Investigating biosystems across different scales

Uncertainty is precisely what makes new discoveries possible.

Yanagida, Toshio

Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences
Specially Appointed Professor Special Research Promotion Group, Graduate School of Frontier Biosciences

Yanagida, Toshio

Professor Yanagida is the Director of CiNet (Center for Information and Neural Networks) and QBiC (Quantitative Biology Center) and the Deputy Director of iFReC (Immunology Frontier Research Center). We asked him about the systems being developed to facilitate interdisciplinary research and what he expects from HWIP students.

Interdisciplinary research hubs that cross administrative boundaries

CiNet advances large-scale interdisciplinary research projects in the areas of brain and information science. It was established by Osaka University in partnership with the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology, a public body under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. National universities like ours are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT), so CiNet is in effect a partnership extending across different arms of government. We also run an organization called QBiC in partnership with RIKEN, which is under MEXT’s jurisdiction, to advance research on molecules, cells, and other features of biosystems.    

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Investigating biosystems from molecular to neural levels

CiNet and QBiC appear to be engaged in quite different types of research: one on the brain and information science, and the other on biosystems at molecular and cellular levels. The basic goal of both, however, is to make sense of the complex systems that enable life, and to control those systems in ways that generate products and ideas that are useful in wider society. Becoming director of both these centers has made it easier for me to conduct interdisciplinary research on biosystems all the way through from molecular to neural levels. I also accepted the position of deputy director of iFReC because I realized that my research could be linked with that organization’s work on immunology employing bio-imaging technologies and information science approaches.

Interdisciplinary research projects need to be of a reasonably large scale in order to be effective. Simple interaction between research labs does not provide the kind of scale required. CiNet and QBiC have staffs of 200 to 300 people, and we are proud that they can compete with the top research institutes in the world in terms of both quality and quantity.

From electrical engineering to biology

My disciplinary background is in electrical engineering in the School of Engineering Science. When I first entered university there was a boom in semiconductor research, and everyone was saying that computers were the key to industrial growth in Japan. However, I was convinced that it was the corporate sector, not academic researchers, that should be responsible for making computers more accessible and widely used; the role of research was to make new discoveries and novel creations. For this reason I opted to pursue my studies in bioscience instead.

Life is composed of complex systems. I believe that if we can understand and control those systems, we will be able to generate new technologies that will contribute to the development of information and communications as well. With this in mind I embarked on research that integrates information science and biosciences.

A message to HWIP students

photo_yanagida02As you progress through this program you will acquire knowledge across a broad range of areas, but you will find it difficult to attain the same level of expertise as your instructors in any one of them. You might start to feel insecure and wonder, “What am I capable of? What exactly do I specialize in?” However, this insecurity will also become the driving force for new ideas. Real breakthroughs aren’t achieved by people who feel secure in their positions. What I’m trying to tell you is to be confident in yourself and press forward regardless of your insecurities.

In the past, it was possible to pursue research with a clear objective in mind: for example, to make something stronger, or faster, or lighter. Today, however, the world is more complex, and researchers have to think carefully about their objectives. I hope that you will develop the ability to navigate your way through this new research environment. We will endeavor to provide you with experiences that are out of the ordinary and prepare you to take on the world.