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How a top Japanese university is creating the next generation of leaders

Interview with Hideo Ohno, President of Tohoku University

The physicist Hideo Ohno has been a professor of spintronics at the Research Institute of Electrical Communication, Tohoku University, since 1994. His highly regarded work in the study of the intrinsic spin of electrons and its associated magnetic movement has won several prestigious awards and Thomson Reuters saw him spoken of as a potential Nobel Prize recipient. Now Professor Ohno has taken up the post of university president at a key time for Tohoku University, having been selected in 2017 as one of Japan’s three original Designated National Universities, alongside Tokyo and Kyoto

What does the selection as national university mean for Tohoku University, and what are the institution’s key strengths?

The Designated National University program was launched to identify Japanese universities that can contribute to modern society. The government asked us what kind of university we would like to be in 2030 and came to inspect our management, infrastructure and facilities. In terms of academics, we identified four areas of research in which we are already highly respected. We feel confident that we can take these areas a step further and be global leaders and innovators in the near future.

The benefit for the university comes in deregulation and the promise of increased funding. We will get more flexibility on how many students accept positions here, something which is usually highly regulated. We would also have autonomy over commercial use of our facilities. We could, for example, let outside companies use the facilities and charge them fees that could, in turn, go towards upgrades and maintenance.

In terms of status, the selection also shows we are one of the top universities in Japan. Academically, we are known for our long list of research achievements. For example, there is so much talk about AI these days. But did you know that the hard disks and flash drives you use in your devices were all invented at Tohoku University or by our graduates?

We have a very good track record in research that is useful to society. If students are interested in research, this is a great place to be. Although we get a lot of attention for our engineering achievements, our science and humanities programs are similarly doing creative and innovative work. We have a good neutrino physics team, for example, which is now developing a project to look inside the Earth using what they call neutrino tomography.

As for humanities and social sciences, let me give you an example of how we build programs that benefit our communities. We have more than 90 years’ history of studying religion. After the 2011 earthquake, many people from different religions came to help people in Japan: religious scholars, monks, Buddhists and Christians. We realized there was no formal way of being sure that these people were qualified to help, so we began a program to issue certificates to those who were genuinely able to offer this kind of spiritual assistance.

Finally, our university is located in Sendai, which is both a stimulating and relaxing place to live. It’s a big sophisticated metropolis with trendy shops, professional sports and major entertainment events. But there’s also a small city charm, friendly people and a lot of beautiful nature.

"We have a good neutrino physics team, which is now developing a project to look inside the Earth using what they call neutrino tomography"

What are those four key areas of research that you referred to earlier?

I will start by mentioning spintronics, the area of research that led me to make connections with people around the world and create an education program here. The research started off as a curiosity project, but now, after a series of fortunate accidents and discoveries, none of which you can predict at the start of any research project, we have shown that we can make integrated circuits in cell phones and high-performance computers using highly energy-efficient semiconductors. It has become the basis of a successful academia-industry collaboration here at Tohoku University. In this case, deep research has fostered education, as well as industry collaboration. This chain of events saw many people get educated and, upon graduation, take on leadership roles in different but related industries. I would like to see this positive spiral exist as a conscious and institutionally established approach to all areas covered by Tohoku University.

With materials science, our history is such that most of the strongest magnets since the early 20th century have been developed here or by our graduates. We would like to extend this tradition to the future and contribute to the development of highly efficient energy conversion and storage materials. There are also new materials which are aimed for social use, such as different building materials. And we have not forgotten the fundamentals of basic research; work has been going on for about seven years to combine materials science and pure mathematics. We are already getting a number of results from this unprecedented collaboration.

Then there is next-generation medicine; we have a three-generation cohort of genetic data, encompassing grandparents, parents and children. Clinical genome data is becoming very common around the world, but no one else has been able to gather a 70,000-strong three-generation cohort, enabling us to study disease patterns and many other things. We’ve been able to do this because of our strong ties with the local communities; people trust us.

Finally, there is disaster science. In 2011 the Tohoku region suffered a great earthquake and we wanted to contribute to the rebuilding and recovery of our affected areas. We decided to look at disaster prevention using science and technology, as well as weaving in societal elements. To be useful, our research needs to be practical and available to vulnerable communities. So we have deals with companies to distribute tsunami flood simulations that we developed. We did not know what was coming on that morning of March 11; we didn’t know what would happen and how far the waters would reach – so that information is very useful. Information is not enough, of course. But it is the basis for governments and societies around the world to prepare a response for the future.

"Most of the strongest magnets since the early 20th century have been developed here or by our graduates"

With economic and societal transformation on the horizon as a result of new technologies such as IoT, AI, and big data, and the Society 5.0 Plan, how is Tohoku University preparing its graduates for the jobs of tomorrow?

Two things: the first one is education, not only for science majors, but also social sciences and humanities majors. I am working on a program so that all students can also take courses on AI and big data so that they know what these things are and how they can use them. These things are no longer just for specialists; the world today is like Word, Excel and AI. The programs are there; all you need to know is how to use  them effectively to analyze your data in your field of interest.

Then, I would like people to understand that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is happening. It is a revolution of technical advancements beyond digital and AI that will change the way we live and the way we engage the world. Tohoku University already has the tools and the research capabilities to be at the forefront of this. I will be looking at our students at the graduate level and beyond, to lead this revolution, to lead the change and innovation, not follow it.


What is Tohoku University’s strategy to facilitate and promote opportunities for international students to study in Japan, and what programs do you offer to your students to attend programs overseas?

The number of international students we have on campus is increasing every year. At the graduate level, it’s currently at about 20 percent. In addition to our own full time students, we have those from partner universities who come for our short term or summer programs. Some of these students then choose to come back and do graduate courses here.

Because the job market is very global these days, I think it’s important that the university properly prepares our students. So we have the International Joint Graduate School where students are supervised in cooperation with overseas institutions. The programs promote interdisciplinary studies, so they have the opportunity to gain not only international experience but also understanding beyond one single academic field. We are also adding to the levels of English being spoken in our classrooms, and boosting the numbers and quality of our English courses.

There are countries where students usually live on campus, but in Japan, that is not the case. One of the ways we are trying to support our students in everyday life at the university is by bringing diverse people into contact with each other. For that reason, we are opening a new cross-cultural dormitory with capacity for 752 students and with no distinctions between Japanese and non-Japanese students. In all, we will have dormitory space for about 1,700 students, the largest among national universities in japan. 

We also want to help to send Japanese undergraduates abroad; I want to get the number of those who experience at least a short-term study abroad program up to 20 percent. Getting that experience of traveling and having to communicate in English makes it easier for students to later consider graduate programs or other opportunities abroad. The world is global, and you cannot do everything in Japan alone.

"The Fourth Industrial Revolution is happening. It is a revolution of technical advancements beyond digital and AI that will change the way we live and the way we engage the world"

What is the role of higher education in the success of Abenomics and the revitalization of the Japanese economy?

Every time we develop a new technology, it’s beneficial for Japan, as well as the rest of the world. Through these experiences, our students can improve the world and be part of the next generation of innovators and leaders. Indeed, I am always optimistic that this generation will come up with the solutions that we couldn’t find.

The university ranks 13th in providing CEOs to the world’s top 500 companies. How is Tohoku University managing to compete with the likes of MIT and Harvard?

I am not sure that we are comparing apples with apples. We have different roles; we are working in different areas. University rankings line up institutions on a single gauge, but I know this can have political consequences, so I do not and cannot ignore them. But in the end, what we do is to educate people so that they can engage positively with society. We also give them opportunities such as entrepreneurship programs, so students can go on to set up NPOs and start-ups. Overall, I am confident we will be able to educate the leaders of the future as we have done in the past.

MIT is a great university, as is Harvard, and we at Tohoku University have on-going collaborative projects with them. We shouldn’t place too much emphasis on comparisons because every university has its own strengths and every university has its own way of making positive contributions to the global community.

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