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05 Mar 2014 01:22

Young Japanese scientist leads her team to major stem cell discovery

Scientist Haruko Obokata wears the long-sleeved apron her grandmother gave her as she works at her lab in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, on Jan. 28. (Mainichi)
Scientist Haruko Obokata wears the long-sleeved apron her grandmother gave her as she works at her lab in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, on Jan. 28. (Mainichi)

KOBE -- Behind the recent major scientific breakthrough that got scientists around the world talking is a young Japanese researcher who led her team to the historic discovery.

"Scientists work for the benefit of the people. I thought if I worked hard, somebody would find my research valuable," said Haruko Obokata, a research unit leader at RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, who played a central role in the recent discovery of "stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP) cells" that might have more potential than induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, created by Nobel Prize-winning Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka.

The 30-year-old scientist has worked on her research while always keeping in mind her grandmother's wise words. When Obokata's research paper was rejected by one of the most prestigious science journals in 2009, her grandmother was the one who cheered her up and encouraged her to keep working hard. "You just have to do your best each day," the grandmother told her. When Obokata works in her lab, she always wears the long-sleeved apron her grandmother gave her.

Her friends and colleagues say Obokata is a fashion-conscious scientist. The walls of her lab are colorfully painted with pink and yellow while she keeps a flower-patterned sofa inside. She also decorates lab equipment with stickers of the cartoon character Moomin. She appeared at a news conference wearing a British designer ring.

Meanwhile, the professors who have taught Obokata all say that she is an incredibly hard working scientist.

In the summer of 2008, Obokata went to Harvard University as a graduate student to study under stem cell expert Charles Vacanti for six months. Just before she was scheduled to return to Japan, Obokata was assigned to give a presentation on the latest stem cell research. She prepared for the presentation, working day and night for a week and reading some 200 research papers related to the topic.

Vacanti, who observed Obokata's presentation, praised the young scientist and said it was the best presentation since he opened his lab. Vacanti then decided to support Obokata so that she could stay in the United States to continue her research.

The Harvard professor told a Mainichi Shimbun interview that Obokata has a keen sense (in her field) and tries out new things without hesitation.

Obokata now leads a lab at an exceptionally young age in Japan, where female scientists are said to have a tough time.

"This research will not help someone right away, but I hope it makes a contribution to the world someday. I am determined to continue my work for that moment," Obokota told the Mainichi Shimbun in an interview on Jan. 29.

January 30, 2014(Mainichi Japan)

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