Originally published in Japanese for an online newsletter of a scientific grant program in Japan.
In March 2020, I spent three weeks in the laboratory of Professor Vito Quaranta at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. As my stay coincided with early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, I thought it would be worthwhile to document my unique experience of the lockdown during the rapidly growing spread of COVID-19.
The laboratory is one of the world’s leading centers for research in cancer systems biology; in recent years it has particularly focused on the integration of experimental data with mathematical modeling. Prof. Quaranta’s lab at Vanderbilt has been collaborating with the research teams of Prof. Takashi Suzuki at Osaka University and Prof. Naohiko Koshikawa (Quaranta lab alumnus) at Tokyo Institute of Technology for many years.
After I first visited the Vanderbilt University team with Prof. Suzuki and gave a seminar in early February, I was kindly invited by Prof. Quaranta to stay in the United States for a longer period of time to work on a collaborative project.
Prof. Suzuki made arrangements for a substitute professor for my Osaka University lectures in the spring/summer semester, and about a month later, on March 6, I was on a flight to the U.S. The ongoing situation of the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Yokohama was being reported around the world, and it was expected that travel from Japan to the U.S. might subsequently be restricted.
I cleared Customs and Immigration in transit at Chicago and arrived safely in Nashville. However, I was not permitted to enter the university buildings as visitors from abroad were required to self-quarantine for two weeks. Around that time, the lab meetings were shifted to Zoom, so I was able to join them while staying in a condo hotel near the campus.
At the beginning of my stay, restaurants, cafes and bookstores in town were all open and I was able to enjoy shopping and dining. However, a week or so later, the lockdown began and many shops shut down or only offered take out service. Nashville B-cycle suspended its bicycle rental service, which made it inconvenient to get to the nearest supermarket, a 30-minute walk away. So I bought a bicycle and began cooking for myself at the condo. I occasionally enjoyed carry-out food from local restaurants and tasted Nashville’s burgers, pizzas, sushi and ice cream. The restaurant staff always greeted me with spectacular smiles.
The collaborative research started smoothly, albeit in an online format. In particular, Dr. Leonard A. Harris (now professor at the University of Arkansas) walked me through all the concepts and software tools I needed for the collaboration. However, with Prof. Quaranta and other members of the lab attending meetings from their homes, the meaning of my staying in Nashville began to diminish. Six-foot social distancing was emphasized in the U.S. media, but no one was wearing masks at that time because they were sold out at pharmacies and other retailers. I saw many people chatting at the checkout counter in the supermarket. In light of the Japanese concept of avoiding the three Cs (closed spaces with poor ventilation, crowded and close-contact settings), this behavior seemed dangerous to me.
My wife, whom I video-called daily, grew increasingly anxious and begged me to return home. Every time I watched NBC Nightly News, the number of reported infections soared and the anchorperson looked gloomier and gloomier. The news that medical students were graduating early to join the frontline hospital workers was shocking.
Then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Japan asked its citizens to refrain from non-essential travel to the U.S. and overseas students and researchers started returning home in a hurry. Concerned that my flight back to Japan might be cancelled, I consulted with the parties involved, and quickly arranged a ticket back to Osaka at the end of March.
After spending two weeks in voluntary quarantine at a hotel near Kansai International Airport, I returned to my home on April 15. Since then, I have been participating in weekly meetings late at night until the early morning Japan time, and from the end of July, in my new role as Adjoint Associate Professor. Despite the 14-hour time difference between Osaka and Nashville, the fact that we can communicate in real time continues to amaze me.
While the meetings are being held online, the laboratory makes efforts to maintain a sense of unity and teamwork. Each meeting starts with members’ updates on their recent activities. I can see that everyone is spending time in various ways, such as baking bread, gardening and so on. When I struggled to come up with a topic, I talked about my wife’s homemade acqua pazza and shared a photo of it. We also have Movie Night every Friday night. After watching on Zoom members discuss their thoughts afterwards. Members from around the world take turns selecting movies, giving the event a strong international flavor. I myself introduced Hayao Miyazaki’s animated classics “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke,” as well as Itami Juzo’s comedy about food, “Tampopo (Dandelion).”
I feel very fortunate to be part of a super-active research environment where both biological experiments and mathematical analysis can be explored and discussed in great depth. I can see the team’s strong motivation to train people who can understand both fields. Quaranta lab is working closely with Prof. Carlos Lopez’s lab, also at Vanderbilt, which was involved in developing PySB, a tool for mathematical modeling of intracellular signal transduction. In fact, some of the graduate students are working with both professors. The meetings in Lopez lab are more intimate and informal, which is also interesting.
I hope that our continuing collaboration will open up a new, exciting field of cancer research in the future. Thank you very much for your support.