August 27, 2009

Would You Like Some Research With Your Sushi?

Martin Racenis ’11 writes about his summer research trip to Japan with Joshua Smith, assistant professor of mechanical engineering
Martin Racenis ’11 (Hopkinton, Mass.), a mechanical engineering major, spent two weeks at Tohoku University in Japan studying techniques for dispersing medications through the brain with Joshua Smith, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. The project was a collaboration with Kenichi Funamoto, an assistant professor at Tohoku.

Ever tried cuttlefish?  I hadn’t either… that is, until my trip to Japan.  You cannot imagine how lucky I felt the day Professor Joshua Smith sent an email asking me if I would like to work as an EXCEL Scholar for the summer.  And then two days later: Oh, by the way, would you like to go to Japan?  Ho, hum, another average summer.

Oh yeah, almost forgot: This summer was about research, not just about visiting Japan.  I have to admit, originally learning about Matlab programming and the mathematically intimidating technique of finite element analysis did not sound like the most appealing way to spend a summer.  As a student of mechanical engineering, I wanted to work on thousand-horsepower engines and innovative airplane wing design.  I had never typed a line of code in my entire life, and I was supposed to get used to writing and deciphering Matlab code.  Mind you, code that was originally written in Spanish!  Now if only I hadn’t taken French in high school.  Not to break the suspense, but you have probably guessed that my summer did not turn out so bad.

For starters, Professor Smith served up an appetizing selection of readings on Matlab and finite element analysis.  Next up: a rather difficult-to-digest plate of finite element code sent to us by Professor Smith’s collaborator from Colombia.  Good thing I had a little help from the Google translate tool to help wash all of that down.  The main course was a delicate mix of coding my own Matlab routines, running lengthy simulations, graphing results, analyzing them, and perhaps doing everything over again because of a small mistake in the very first step.  Though already stuffed, I could not even wait for dessert-a trip to Japan to collaborate with another professor.

After spending a solid 13 hours at 35,000 feet sleeping, watching movies, and enjoying snacks served up by an ever-helpful flight attendant, and then several more hours on a bullet train, Professor Smith and I stumbled into the city of Sendai in northern Japan.  Instantly becoming illiterate is a rather odd feeling, a sensation that I did not even experience during my stay in Europe last semester.  Fortunately, it was not a case of one blind man leading another as my trusty professor had listened well in Japanese class.  When alone, I was able to get by with the combination of, “kudasai,” “arigato gozaimasu,” and “sumimasen.”  Respectively translated as “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” combined with some gesturing.  For example, the sequence “Sumimasen … salmon maki kudasai … arigato gozaimasu!” coupled with a slight bow at the waist works wonders at the sushi place.

For the next two weeks I labored in Professor Kenichi Funamoto’s lab at Tohoku University making halting progress on a research manuscript and running more simulations.  The following description is just a small taste, but our work is based on using finite element analysis to run computer simulations that model the distribution of drugs infused by a catheter directly into the brain, as well as calculating the deformations and pressures caused by the injection of this fluid.

Working on the same topic, Professors Smith and Funamoto sat in the crowded little office working both together and separately on their programs as well as on a nice-looking three-dimensional mesh of a rat brain for use with their code.  Throughout the working day, I would tug Professor Smith’s sleeve to discuss a question or two, or three, or 10.  Alternatively, he would sometimes launch into the discussion of why Macs are superior to PCs.  At the end of the stay, Professor Smith even had the opportunity to give a lecture concerning our work to interested students and staff.

Did I mention the food?  Lunch was usually a “bento box” from the school store.  I think of “bento” as a Lunchables box on steroids with meat or vegetables and sauce on top of rice.  Professor Smith and I even had the privilege to visit Professor Funamoto’s house for a wonderful lunch with his wife and baby daughter.  There we enjoyed some excellent pizza and my new favorite beverage: “mugicha,” or wheat tea.  For dinner, we visited the local restaurants looking to dig our chopsticks into interesting delicacies such as cow’s tongue, called “gyutan,” oysters, curry, miso soup, and sushi.  All served with rice, of course.

During the weekend, Professor Smith and I had the opportunity to visit Hiroshima where we saw the Atomic Dome, rang the peace bell, and explored a very interesting museum detailing the traumatic history of the city.  Later, we visited a very beautiful shrine on a nearby island.  The next day we explored the imposing wooden Himeji Castle and its amazing gardens, and even stumbled upon a traditional Japanese dance festival.  All of it is still vivid in my mind even though I have already returned and set foot once again on good old United States soil.

What a summer!  I feel very fortunate having the privilege to work with Professor Smith while learning Matlab coding and finite element analysis.  The sights and sounds of Japan and even the chance to witness the delightfully polite Japanese culture is something that I wish all students could experience.  Each learning experience was truly a delicacy not to be forgotten for a very long time.

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