Week 2: Travel, food, and science

Hello again, and this time from Inuyama! I’ve been moving around a lot during my first two weeks in Japan, which is great because I get to see and experience so much more. My first week took me to Kamakura, Yokohama, and Tokyo, and now my second week has taken me to Kyoto and Inuyama. I spent last week getting settled in my lab at Kyoto University, meeting the graduate students in the Graduate School of Science, and exploring some of the walking trails and spiritual centers in Kyoto.


My host researcher, Dr. Masato Nakatsukasa, was kind enough to show me around some of the temples and shrines near Kyoto University.  Due to cultural protection laws, photography is prohibited within the spiritual centers, but the architecture and art were absolutely stunning! Despite the hustle and bustle of the surrounding city, the temples and shrines offer a serene refuge from stresses of daily life.  Especially as a graduate student, these oases of peace would be especially appreciated during study breaks! Among the places we visited was the Higashi-Honganji temple – a massive temple right near the Kyoto Station.  Kyoto is an interesting city this way – walking down the street you see moderate skyscrapers mixed with traditional Japanese architecture.  The next day we visited the Toji temple dating to the year 796, which also shared grounds with this ancient five-story pagoda.


This past week I was introduced to the other graduate students working in Dr. Nakatsukasa’s lab. They, too, showed me around the campus, and introduced me to some of their favorite restaurants nearby. I’m trying all kinds of new food in Japan! Although I can’t read the menus, I trust them to show me what’s good. And so far, they haven’t let me down!

The food pictured is actually from a local Indian restaurant –

curried potato soup and a vegetable dumpling. Oishi! (That means “delicious” in Japanese.) Lastly, I found some beautiful walking trails along the Kamo River near the University – perfect for a morning run before work.



On Sunday I traveled to Inuyama – a small city on the outskirts of Nagoya.  Here I am visiting both the Primate Research Institute and the Japan Monkey Centre, where I will collect data for my research project.  I am a human evolutionary biologist (or biological anthropologist), and one of my main interests is comparative primate anatomy.  For this project, I’m studying the unique forelimb anatomy of particular New World and Old World monkeys.  Ateles (NWM) and Colobus (OWM) have been separate for many millions of years, yet both groups share unique forelimb morphology.  They have very long forearms and posterior digits (fingers), yet their thumbs are nearly non-existent.  What is particularly fascinating is that each group has attained this similar form independently, throughout their separate evolutionary trajectories.  Although I’m more of a morphologist than a geneticist, I’m interested in the particular Hox genes influencing the growth of these bones.  Hox genes are a special set of genes that are highly conserved amongst many taxa, and they control patterning of the bauplan, or body plan.  You might be wondering how the same genes, which control organization of the body, can produce such a wide variety of body types in different organisms.  The secret lies in the timing and degree of expression.  Tweaking these variables during development can have drastic effects on the organism.  Hoxd11 and Hoxd13 are two genes that control, in part, the growth of the distal forelimb, and they compete for overlapping territory in the hand.  By looking for correlations between forearm length and digit length, I hope to elucidate the boundaries of each of their expression territories. 

Here are some photos from my first day with the skeletal collections at the Primate Research Institute.  It might look like a scene from Bones, but this is where I got to work today! And I’m incredibly lucky and excited to go back tomorrow. I sincerely thank Dr. Eishi Hirasaki for kindly granting me access to the collections and for his warm reception at the institute.


Stay tuned while I complete my data collection over the next few weeks, and then analyze it to see what we’ve found!






This research is supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science