Study at ALMA (1) Graduate Students Taking on Challenge to the World
Technically speaking, the NAOJ is not a university but it accepts graduate students from universities including the SOKENDAI (Graduate University for Advanced Studies) and the University of Tokyo to provide opportunities to study and conduct research at NAOJ. One of the biggest advantages of studying as a graduate student at NAOJ is the opportunity to work with specialists handling cutting-edge observing instruments on a daily basis and researchers deeply involved in operations of telescopes.
What is it like studying at research institutes as a student? We interviewed Tomonari Michiyama, a graduate student who is currently studying at the NAOJ.
— Where do you belong as student?
Michiyama: I am in the fourth year of a 5-year doctoral program of the Department of Astronomical Science, School of Physical Sciences at the SOKENDAI (Graduate University for Advanced Studies) [At the time of the interview as of February 2018]. It’s quite a long name to say (laugh). Usually most universities have a two-year master (M) program and a following 3-year doctoral (D) program separately, while SOKENDAI has a comprehensive 5-year program which targets students wishing to obtain a doctor’s degree as a final goal  SOKENDAI is a university specialized in providing doctoral course programs for graduate students. The center is located in Hayama, Kanagawa, but students study and conduct researches at various nationally renowned research institutes where their supervisors belong as faculty members of SOKENDAI. The NAOJ accepts graduate students from the Department of Astronomical Science, School of Physical Sciences at SOKENDAI. The course is a combined 5-year doctoral program, but it is also possible to finish the course after 2 years (equivalent to a master program) and receive a master degree. . I think SOKENDAI will be a good choice for a person who wants to complete a doctoral program.
— What kind of research are you engaged in?
Michiyama: My research theme is Galaxy Evolution whose ultimate goal is to reveal the formation and evolution process of galaxies. Especially, my focus is on interacting and merging galaxies. Theoretically it is considered that merger of galaxies occurs frequently and galaxies evolve through such merger. I want to prove it by observation. I am studying how stars are formed from molecular gas in merging galaxies.
— For your research, you are using ALMA.
Michiyama: Right. ALMA is very suitable for the observations of molecular gas that emits radio waves. Because the central region of merging galaxy is very complicated, there are many things that only ALMA high resolution observation can reveal. Galaxies that I am observing now are located around 0.1 billion light years away from the Earth. However, it is said that there are huge number of merging galaxies in the farther away Universe. And for the future research, I want to observe galaxies as far as 10 billion light years away.
Up until quite recently, the mainstream approach to observe distant galaxies was using optical-infrared telescopes like the Subaru Telescope, but as ALMA started its operations, radio observation has become an option to try out new exciting researches.
— How did you decide your research theme in the first place?
Michiyama: I was originally interested in exploring the edge of the universe. I studied in Tohoku University for four years as an undergraduate student and met professional researchers who are specialized in galaxies. I decided to study galaxy evolution at that time. In deciding an actual research theme for my master program, I chose one from the themes suggested by my supervisor Dr. Daisuke Iono (Associate Professor at the NAOJ Chile Observatory). I have a favorite galaxy which is my target object in observation and this one was also introduced by Iono. In April of the second year of my master program, my ALMA observation proposal was adopted and now I am analyzing the results of the observation.
— It’s surprising that even graduate students can carry out research with ALMA.
Michiyama: Yes, and my favorable circumstances in SOKENDAI have helped me a lot. ALMA is the world’s most advanced telescope that started its operations just 7 years ago. There are a huge number of researchers wishing to use ALMA and an enormous number of observation proposals are submitted from all over the world. I prepared my proposals with support of my supervisor Dr. Iono and often had my draft proposal entirely corrected with red ink by him (laugh). Thanks to his thorough checking, my proposal was successfully adopted. So, I would say it might not have happened without his support.
— What is your daily life like?
Michiyama: I was attending classes for the first two years of my master program. An advantage of SOKENDAI is that it has a wide variety of astronomy classes from basics like “Introduction to Astronomy” to more specialized ones like “Galaxy Evolution”. Also, we are allowed to take classes at other universities including the University of Tokyo through credit transfer system. Since I earned required credits within the first two years, I have no classes to attend other than SOKENDAI colloquium once a week where graduate students give presentations on their researches.
And I am holding seminars every Wednesday together with other graduate students specialized in radio astronomy. In this seminar, we read a textbook on radio interferometry system (“Interferometry and Synthesis in Radio Astronomy” A. R. Thompson, J. Moran, G. W. Swenson Jr., Springer) but it’s too difficult! I think we are working on the most difficult materials. Sometimes I feel discouraged, but I pull myself together to take on what our alumni went through. Maybe, we are given the opportunity to read such an esoteric text book (laugh), because we have experts on interferometer around us when we need support.
In addition to this, I attend a seminar to share the latest research papers with researchers and postdocs every day. I also like NAOJ colloquiums where I can hear various interesting talks.
I spent the remaining time for research, writing papers, reading related research papers, analyzing observation data, and so on.
I also play baseball during lunch break 3 days a week. Many people enjoy club activities at NAOJ.
— What brought you to astronomy at SOKENDAI?
Michiyama: I started to have interest in studying astronomy when I was a high school student and went to Tohoku University, which was one of the three universities that have a department of astronomy along with the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. I chose Tohoku University because I wasn’t sure that I could make it in the University of Tokyo, and I wanted to live by myself away from Osaka where I was born and bred.
When I was a university student, I got into internship programs at Nobeyama and Subaru Telescope  The NAOJ Nobeyama Radio Observatory (NRO) and Subaru Telescope in Hawaii provide internship programs for students. The 45-m Radio Telescope is used for the program in Nobeyama. Many of participants became astronomers after this experience. . Through this experience, I felt excitement and passion of astronomers engaged in observation and thought that I could enjoy working as an astronomer.
In choosing graduate schools, my priority was not to have too much economic burden throughout my student life. SOKENDAI provides financial support programs for students such as tuition exemption and I could receive financial aid that provides 80,000 yen per month under certain conditions (researcher fellowship program) which is very helpful.
Furthermore, we can receive individual research grant and financial support for overseas travels. I went to Chile for three weeks as my first overseas trip and then Korea, as well as the 30-m telescope in Spain and summer school with VLA (Very Large Array) in the U.S.. Also, I spent 1.5 months each in Germany and U.S. and a month in Sweden for collaborative research. Recently, I attended workshops in Taiwan and Vietnam.
— You are given many opportunities to visit foreign countries.
Michiyama: True. I am very lucky to have these opportunities. Of course, money doesn’t fall from the sky and we have to get it by applying for research grant. But we can freely do what we want if we seek out a new opportunity for ourselves. Visiting overseas and talking with the world’s leading researchers at workshops are really valuable experiences. I might be participating in more workshops than astronomers who are too busy to attend them (laugh).
In return for the provided research grant, I have to publish papers as a result of research. So, I need to finish my papers, which are also one of the graduation requirements from the university. I will submit a paper that I am currently working on within 6 months. My goal was to write one paper a year, but it might result in 2 papers in 3 years.
— You have to speak English in foreign countries. Did you have language proficiency from the beginning?
Michiyama: Not at all. I was a rather poor English speaker. Since the NAOJ Chile Observatory has many researchers from various countries, they speak English in everyday conversation. I was surprised to see them having a chat after lunch in English during my first days at NAOJ. Recently a new postdoc came from overseas to our lab and we started to have meetings in English.
My English isn’t enough yet, but I was at least able to overcome my fear of speaking English, which was very important to me (laugh).
— There are various advantages of being a student of SOKENDAI, but do you think of any disadvantage of it?
Michiyama: A lack of name recognition, definitely (laugh). SOKENDAI has great advantages in education quality but still a low profile. I had to spend much time convincing my parents that I should go to SOKENDAI. If I were going to the University of Tokyo or Kyoto University, they would have agreed instantly.
Not only me, but other students are also given opportunities to conduct research using the world’s leading telescopes. So, I hope people know more about SOKENDAI and its high-quality education that students can enjoy.
— What is the difference between studying on the university campus and studying at the NAOJ?
Michiyama: The number of students for a supervisor is smaller, compared with other graduate schools. My supervisor Dr. Iono has two students, while among other graduate schools, a supervisor sometimes has more than 10 students. So, I think we are very lucky to be able to study under a supervisor with a smaller number of students. The NAOJ Chile Observatory has a total of 9 graduate students and we are working in a very vibrant atmosphere.
Students are given guidance not from their supervisor but also from other researchers and seniors on a daily basis. Also we are working close to engineers who are engaged in actual development and operations of ALMA. For example, we can go ask specialists about how to use an analysis tool. This is an ideal study environment.
Another advantage of NAOJ is that there are a wide variety of researchers, not limited to experts on radio astronomy. Since there are leading researchers from various fields such as optical and infrared astronomy, theoretical astronomy, and gravitational wave, we can hear what is going on in other fields of astronomy. Recently I started to have interest in astrochemistry  Astrochemistry is the astronomical study focused on chemical aspects of materials in the universe to explore the evolution process and properties of astronomical objects from compositions and chemical reactions of various materials. while observing molecular gas in a galaxy, but my supervisor Dr. Iono is not a specialist of that field. So, I can seek support for some other experts. Sometimes I am learning new things of other fields together with Dr. Iono.
— What is the most interesting part of doing research?
Michiyama: Astronomers have promoted theoretical researches based on an assumed theory of galaxy evolution. Now as actual observation of galaxies has become possible with ALMA, there are an increasing number of results that defy the conventional views. Such unexpected results sometimes give us a big surprise and sometimes give us new insights. The forefront of leading-edge research is always active and exciting. I feel greatly honored to be able to work at the frontier of research as a graduate student.
There are three ways to study at the NAOJ Chile Observatory as a graduate student as follows:
- Enter the Department of Astronomical Science, School of Physical Sciences at SOKEDAI and have a research and academic staff member at the NAOJ Chile Observatory as your supervisor.
- Enter the Department of Astronomy, Faculty of Science at the University of Tokyo and have a research and academic staff member at the NAOJ Chile Observatory who is doubled as a faculty member at the University of Tokyo as your supervisor.
- Enter a university other than those mentioned above and become a Special Inter-Institutional Research Fellow (so-called “transient graduate student”) at the NAOJ through consultations between a supervisor at the university where you belong and academic staff members who will accept you.
For information of researchers at the NAOJ Chile Observatory, their research themes and key words, see the List of Researchers. If you wish to contact any of the researchers, you can use ALMA Contact Form.
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|1.||↑||SOKENDAI is a university specialized in providing doctoral course programs for graduate students. The center is located in Hayama, Kanagawa, but students study and conduct researches at various nationally renowned research institutes where their supervisors belong as faculty members of SOKENDAI. The NAOJ accepts graduate students from the Department of Astronomical Science, School of Physical Sciences at SOKENDAI. The course is a combined 5-year doctoral program, but it is also possible to finish the course after 2 years (equivalent to a master program) and receive a master degree.|
|2.||↑||The NAOJ Nobeyama Radio Observatory (NRO) and Subaru Telescope in Hawaii provide internship programs for students. The 45-m Radio Telescope is used for the program in Nobeyama. Many of participants became astronomers after this experience.|
|3.||↑||Astrochemistry is the astronomical study focused on chemical aspects of materials in the universe to explore the evolution process and properties of astronomical objects from compositions and chemical reactions of various materials.|