerpt from Tokyo: Inspired and Shaped in “Education in Action,” pp. 315-319