Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A New Beginning

Almost four years ago I joined a project at Kyoto university. The idea was to develop a system-scale, detailed model of an area in the brainstem called the superior colliculus, that is responsible for doing saccades — that's the quick jumps from spot to spot your eyes always do when you examine something, read (like now) or just generally look around. The model is fairly large and detailed, so we've used large clusters and supercomputers to actually run it.

The overall project has involved quite a few people and a number of labs. My affiliation was Ishii-lab at Kyoto University while I've been working for professor Doya of OIST in Okinawa. My office has been at NAIST in Nara where I worked with Dr. Shibata, and I've occasionally worked at ATR in Keihanna with Dr. Sugimoto. We've been cooperating with Dr. Inagaki at Riken in Wako outside Tokyo and with Dr. Djurfeldt at INCF and KTH in Stockholm, Sweden. We've been using the RICC cluster at Riken and the Kei supercomputer in Kobe. I have never felt so distributed in my life.

All good things must come to an end. We still have a public presentation and we need to shepherd our model paper through the labyrinthine publication process, but overall the project is now over. It's time to move on.

Nara Sentan Kagaku Gijutsu Daigakuin Daigaku - NAIST.

As of tomorrow November 1st my new affiliation will be Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Okinawa, where I will join the Neural Computation unit led by prof. Doya. Moving from Kyoto to Okinawa may sound like a rather drastic change; the practical consequences aren't all that large.

I've been working for prof. Doya for the past few years already, so formally joining his group is not a big change. And while my affiliation changes from Kyoto to Okinawa, my actual place of work just moves from NAIST in Nara to AICS (Advanced institute for Computing Sciences) in Kobe — the site of the Kei supercomputer that we've been using. We'll stay in Osaka, and my commute will be just as long as before — an hour and twenty minutes — but westward to Kobe rather than eastward towards Nara.

The modeling project I'm joining deals with the basal ganglia. It's larger in scope than the previous one and more directly connected to practical applications. With me at AICS we get closer access to developers and administrators. This should help speed up the development and deployment of our models.

This will mean more trips to Okinawa, and indeed I'm there for a project meeting right now. Okinawa sounds far but it's really not bad; with a two-hour flight to Okinawa and one hour from Naha to Onna, the travel time from Osaka to OIST is comparable to visiting Riken in Wako, northern Tokyo. It's almost a day trip, but you really need to stay the night before to get a full day of work.

The past few years at NAIST have been a lot of fun, and especially working at a university again and having graduate students around. I will miss that at AICS. But the new project is exciting and I have high hopes that we can take what we've learned about large-scale modeling from the previous project to make the new one even better.


  1. Congratulations for your finished project! Good work :)
    Moving from Kyoto to Okinawa seems really extreme, have a great restart!

  2. Thanks!

    But as I write, I will not actually be moving to Okinawa. My desk — my place of work — will be in Kobe so we will stay in Osaka just like before.

    There's bound to be more Okinawa busines trips, but I'm not complaining; awamori is good stuff :)

  3. Congrats on the (almost) finished project!
    I hope the new one will be great for you. It's true that good things always get to end, and time flies.

    Hey, an 1h 20 min commute, exactly like mine.
    I am happy, as you, that you can keep your home on the same place. It draws amazement from uni classmates to have such a commute, but hey, I even enjoy it.

    And well, more business trips, enjoy them too!

  4. Hello and congratulations for your new job. I am assistant prof. of MAths at KYsuhu University and happened to land on your blog after a surf on internet.

    Would you mind telling if your position is permanent or not, as it seems to be a quite sensitive subject in Japan (tenured jobs for foreginers). Great success for your research.


  5. Hi Xavier,

    Nope, not permanent. It's another postdoc, pretty much. Not because I'm a foreigner, but simply because tenured jobs are few, while highly qualified applicants are legion.

    I don't have the publication record, the teaching skills or administrative magic touch to ever expect tenure. It's not Japan-specific; I would not be tenured/permanent if I had stayed in Sweden either.

    There is one point where we foreigners generally really suffer in research, and that is Japanese. Which is fair; you can't teach in Japanese without a very solid command of the language. It's not just lecturing, but being able to understand confused undergraduate questions, not to mention _very_ confused essays and long-form exam answers.

  6. Hello again and thank you for your very honest answer, it is very helpful. Hope you will find a permanent job somewhere anyway.

    You are probably right, the language is a main problem. I once thought I could overcome it, but it requires too much time. Though, the specialized vocabulary in science is not so diversified : reading a specialized book is not hard. Lecturing can be overcome (first time is translating word-by-word from English) with some efforts. I did recently my first 20 min talk in Japanese. I suffered.
    But I am here since 5 years...

    I just got the N2 this year, barely, so I am far from being fluent. I started a 演習授業 in October. I am lucky, they are 4 years students and are quite serious, so they are understanding. Though sometimes I don't catch a word of their questions. Fortunately there is T.A.

    My contract is finishing next year and will not be tenured. It was clear, there are a lot of excellent Japanese mathematicians and my Japanese is still not fluent. Though I know a quite good mathematician with a rather good command of the language who has not be hired anywhere in Japan (he is now at McGill a top university in Canada).

    -- Xavier


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