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Lab management style of delegating responsibility and authority to young researchers

Dr. Mikiko Sodeoka, Chief Scientist (Ph.D.)
Synthetic Organic Chemistry Laboratory, RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research (Title as of the time of interview)

  • RIKEN Envisioning Futures Project: #5. Dr. Sodeoka’s oral history

Career summary

1981 B.S. in Pharmaceutical Sciences, Chiba University
1983 M.S. in Pharmaceutical Sciences, Chiba University Graduate School
1983 Researcher, Sagami Chemical Research Center
1986 Research Associate, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Hokkaido University
1989 Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Sciences, Chiba University
1990 -1992 Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Chemistry, Harvard University
1992 Research Associate, Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, The University of Tokyo
1996 Group Leader, Sagami Chemical Research Center
1999 Associate Professor, Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, The University of Tokyo
2000 Professor, Tohoku University (Institute for Chemical Reaction Science and then Institute of Multidisciplinary Research for Advanced Material)
2006 - 2024 Chief Scientist, RIKEN
2013 - present Group Director, Catalysis and Integrated Research Group, RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science
2022 - present Deputy Director, RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science
2024 - present Advisor to the President, RIKEN

Background to the project

Adachi: This project started thanks to Dr. Yuko Harayama, former Executive Director of RIKEN, and an Elsevier Foundation board member, who asked RIKEN to take on a project which would support women researchers and young researchers. Therefore, rather than scientific discussions per se, we hope to hear stories that are focused more on topics such as lab management and leadership that will help young researchers aiming to become PIs one day. Thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

Sodeoka: I’m looking forward to it.

Starting a research after earning a master’s degree

Adachi: Looking over your CV, it says that in 1983 you completed the master's program at Chiba University, earning a master’s degree, and took a job at Sagami Chemical Research Center (currently Sagami Chemical Research Institute). Could you explain your motivation to enter the workforce at a private-sector research institution rather than proceeding on to the doctoral program?

Sodeoka: I loved biology and chemistry, and I chose to enroll in the pharmaceutical sciences department because I figured that once I obtained licensure as a pharmacist, I would always have that to fall back on. It was in my senior year of university that I became part of a research lab and discovered that I loved doing experiments. At the time, a lot of women were in the undergraduate pharmacy program, but very few of them went on to master's programs. Since I enjoyed experimental work so much, I wanted to extend my education, and was planning to obtain a master’s degree. But people around me often warned me, “If you go into a master’s program or graduate school, you will miss out on job opportunities.” The reason everyone was saying that was because this happened before Japan brought in the Equal Employment Opportunity Act. But the associate professor who was overseeing the experiments I worked on was a woman, and she didn’t seem to be hindered from vigorously pursuing her research. So I figured that things would work out for me as well, and went on to grad school with the plan to obtain a master’s. Once I had a taste of doing research, I found it fascinating. That was when I first started to think that I might want to become a researcher.
But when I was finishing my master’s and thinking about job-hunting, it turned out that there were hardly any university positions available. Well, in that case, I thought to myself that a corporate research lab would be fine too. But in that era, many companies had openly stated policies of not hiring women for research positions. In fact, I could not find a single prospective employer who would even let me sit for their hiring test. Considering that reality, I was very hesitant to commit myself to proceeding onward to the doctoral program. I agonized over the decision until the last minute, but that is when Sagami Chemical Research Center reached out to me with an offer of a research assistant position. So that ended up being where I got my first job in research as a research assistant.

Adachi: Did you know anybody there?

Sodeoka: Dr. Masakatsu Shibasaki had become a PI at Sagami Chemical Research Center and was just starting up a new research group there. And Professor Toru Hino, who supervised my master’s, was a fellow alumnus of the same lab as Dr. Shibasaki, who asked Dr. Hino if he could recommend anyone for a position in his new lab. The offer came just in time and I took the job.

Adachi: When I looked at the website of Sagami Chemical Research Center (currently Sagami Chemical Research Institute), I got the impression that it was a very unique research institution.

Sodeoka: Yes, it really was.

Adachi: How was Sagami Chemical Research Center different from academia, like a university or RIKEN?

Sodeoka: Around that time, Sagami Chemical Research Center was sponsored by the Industrial Bank of Japan (IBJ), which no longer exists; it was absorbed after Japan’s economic bubble popped. But when I joined Sagami, it was attached to chemical companies that were under IBJ’s umbrella. It was possible to do very academic research there, but the center was also closely tied to the corporate side, doing research that could more directly contribute to society. So, Sagami occupied a kind of middle ground between academic and corporate research. And it was a very active center of research at that time.
Back then, Japanese universities were conservative. Academic positions only opened up when somebody senior retired or quit, and few of those openings were open to external applicants. Sagami had attracted a collection of very ambitious researchers, along with postdocs and master’s program graduates like myself, from different universities all over Japan, scientists who wanted to go into academia but were impatient at the long wait for university positions. That made it a very vibrant center of research activity. And so we worked at a breakneck pace. Also, organizationally, the barriers between different labs were comparatively low, and people from all different labs would frequently socialize with each other after hours. It was a very fun place to work.

Adachi: Was it an especially appealing research environment?

Sodeoka: Yes, back then it was. I don’t know what RIKEN was like at the time, but at least compared to universities, I think Sagami Chemical Research Center was far more appealing in those days.

Adachi: In your three years as a research assistant there, you were not pursuing your own independent research, but supporting a PI, is that right?

Sodeoka: Dr. Shibasaki was 36 years old or so at that time, and a first-time PI. He was enthusiastically launching his own lab, so fundamentally, when I started out there I was taking part in the research he wanted to do. It was on a totally different topic from what I had done in grad school, so I learned a great deal. Dr. Shibasaki was eager to generate good results from his newly established lab as soon as possible, so he expected a lot from me, and assigned me to do various experiments left and right. I remember thinking to myself at the time, “Easier said than done! There’s no way I can handle all those experiments.” But once I set my mind to it and rolled up my sleeves, I realized soon enough that my own capabilities had expanded to meet the challenge. I had that kind of growth experience repeatedly. Also, research became more and more interesting to me because Dr. Shibasaki talked very passionately about it. Under those conditions, my desire to become a researcher grew and I began to feel strongly that I should get a doctorate.

Obtaining a doctorate while working

Adachi: It sounds like your three years at Sagami Chemical Research Center were high intensity. And then you switched jobs, taking a research associate position at Hokkaido University. What prompted that?

Sodeoka: Dr. Shibasaki became a professor at Hokkaido University, and took me along with him; that is basically the story.

Adachi: Ah, I understand. During your time working at Hokkaido University, in 1989, you obtained your Doctor of Pharmacy from Chiba University. Was that a “doctorate via dissertation” (ronbun hakase)? [“Ronbun hakase” is a degree-granting mechanism unique to Japanese academia which does not require enrollment in a conventional coursework-based doctoral degree program.]

Sodeoka: That’s right. At Hokkaido University, we went forward with the same research agenda that we had been doing at Sagami Chemical Research Center. At the time, during the day I supervised students and did my own experiments, and at night I worked on writing my dissertation. That was the grueling schedule of my life for quite a while. But in the end, I managed to obtain my “doctorate via dissertation.”

Adachi: So you ended up getting your “doctorate via dissertation” from Chiba University, where you had taken your master’s degree as well. Was it very hard work, doing a job and on top of that having to do research for your own dissertation?

Sodeoka: Yes, it was. The period when I was writing my doctoral dissertation was brutal.

Facing the Challenge of research outside Japan

Adachi: After getting your doctorate, you were dispatched to Harvard University in the U.S., while maintaining your position at Hokkaido University, is that right?

Sodeoka: Right. It was essentially a postdoc. In those days, it was possible to take a leave from my research associate position in order to conduct research overseas. Having obtained my doctorate, I was given the opportunity to do research abroad, and I took advantage of it.

Adachi: Was doing research outside Japan something you had always wanted to do at an early stage in your research career?

Sodeoka: Around the time I received my doctorate, I began to think I would eventually like to become a PI. Dr. Shibasaki said to me, “Being a PI is about whether or not you can handle painting from scratch on a blank canvas.” Certainly, I was committed to research and I knew that I was contributing to making advances in my own way. But I was doing so without venturing at all beyond the boundaries of research that he set. When I went to Harvard, I started to think about how I would paint on a blank canvas, about what kind of research I wanted to do.
Up to that point in my career, I had worked on synthetic organic chemistry and catalytic chemistry, but I was attracted to doing interdisciplinary research involving chemistry and biology. I strongly felt that I wanted to take the opportunity of studying abroad to do research quite different from what I had been doing previously and take up the study of biology. In fact I considered actually doing my overseas postdoc in a biology lab, but my English language ability at that time was shaky, so Dr. Shibasaki advised me, “It’s going to be too much to handle a research field you don’t know and a language you don’t know simultaneously. I’m giving you two years, so in the first year, before you get up to speed in English, you should be in a lab that does synthetic organic chemistry, where you’ll be able to handle the experiments even if there is a language barrier. Then in the second year, when you’ve mastered English, you can transfer to whatever lab you want to.” I realized that he was right. Dr. Shibasaki arranged for me to join the same lab where he had done his own postdoc, which was Professor E. J. Corey’s at Harvard. I went over to the U.S., and after a year there I was able to understand English. So I switched over to the lab of a young professor named Greg Verdine, who specialized in molecular biology and was in the same department as Dr. Corey, and I learned biology there. That’s how I spent my two years in the U.S.

Adachi: After that, in 1992, you came back to Japan and became a research associate at the University of Tokyo. How did that come about?

Sodeoka: While I was away at Harvard, Dr. Shibasaki took an offer to join the faculty at the University of Tokyo. He asked me if I wanted to join him one more time, and I did. So I had been following him from lab to lab for my whole career up to that point.

Setting up a lab as a PI

Adachi: And in 1996, you went back to Sagami Chemical Research Center.

Sodeoka: Yes.

Adachi: What were the circumstances behind that move?

Sodeoka: When I first came back from Harvard, Dr. Shibasaki let me try a few new things. By then I was starting to really yearn for my own research group. And the timing turned out to be perfect, because Sagami Chemical Research Center reached out to me and asked if I wanted to rejoin them in a Group Leader role. That’s how I ended up moving over there.

Adachi: Which means you had your own lab for the first time?

Sodeoka: Exactly.

Adachi: What was it like actually setting up your own lab?

Sodeoka: My lab at Sagami had two postdocs and two or three technical staff, as well as an undergrad or two doing their senior thesis research. So it was quite a small group. Actually, I had seen that setup firsthand already in my career, because it was very similar to what Dr. Shibasaki’s lab was like at the very beginning, so I basically understood how to make it work. I had a really strong feeling at that time of like, “Here we go!!” and finally getting to do my own research.

Adachi: In setting up and running your own lab, was there anything that you felt was frustrating? That you didn’t have the answer for?

Sodeoka: Because I had started my career at Sagami, and I was setting up my group like the one I had been part of there in my previous stint, I didn’t run into any major obstacles. What was new to me was seeking out good postdocs and recruiting them to come to my lab. That took enormous effort.

Adachi: When hiring postdocs, were you paying attention to certain things? Did you have a certain recruiting strategy?

Sodeoka: Naturally, I felt most comfortable if the postdocs were connected to somebody who I was connected to. Since coming to RIKEN, I have been working with a large number of postdocs and many of them come through an open application process, but when I was starting my first lab back then, I reached out to my contacts and asked, “Do you have anybody you can recommend?” So my strategy was to use my network to learn who would make a good hire and where they were currently affiliated.

Adachi: After three years at Sagami Chemical Research Center, you quit in order to go back to the University of Tokyo, where you took an associate professor position. How did that come about?

Sodeoka: So that coincided with the aftermath of Japan’s economic bubble bursting. Japanese banks were struggling with the consequences. IBJ was having a tough time itself, and no longer in a position to be funding a research institution like Sagami. I really had no choice but to quit, because the situation was so grim for Sagami that there was no future for anyone staying there. I had to find somewhere else to work. I applied for professorships at a number of universities, but none of them worked out.
I was starting to wonder how to take the next step in my career, and that is when I heard from Professor Yuichi Hashimoto, who ran the lab at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences (currently Institute for Quantitative Biosciences) at the University of Tokyo. As it turned out, I took a professorship at Tohoku University soon after that, so my time in the Hashimoto lab was extremely brief. But it was a lab where they did experiments in both synthetic organic chemistry and biology, and I got to see what it looked like to be doing two different kinds of science under the same roof, so to speak. So it was a tremendously valuable experience. Dr. Hashimoto was extremely helpful to me later on in my career as well and I owe him a lot.

Adachi: So you ended up spending a year at the University of Tokyo, but as an associate professor working under a professor rather than as a PI.

Sodeoka: Yes, I held the position of associate professor, and I was not a PI. I was part of Dr. Hashimoto’s lab. But he was very understanding and told me that I was free to do my own research as well as cooperate with his research.

Adachi: But since you still wanted to run your own lab, you were applying for various positions elsewhere, correct?

Sodeoka: I had already submitted other applications when I took the University of Tokyo job, in fact. But since I didn’t hear anything back, I assumed that I wasn’t getting any offers. But as soon as I arrived at Dr. Hashimoto’s lab, I was called in for an interview at Tohoku University and ended up being hired there.

Adachi: And at Tohoku University, you became a professor and were able to establish your own lab, doing the best you could there?

Sodeoka: That’s right.

Adachi: You spent six years at Tohoku University. How would you describe that phase of your academic career?

Sodeoka: At Tohoku University, I set up a lab that was centered on the energetic students who joined us. When I took up my professorship there, an associate professor who had worked with my predecessor was still in place. That associate professor’s students also stayed in place with him. But because I had seen how things played out in that type of situation when Dr. Shibasaki made his move to Hokkaido University, from day one I was very conscientious about establishing a good rapport with the lab members who were already there when I arrived. And in fact, things went extremely smoothly, and that associate professor moved on to a higher post in the end.

Adachi: You also obtained a tenured position at Tohoku University. Is that right?

Sodeoka: Yes.


Adachi: Finally, in 2006, you came to RIKEN. What was the story behind that?

Sodeoka: When I first arrived at Tohoku University, there was a small, chemistry-oriented institute called the Institute for Chemical Reaction Science. There were also researchers there whose work involved a bit of biology. But then the following year, there was a reorganization. The institute which my lab was affiliated with merged with the Research Institute for Scientific Measurements and the Institute for Advanced Materials Processing to form one large institute called the Institute of Multidisciplinary Research for Advanced Materials. The focus of the new institute was now on materials science, which I felt made it somewhat difficult to push my research towards the interface of chemistry with biology. I actually started to create a lab where some of those kinds of experiments could be done, but I realized that there was little prospect of scaling up. That is why I ended up moving to RIKEN, where people such as Dr. Minoru Yoshida and Dr. Hiroyuki Osada were working in chemical biology. That made RIKEN seem like a very promising place to do the research I wanted to do, and I made up my mind.

Adachi: How did you end up getting the job? Did RIKEN recruit you? Or did you apply for an open-call position?

Sodeoka: They did reach out to me, but I ended up actually applying for an open-call position and was selected.

Adachi: Having established your own lab a number of times by that point in your career, what kind of lab did you hope to build up at RIKEN?

Sodeoka: At RIKEN I wanted to create a lab for chemical biology, a lab where work in chemistry and biology is done side by side. After moving to RIKEN, I built out my lab’s biology facilities step by step. What is so great about RIKEN is that the barriers between labs are really minimal, and there is a strong mentality of helping newcomers get established. When I first came here, it was at my predecessor Dr. Tadashi Nakata’s lab which he had made to be fully dedicated to research on synthetic organic chemistry. And on the other side of our lab was Dr. Yukishige Ito’s lab, who, right at that time, was setting out to build biology facilities. I was able to use half of his lab space in order to gradually ramp up my biology experiments. Although I didn’t have the lab equipment I needed, I was able to borrow it from Dr. Osada’s lab and Dr. Yoshida’s lab. Everyone made it very easy for me to launch my experimental work.
When I was a postdoc at Harvard, my first year was in a lab purely doing organic synthesis work, and it was headed by the very eminent Dr. Corey. In fact, he was awarded the Nobel Prize not long after I got there. Dr. Corey was extremely strict: he went around every day with pencil and paper to have a discussion with each member of the lab individually, writing down what they were going to do next. And everyone knew that if they had not done that work by the next time Dr. Corey came around, they would be in trouble. So it was a lab where everyone was on edge, and where the emphasis was on working hard. Dr. Corey didn’t even hold regular lab seminars. The lab I moved to in my second year at Harvard was completely different. It was a lab established by someone my age there who had just been promoted to assistant professor. And there was a collaborative atmosphere among the graduate students, everyone helping each other out to move the research forward. That lab didn’t have its own equipment yet, so we all borrowed from the neighboring lab, which was under Dr. Stuart Schreiber, another very eminent researcher. In that second lab at Harvard, we all bonded easily with each other. So I experienced two polar opposite lab environments at Harvard. And when I came to RIKEN to start a lab, it was that second lab’s atmosphere that I went for.

Adachi: So you were expanding into biology, and had to recruit postdocs from an area outside your home territory. How did you approach that?

Sodeoka: Once again, it was using my contacts with other scientists to ask, “Do you know anyone who would be a good fit?” Postdocs coming from the biology side weren’t interested in joining us. Our lab wasn’t fully up and running for biology research until we got Dr. Ayako Tsuchiya (who is now at RIKEN in Kobe). Where did we find the budget to bring her in at the time, I wonder? Well, we were able to recruit her as a postdoc from Core Research for Evolutional Science and Technology (CREST) or something. She was referred to me from the lab of a scientist in my network. Sometimes it’s difficult for people from a strictly biology lab background to communicate with chemistry people. But Dr. Tsuchiya came from a lab that was doing research on natural products. She was extremely valuable, a real powerhouse. It was thanks to her that we were able to expand our work on the biology front.
Another key individual was Dr. Kosuke Dodo, who came with me from Tohoku University. He had been a master’s student under the Dr. Hashimoto I mentioned earlier and was at the University of Tokyo at the same time as I was. He joined us at Tohoku University when he was getting his doctorate. Back then I never imagined that I would someday end up at RIKEN. Anyway, at that time I sent him to Dr. Osada’s lab in RIKEN in order for him to learn how to culture cells and other biology experimentation techniques my lab needed. This allowed me to set up experiments with a biology angle at Tohoku University. Since coming to RIKEN with me, he has been spearheading our biological research, and is continuing to handle various areas of research for our lab to this day.

Adachi: So it sounds like when you set out to unite the different fields of biology and chemistry, the lab management approach that you adopted was to harness the capabilities of key contributors in each area. Is that correct?

Sodeoka: That’s correct.

Research career turning points

Adachi: Looking back over your career, what would you say was the biggest “jump” between stages in your career as a researcher, like when you noticed you changed as a PI?

Sodeoka: I think the key “jump” was when I came to RIKEN, because the scope of the research I was able to do expanded so much. For one thing, that is when I was first able to secure major funding. But also, thanks to the flexibility of RIKEN, I was able to gain the use of spaces and facilities when needed. And at one point, I found myself with an abundance of coworkers. That expanded what I was able to do and made it possible to take on serious research at the interface between chemistry and biology. For those reasons, joining RIKEN was clearly the biggest turning point.

Adachi: So you enjoyed access to a wide range of coworkers, and obtained a bigger budget. But I suppose that, at the same time, there were adjustments you had to make in order to deal with matters that you were not accustomed to. How did you manage and overcome those new demands on your time and energy?

Sodeoka: I could say I made some minor changes to how I managed my lab. Ever since I was at Tohoku University, I had my research assistants work with a handful of graduate students, and I set things up so that each group would be assigned to a different research topic. The ones qualified to lead those projects were members of my research staff who had come over from Tohoku University with me, including Dr. Kosuke Dodo, Dr. Go Hirai, and Dr. Yoshitaka Hamashima, scientists who were in their mid-30s, and in the phase of preparing to become PIs themselves. So, gradually I delegated to them more and more of the decision-making and responsibility. I myself became so excessively busy that I couldn’t possibly be hands-on with everything anyway. Overall, it was something of a shift to managing the lab as a collection of subgroups.

Tips on lab management

Adachi: When you delegated responsibility to younger researchers, were there any principles that you firmly insisted that they maintain?

Sodeoka: I want them to think of science as the impulse to investigate phenomena that are interesting. Also, I strongly emphasized that they thoughtfully manage the people working under them. Let’s say you have someone in the lab who does something wrong, or a student who needs a talking-to. It may sound odd to describe it as “division of roles”, but at times like that, we made it a principle to keep each other informed about the situation. So if one of my staff scientists comes down on someone working under them, I keep my distance and observe. And if I am the one reprehending someone, then those staff scientists will keep their distance and observe me. That is the approach we ended up with.

Adachi: What are you careful about when you reprehend someone?

Sodeoka: Students nowadays are very difficult to deal with, because if you scold them, they tend to either fall to pieces or snap back at you. It is like the “division of roles” I was just talking about, if one of us is doing the scolding, then another one of us will usually follow up with the person who received the scolding. Of course this is possible because I have trust in my coworkers, being able to act in sync with them.

Adachi: Is there a secret to cultivating coworkers that you can rely on like that?

Sodeoka: I think they cultivate themselves! (laughter)

Adachi: So you find yourself more in the role of watching over their growth?

Sodeoka: I suppose so. Looking back on my own growth, I don't know if you could call it on-the-job training, but I find it helpful to reflect on my observations of how the PIs I worked under dealt with trouble in their labs. So I imagine, although I can’t be sure how they see it, that the people who worked for me, when they go on to become PIs they will benefit from the experience of having seen various scenarios in my lab.

Reflecting on a career with many job changes

Adachi: What were your happiest moments as a PI? Could you share some stories?

Sodeoka: No surprise, in research the happiest moments are when your work turns out really well. And those moments of joy are shared with the people who you’ve worked with to make the discovery.

Adachi: Flipping the question around, what are the unhappiest episodes?

Sodeoka: Recently, with the subgroup system of lab management, I rarely get to be actually present and share the excitement at the moment when a discovery is made. That is kind of a bummer.

Adachi: If you could give advice to your past self when you were first becoming a PI, what would it be?

Sodeoka: That’s a difficult one... hmm... I might say, “It will all work out somehow.” (laughter) If I look back over my CV, I don’t think very many people changed jobs as often as I did. And a lot of those moves were not because of my own wishes. Even so, it goes to show that if you are considering moving on and you put out the word, someone will reach out and take you in. In my case, honestly, it was rather exhausting to bounce from one institution to another, but it did give me the opportunity to meet a lot of different people, and those contacts proved to be a valuable resource. I ended up with a wide network of people. And so, time and time again, when I need a favor, someone has offered their help. In that sense, my out-of-the-ordinary CV is not really a negative on the whole.

Adachi: That’s all the questions I have, thank you very much.

Pursuing interdisciplinary research between two different fields

Matsuo: You mentioned that when you first established a new lab as a PI at Sagami Chemical Research Center, you engaged in various research and came to realize that the research you wanted to do involved biology. What advice do you have for those who are trying to determine their own research interest? What is that process like?

Sodeoka: In my case, I am still engaged in research in both catalytic chemistry and chemical biology, but catalytic chemistry is what I have been doing from the beginning. It was in the course of that research that I accumulated various results which steered me in new directions, as I became interested in developing some particular line of research. So it was a fairly smooth ride in areas closely related to catalysis. As far as the interface with biology, because I came from a pharmaceutical sciences department, I had of course taken classes in biology, but I had not done any actual research in biology whatsoever. Following the advice of Dr. Shibasaki, who I mentioned earlier, I was determined to find a fresh angle, and was searching around for something intriguing. If I can get into the research specifics a little bit, at Sagami Chemical Research Center, our research addressed creating efficient synthesis of derivatives of certain biomolecules, namely prostaglandins and prostacyclin, which have a peripheral vasodilator action. When I succeeded in synthesizing a highly potent molecule, even though I was properly protected and being very careful, my hand flushed beet-red due to exposure to that chemical compound.
That really drove home to me what an amazing molecule it was. It made me intensely curious about the mechanism of action. At that time, the receptors for prostaglandin and prostacyclin were not yet known, so I had nothing to do. But, when I thought about what kind of research I wanted to do later, I was attracted to molecular biology. That field was advancing at a terrific pace, with all sorts of breakthroughs in cloning, in synthesizing proteins, and more. And I felt that approaching it from the chemistry side could produce valuable discoveries.

Steady efforts toward creating a diverse environment

Matsuo: You mentioned that when deciding on a career path you opted to obtain licensure as a pharmacist so that you would always have that to fall back on, and that people around you said you would “never find a job.” But you also talked about having a female scientist as a role model. In light of those and other experiences, how would you say that things have changed for women in the sciences since that time?

Sodeoka: I would say things seem to be changing significantly now, so I am hopeful that more and more women will take up research careers.

Matsuo: Right now your lab is like a large family under one roof, with diverse members in terms of nationality, age, and gender. Could you tell us from the perspective of a PI managing a diverse lab, what you find enjoyable, and also what challenges are present?

Sodeoka: I have never really thought about it. One thing we do is that for our seminars, people present in English if they are able to. That is to avoid creating barriers for lab members who don’t speak Japanese. I don’t want anyone to feel left out.

Matsuo: Thank you very much for your answers.

Looking back on the career crossroads

Adachi: Did you ever consider possibly establishing a lab at an institution outside Japan?

Sodeoka: At the time my two-year postdoc at Harvard ended, which was a leave of absence from my position in Japan, Dr. Shibasaki had moved to the University of Tokyo. That led to a period when it was unclear whether I had a lab to go back to upon returning to Japan. So I thought about extending my stay overseas. But then the University of Tokyo asked me to come, and I ended up going back to Japan as planned.

Adachi: Would you have stayed at Tohoku University for the rest of your career if not for the opportunity to move to RIKEN?

Sodeoka: I think staying long term at Tohoku University was a viable option. In that case, I probably would have kept on with the kind of research I was already doing and perhaps would never have ventured into chemical biology as deeply as I am now. But as an organic chemistry lab, Tohoku University was the place where I could have accomplished more.

Adachi: I get the impression that your career has involved working extremely hard, especially during the period of time when you were at Hokkaido University and simultaneously trying to obtain your “doctorate via dissertation” from Chiba University. Has your work-life balance changed over time, during the course of your career as a researcher?

Sodeoka: I don’t think it has changed much.

Adachi: So you are still working long hours now?

Sodeoka: I still tend to spend long hours in the lab, yes. But I try to live the good life here and there... eating good food and so on. (laughter)

Appeal of aiming for a PI position

Adachi: Finally, what would your message be to young scientists who are aspiring to become PIs?

Sodeoka: If you enjoy doing research, and you find an area of research that fascinates you, then by all means becoming a PI is important to being able to realize your ambitions.

Adachi: Another career option is to forgo becoming a PI but continue in a hands-on research job. How would you describe the appeal of aiming for a PI position instead?

Sodeoka: Being a PI enables you to completely dedicate yourself to the research that you want to do. In my case, from the very start I found doing experiments rewarding, and wanted a career that would allow me to keep doing experiments. I found research interesting. So I wanted a job which would let me do research based on my own ideas. I was more and more eager to not be limited to the category of research set by the lab’s boss, but to do my own thing. So when I started thinking along those lines, that is probably when I set my sights on becoming a PI.

Adachi: And around what point in your career was that when you started thinking like that?

Sodeoka: It was probably right around the time I went to Harvard. All the different people that I met there had a big influence, most likely. The graduate students there, as soon as they finished grad school and got their doctorates, would go straight into a postdoc and then immediately after that become PIs. That’s the career path in the U.S., so, everyone there is already thinking hard about what they will do as a PI, when they are postdocs and even when they are still in grad school. That is what people over there told me. Because I was about three years later than my peers in getting a doctorate, I was also delayed in thinking about becoming a PI. But being at Harvard and hearing that people were plotting out their PI path from such a young age must have influenced my thinking.

Adachi: You spoke about the unusually frequent job changes through your career. Looking back, is there anything you wish you had done differently at those times, or have you thought about possibilities that you overlooked?

Sodeoka: Because I had quite a few turning points, I did consider a lot of things each time a job change happened. When you come to a fork in the road in life, you can’t go down both paths, so I made up my mind that I would be content with the choices that I made and believe that they were for the best. I didn’t like the idea of constantly second-guessing, or having regrets... “If only I had done this instead of that...” That kind of thinking is not for me. I just set my mind to making my best effort so that I could feel satisfied with the path I chose.

Capturing the momentum

Adachi: Just one last question. As you said, you started your career in an era where women were shut out of some jobs completely. And you ended up starting your working life at Sagami Chemical Research Center. Did you find that Sagami’s environment had less discrimination, regardless of gender?

Sodeoka: When I was hired, there was a man with a master’s degree who was hired in the same year at the same time, but I was given a job status one rank lower than his.

Adachi: Even though you had a master’s degree?

Sodeoka: Yes, even though we both had a master’s. He was hired as a research associate, which is now considered as a discretionary work position (with flexible hours and a salary). Whereas I was hired as a research assistant, which is a non-discretionary position (with fixed hours and overtime pay). So there was discrimination from the moment I joined. It really angered me, so I reported the hours for the work I had done late into the night doing experiments, which happened quite often, and received overtime pay. Eventually the center director called me in and told me, “We have a problem. If you work any more overtime, you are going to earn more than the salary of the man we hired at the same time as you.” The next year, they bumped me up to a higher position.

Adachi: What about the actual work done? Was there gender discrimination in that respect?

Sodeoka: Let me tell you what was great about Dr. Shibasaki. Even though he applied tremendous pressure on his lab members and drove us hard, he never went easy on me because I was a woman, or prevented me from doing certain kinds of work. Not at all. He was the type to be just as demanding of a woman as of a man. And when we made discoveries, he gave us opportunities to present them on various occasions. He also introduced us to many people; he was incredibly generous about things like that. In those days, one factor that gave women trouble in climbing the ladder, as I saw it, was that we were given misplaced consideration: not allowed to do dangerous experiments, not allowed to carry heavy things, et cetera. This had the end result of preventing women from doing the research that they wanted to do. I think it might have been a make-or-break time in Dr. Shibasaki’s own career, but he didn’t make any distinctions between men and women when it came to those things. And so I was allowed to do my research without constraints and I produced results. Then when Dr. Shibasaki moved to Hokkaido University, he brought me along. Without his uncompromising approach driving me onward, I wouldn’t have made it to where I am today.

Adachi: Looking back over your career, were there other instances of gender-based discrimination that you encountered other than the time you joined Sagami Chemical Research Center?

Sodeoka: Not many. Dr. Masako Nakagawa was an associate professor at Chiba University who supervised me directly and she was thriving as a researcher. And when I went to Sagami Chemical Research Center, one of the senior researchers there was a woman. At Hokkaido University too, there were also women in the same lab who were thriving in research. I often hear it said that women in science lack role models but in my case there were women researchers around and I never perceived any kind of message like “women aren’t suited for science.” It always seemed to me that if I worked hard, I would be able to reach my goals.

Adachi: Thank you for taking the time to share your perspective.

This interview took place on February 7, 2023, in Wako, Japan, at the Chemistry and Materials Physics Building. Room S601.

RIKEN Elsevier Foundation Partnership Project
Camera and editor: Tomoko Nishiyama (Center for Brain Science)
Aiko Onoda (Center for Brain Science)
Assistant camera: Masataka Sasabe (International Affairs Division)
Interviewer and assistant: Hiroko Matsuo (Diversity Promotion Office)
Interviewer and producer: Emiko Adachi (Diversity Promotion Office)

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