北海道大学 電子科学研究所 助教 Farsai Taemaitree
It has been almost ten years since I first came to Japan and enrolled as an undergraduate student in chemistry major. The story about how I chose chemistry as my major was a little bit embarrassing. First, I couldn’t choose between physics, chemistry, and biology because I love them all. So, to not narrow down the possibilities in the future, I decided on chemistry which is the central science, and I can first try the class in all the diverse branches of chemistry, such as physical, organic, inorganic, and biochemistry, before deciding the direction I want to focus on in the future. And second, chemistry is such a cool thing! You can mix stuff (mostly chemicals) together, and they can turn into a completely different thing (just like cooking). Sometimes, they could end up becoming something extremely useful. For instance, when combined with chlorine, a toxic gas, a highly explosive substance such as sodium becomes a salt used in every cuisine worldwide. I was fascinated by how much the world can change through the power of chemistry. And, probably just like many people, I hope that one day the things I made or found can leave some impact on this world.
To be honest, I had never expected myself to have a Ph.D. and continue an academic career. I initially expected myself to graduate with a master’s degree and work in a company that is related to chemistry. The turning point in my life was when I joined the laboratory and started working on the research topic I was absorbed into. My supervisor focused on developing nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems, the technology that carries drugs and specifically delivers them to the targeted site to achieve the desired effects. More specifically, we want to make a nanoparticle that cures cancer without causing side effects to the patients. You can think of a nanoparticle as a tiny drug capsule that can carry anticancer drug molecules. Its size could be about a thousand times smaller than a single hair strand, and you can only see them under an electron microscope. Working with something you cannot see with your own eyes can be fun and challenging. Yet, these tiny particles can make such a big difference in the quality of life of people. I think this is one of the reasons why the nanoparticle drug delivery system is such an attractive field.
Generally, when anticancer drugs are injected into our body, they can diffuse from blood vessels and spread through both tumor tissue and normal healthy tissues. The side effects are usually caused by the accumulation of drug molecules in the healthy tissues, especially in sensitive areas such as the digestive tract and hair follicles. However, the use of nanoparticles as the capsule of anticancer drugs may be able to eliminate the side effects of anticancer drugs. This is because, although small, the size of the nanoparticles is still large enough that they cannot leave our blood vessels. They only accumulate in the tumor because cancer’s uncontrolled growth causes some gaps in the blood vessels near the tumor. The nanoparticles can enter and get into tumor tissues through these gaps and cure cancer. Not only chemistry, but this research also requires knowledge of physics to understand the behaviors of nanoparticles in the systems, as well as biological knowledge for handling cell and animal experiments. So, I think I made the right decision in choosing a chemistry major since I can still use my knowledge of physics and biology as well as chemistry. Although our work is still at the laboratory level, my colleagues and I are trying our best so that one day we can go through the clinical trial and have a cancer drug that will not cause harm to the patients.
Back then, the number of female students in my class was less than one-fifth of the number of male classmates. Sadly, the number of female professors in the department, especially those with families, is in an even worse situation. Their number could even be counted by a single hand. There were not many female role models that I could look up to at the time, and it made me question the possibility of me pursuing a science career in Japan in the future. However, Japan has been trying to improve this situation over the past few years. Much more support is now being given so that female researchers can choose to pursue a career while taking care of their families. The platform here is also one example of the effort made so that younger female students can see the stories of female role models pursuing their careers. Although I am only a small researcher working on a tiny particle who sincerely doubts that I can be considered anyone’s role model, I hope the story I shared will encourage the younger generation not to hesitate to follow their dreams.