Company Interview: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST)

Company Profile

Company Name:
Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST)
Higher Education
No. Employee:
Approximately 650 employees
Neil Calder (NC), Vice President, Communication & Public Relations Division, OIST
Kaoru Natori (KN), Manager, Media Section Leader, Communication & Public Relations Division, OIST
TUJ Interviewer:
Erica Adams (EA), Career Development Office, TUJ

EACan you give me a little background about OIST?

NCThe idea behind OIST was to create the best university in the world. We had to be international, but we also had to be multidisciplinary. Our students have a very narrow specialty, but during the doctoral program they also have to experience other branches of science. So, if they are doing a physics specialty, we make sure they do a rotation in different laboratories, which will have to be something like chemistry, or biology, or neuroscience, or mathematics so they understand the vocabulary and the experimental approaches of other sciences. There was a general feeling that the old model of graduate school education no longer suits what we are looking for in young people going out into the world. They should be much more aware of a wide range of possibilities.

EAWhat does the Communication & Public Relations Office do?

KNWe do many kinds of things, one of which is science writing. We use the website to promote our research to the rest of the world, so those who read our stories contact us and say, “I want to collaborate with your researcher.”

NCWhat we do is write what we hope are really interesting journalistic stories about the research we are doing here and publish one to three articles a week, which we send out to the world through various distribution methods.

We try to come up with good press stories and effective headlines. We do stories about new research, conferences, welcoming new faculty, whatever. For a less formal approach, we put up more community news.

EA Why was it important for you to have interns in your office?

NCI’ve been working with interns for 30 years. I used to work at the CERN Particle Physics Lab in Geneva and I started a program there. Having these young folks in who have their own ideas, their own possibilities -- it keeps the soup stirred. But perhaps more importantly, these people are very ambitious and very capable and in 10 years they’ll be head science writer for The New York Times or they’re on the staff of Nature or they’re working for Science. I would say a significant portion of the senior science writers in the world now have been through internships with me. It’s an amazing network of contacts and usually they go away from the university or the lab with a good impression. They feel connected. So it’s a long-term investment in the future.

KNOur interns get to build a portfolio. If they are at an interview with, let’s say, the New Scientist, they want to show the interviewer how many stories they have written. During a six-month internship at OIST, they write an average of one story a week, so they go away with 20-some stories published on the external website.

EASean is the first intern from TUJ. How does he compare to your typical intern?

KNOther interns have either science communications or journalism degrees. Their pace is faster in summarizing scientific research. But when it comes to comprehension, Sean equals or even exceeds our expectations. I’m always very impressed by the fact that he takes a highly academic research paper that has been accepted to a journal and understands, I would say, more than half of the content and walks into an interview with the researcher. My approach and most other interns’ approach is to get just a vague idea of the research and then throw out a lot of questions in the interview. Neither approach is right or wrong, but that is something that perhaps students with non-science backgrounds can learn from him.

NCSean is a very bright guy. He has to go off and cover something like the genetic arrangement of starfish clusters, which I know nothing about, and I have to edit the stories he writes and he sits down and explains the science to me. I have been very impressed by his ability to pick up complex concepts very quickly and really understand them. Some people are just not able to do that. They don’t have the self-confidence to believe they really understand and they get scared and a little jittery about it all. But he has a lot of composure and self-belief. He’s taught me a lot of science since he’s been here and he’s not a scientist. I’ve been very impressed on that level.

EAWhat have other interns gone on to do after they have left this internship?

KNOne student from the University of Toronto is at Imperial College in London pursuing a master’s degree in science journalism. Another American student is in Utrecht University in the Netherlands pursing a degree in philosophy of science.

Another one joined Johns Hopkins communications team, so she’s in science communications. The first international intern returned home and is doing communications in Nairobi, Kenya. Another intern, whose strength is in video production, is in Fiji now. When she interned here she produced a couple videos and she is currently a freelancer pursuing marine science, producing videos. Two years ago she won a prestigious science video award in America.

As for Japanese interns, one is in Tokyo and got a job at the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan doing communications targeting an international audience. The other has joined the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation (Miraikan) in Odaiba.

NCWe’re very pleased about the two Japanese interns who got the jobs they wanted mainly because of their experiences here.

KNBoth of them said that they were able to answer the interview questions based on their experiences at OIST. The employers must have felt like they knew what they were getting into and were confident they would excel.

EAThat’s a great track record.

NCYes, it’s a real metric of how good these internships are. Something I take very seriously is getting these interns good jobs when they leave here. We spend a lot of time writing references. We can help them get jobs because we have a good international network.

EAWhat is a typical day for an intern?

KNOn Monday mornings we have a division meeting at 9:00; following that, we have a web meeting, which is our team members plus Neil going over who is going to write what this week – a typical newsroom type of meeting. That gives them a kick start for the week. It’s their responsibility to set up an interview with the researcher and go back and forth with that person, getting the science right in print. In between the lengthy articles for the external website, they have to do short articles for the internal website five days a week. Then they also take survival Japanese courses twice a week.

NCIt’s not mandatory, but it’s highly recommended. I like to see interns do Japanese courses. The most important part about these internships is that are they are not observers. As soon as they come, they are full-fledged members of the team and we expect them to act in an entirely professional way. They are journalists. We obviously help them, but we are really looking for people who are self-starters. We want them to sniff out stories themselves; we want them to get to know the people at the university. I want people who are running around the corridors getting to know people and finding out what’s going on at the university. Sean is good in that way.

We set high professional standards. And they have an amazing time. They get to meet incredible people and sit down with world-famous scientists and discuss groundbreaking research. We also expect them to be able to take good photos and think a lot about the illustrations of the articles, which are sometimes more important than the articles themselves.

This is a difficult job because the sociology is complex. Sometimes these researchers have got their own agenda. They want what they want even if no one can understand a word of it. They don’t care. They want something they can show so they get more grant money. We have to keep sending the interns back and saying, “No good, we’ve got to simplify this.” This is very much part of the training – how to deal with these people. Working in science communications is really a fascinating business.

KNIf a person would like to become a science writer, they have to cover a broad range of scientific topics. Because OIST offers such a wide range of sciences, I feel like it is the perfect venue for training science writers.

EAWhat do you look for when screening candidates?

KNWriting skills, personality, team spirit. I think these are the major points.

NCWe want writers. The ideal candidate for this job is someone who has had some journalism training. We want people who enjoy writing and are curious about and not scared by science. But, as Natori-san says, for me, in the end, I’m looking for nice people who are fun to be with, who work well in a team, who enjoy life, who want to come to work. Internships only work if there is a good atmosphere. You’ve got to have people who will join in and have fun.

EADo the interns have a chance to learn about local Okinawan culture?

KNThe access to our cars allows them to go around the island on weekends. OIST has a resource center with bilingual staff to provide information about festivities or places to go. We are also a very close community, so I hope they won’t shy away from asking questions about what they would like to see. There are different degrees of interaction with the Okinawan people, but the survival Japanese course must have already loosened their nervousness when it comes to interacting.

EAYou mentioned the access to cars; what other benefits are offered to interns?

KNWe provide relocation support, housing, and a salary.

NCThe salary is absolutely essential to the whole thing. We expect them to be professionals so we treat them like professionals. In Japan, there is a strange adoration of scientists and academics. It’s almost like two classes – administrators and academics. I don’t want that at all. So they get paid the same or probably more than researchers because this is a profession. And in 10 years, these haughty academics will be begging these interns to come and write about them. We treat them well. They get fantastic accommodations with amazing views, they get the use of cars, Japanese lessons, and full medical coverage.

KNAlso, OIST offers different clubs, so depending on their interests, interns can join the movie club, or the swing dance club, or the calligraphy club, etc. That’s how they get to know different people in the community.

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