Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences
Tohoku University

FRIS Interviews #10

FRIS Interviews#10

  • 岡本 泰典Yasunori Okamoto

    生物無機化学、タンパク質工学、錯体化学、酵素化学合成Bioinorganic chemistry, Protein engineering, Coordination Chemistry, Chemoenzymatic Synthesis

Taking a steady step forward to be an independent researcher who can break the ground of a unique research field.

What is the reason why you chose FRIS?

It was fascinating to me that FRIS provides a position as an independent researcher and encourages interdisciplinary research.

During my postdoc in Switzerland, I was trained to become a principal investigator (PI). Therefore, FRIS was very attractive to me because it provided the position of an independent researcher. In Japan, there are few research groups working on the subjects related to my research, so there was no open position for which I could apply. Although I was selected as a candidate for the Leading Initiative for Excellent Young Researchers (LEADER), there were very few openings that were not limited to a specific field, except for at FRIS.

FRIS encourages interdisciplinary research, which was also attractive to me. During my Ph.D. and postdoc, I participated in several collaborative research projects, where I could learn a lot from experts in various research fields. My experience with interdisciplinary research in the NCCR MSE (National Centres of Competence in Research, Molecular Systems Engineering), comprised of researchers from fields such as synthetic chemistry, polymer chemistry, chemical biology, synthetic biology, and neuroscience, made an especially strong impression on me. In this project, all members, not only PIs, needed to understand the overall challenges and concepts of the project, and contribute through collaboration among research groups. Therefore, there was an atmosphere in which not only PIs but also postdocs and students could discuss the possibility of collaborative research. Based on these experiences, I became keenly aware of the importance of being in an environment comprised of researchers from a variety of research fields. These kinds of teams are able to tackle challenges which remain unsolved due to the barriers between research fields. In this respect, FRIS was very attractive to me because it consists of researchers from various research subjects.

Please describe the research you are currently working on.

The aim of my research is to develop an intracellular catalysis by using artificial metalloenzymes.

Biological functions are constituted by myriad biochemical reaction networks. One of my ultimate goals is to control a cellular function by a non-canonical chemical reaction. To this end, I propose to establish intracellular catalysis enabled by artificial metalloenzymes (ArMs).

By reconstituting enzymatic reactions in one flask, various multistep chemical transformations have been developed. Moreover, it has become possible to use synthetic catalysts with enzymatic cascades concurrently, expanding reaction repertoire. The current challenge in the field is integrating non-canonical catalysis into a cell as a flask, which enables regulation a cellular function.

ArMs are constructed by introduction of a synthetic catalyst into a protein scaffold. ArMs technology can merge features of homogeneous catalysts and enzymes. ArMs also exhibit their biocompatibility against biomolecules, which encourages me to utilize ArMs as a catalyst for intracellular catalysis.

To expand unique applications of ArMs, I am pursuing a chemoenzymatic cascade comprised of natural and artificial enzymes and intracellular non-canonical reactions catalyzed by ArMs. At FRIS, I try to establish methodologies for the rapid construction and optimization of ArMs and the intracellular delivery of ArMs.
岡本 泰典Yasunori Okamoto

Assistant professor, Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences
After working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Basel, Switzerland for nearly five years, Yasunori Okamoto joined FRIS in May 2019 as an assistant professor. His research interests are: (i) development of artificial metalloenzymes that catalyze non-natural chemical reactions, (ii) chemoenzymatic cascades (multistep reactions between artificial and natural enzymes), and (iii) intracellular catalysis.

What qualities do you think make FRIS unique?

FRIS is open to young researchers from all kinds of research fields.

Everyone has a chance to join FRIS because there is no limitation on research topic. FRIS supports young researchers by providing basic research funding. I think FRIS invests people rather than in individual research projects, allowing us to be open and flexible in our research interests.

How do you plan to make the most of your experience at FRIS, and what kind of future do you see for yourself?

To be a researcher who can communicate the essence and the wonders of science to children.

From the first year of elementary school until the fourth year of my bachelor study, I had been aiming to become a teacher. I believe that children’s education is of utmost importance for Japan to remain a scientific and technological powerhouse. Ideally, I would like to contribute to society not only with my research outcomes but also by educating children about science and teaching them how interesting and wonderful it is. To this end, I am first concentrating on my research to create my foundation as an independent researcher.

Before I moved to Switzerland as a postdoctoral researcher, a professor who was one of my collaborators during my Ph.D. advised me to find the core of my future research. Therefore, I worked on different research projects in pursuit of new knowledge during my postdoc. At FRIS, I want to water the many kinds of seeds that I have sowed and let them grow steadily until they can sprout. In the future, I would like to integrate them into one research field that will become synonymous with my work. Then, I would like to share my experiences and the wonders of science with children.

What kinds of people do you think would flourish at FRIS?

A person who wants to establish their own unique research field.

You will join FRIS as an assistant professor (principal investigator). FRIS is suitable for a young researcher who has a solid, long-term vision of their research. To get a faculty position in Japan, your research interests may need to match well with a host research group. In contrast, FRIS is open to all kinds of research topics. Therefore, you can freely pursue your research interests. It is, however, necessary to cultivate the mindset and multitasking abilities of an independent researcher because you are responsible not only for carrying out research, but also for getting funding and doing administrative tasks.

Why would you recommend FRIS?

It is one of the few positions in Japan where you can immerse yourself in your research as a PI.

In Japan, I think that there are very few positions where you can receive basic research funding while immersing yourself in research as a young PI. I recommend FRIS to people who are looking for such an opportunity. FRIS also offers the opportunity to interact with other researchers whom we previously never had the chance to meet, leading to a chance to find a seed of new research. I recommend this position to people who are willing to dive into new challenges and new environments.

How do you like living in Sendai?

Sendai is a compact city with a comfortable climate. Now, I have high regard for the time with my family.

I like the climate and the size of Sendai. The compactness of the city allows us to access everywhere important easily even without having a car. It is also quite attractive as a researcher that Shinkansen station and the airport are close to the campus, helping us for long distances traveling. Because I moved to Sendai from Switzerland, I feared Japanese hot-and-humid summer. Summers in Sendai, however, is not as hot as expected. And winters do not bring so much snow.

Back when I was in Switzerland, my boss told me, “Kids grow up really fast, so you should value the time you spend with your family.” Indeed, my kids are growing up fast, and there are many events I do not want to miss. Therefore, in my time-off, I spend as much time as possible with my family.

In Switzerland, it was impressive to me that people are good at taking leisure time—their usage of time is very rational. Many researchers tend to invest all their personal time into their work. From my experiences in Switzerland, I have learned that enjoying your personal time also leads to positive effects on research activities. Accordingly, I am now taking care to balance my personal time as a father and working time as a researcher.