Interview with Tetsuya Komabayashi, ERC Grantee, Reader at the University of Edinburgh

Categories: News | Meet the researchers

Tags: ERC | EU | Japan

About Tetsuya Komabayashi:
I’m a theoretical petrologist at the University of Edinburgh. I study equilibrium properties of deep Earth materials based on experiment and thermodynamics. As part of my Ph.D. at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in 2000-2005, I studied stability of hydrous phases in a peridotite system at high pressure. After a one year post-doc, I became a non-tenured assistant professor at the same institute. During a sabbatical leave in 2007-2008, I stayed at the Carnegie Institution of Washington to work on phase relations of iron. I moved to the UK when I took up a tenure-track Lecturership (Chancellor’s Fellow) in 2013 at the University of Edinburgh and was promoted to Reader in 2017. I was awarded an ERC Consolidator grant (2015-2020) and am developing my own group and setting up an ultrahigh-pressure laboratory at Edinburgh.

- Tetsuya, can you introduce your research interests to our readers?

I’m interested in the origin, structure, and evolution of solid Earth and other planets. I believe that key information lies in the deep Earth where we cannot directly sample the materials from. Therefore, I study equilibrium properties of Earth-forming materials under deep Earth conditions based on high-pressure and high-temperature experiments.


- You are currently under an ERC grant in Europe. Can you tell us a bit about your career path before (and after) the grant?

One year after I received my Ph.D. at a university in Japan, I became a non-tenured assistant professor at the same institution. Seven years after that, I moved to the UK to take up a tenure-track Lecturership (Chancellor’s fellowship) at the University of Edinburgh in 2013. I was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant of the 2014 call and was promoted to a tenured Reader in 2017.


- Apart from the availability of this (or other) grants, what led you to come to Europe?

After spending several years as a non-tenured assistant professor, I started applying for tenured positions in Japan. Meanwhile I had an idea to move to another country to expand my horizons. Before that, I stayed at the University of Bayreuth (6 months) and Carnegie Institution of Washington (18 months) as a visiting investigator and became fascinated with working in Europe and US. I was not shortlisted by any institution in Japan that I sent my application to, which made me change my strategy to expand the job hunting field towards the US and Europe. I decided to move to Europe when I was offered a tenure-track position at Edinburgh.


- About your ERC proposal: can you let us know about your experience in writing the proposal?

Honest be told: I did not realise such a huge opportunity was available until one month before the deadline. I quickly wrote the proposal in two weeks and sent it to one of my colleagues for comments and feedback. I do not want readers to receive the wrong message from this; you should take time to revise your proposal. I was able to do this mostly because my proposal was based on my application to the position at Edinburgh, which means that my research proposal was already well considered. Also the financial part was written with a great help of administrative staff at the University of Edinburgh, e.g., I did not prepare a cost table for personnel, which would have been quite time-consuming.


- It seems you have interesting views about the second step of evaluation, the interview. Can you let us know about your experience?

I had only a one-time experience of ERC interview and I would not like to generalise, but I’m happy to share my experience with you. After registration at the reception, I was brought to a waiting room where 7-10 people were nervously waiting. An ERC staff came to the room inviting me to the interview room. Just before she opened the door of the interview room, she smiled at me saying ‘good luck!’.

The interview structure, in my case, was 5 min presentation + 25 min Q and A session. I had 16 questions during the Q and A session, all about my science; they did not ask about the research timetable, costing, or impact. Some questions were very technical which makes me believe that they had comments from the remote reviewers who must be experts in my field.

[note: there is no specific structure to these interviews; it can change depending on the candidate’s proposal and the jury members. The ERC Frontier Research Grants Information for Applicants states:
“The review methodology for the ERC Starting/Consolidator Grant includes interviews with PIs of proposals at step 2 conducted by the relevant ERC evaluation panel.
Depending on the panel, interviews will last approximately 30 minutes in total. The first part will be devoted to a presentation on the outline of the research project by the PI. The remaining time will be devoted to a question and answer session. The PI should expect questions also related to the content of the budget table, which is part of the application.
Panels will take into account the results of the interviews alongside the individual reviews.”


- Would you say that, as Japanese, there were specific hurdles that you managed to overcome in order to secure the funding?

None of the steps was easy with getting an ERC grant. But if I have to say something was difficult “because I’m a Japanese researcher”, that must be the language and cultural difference.

English is always an issue for the Japanese people who were born and raised in Japan, like me. Although I had some experience in writing a proposal and having an interview in English before, they were still much work for me.

Talking about cultural difference in academia, different grant schemes have different cultures/philosophies. The ERC grant scheme is high-risk and high-return, which might be challenging as most people never wrote a high-risk project.


- Are you satisfied with the grant? Can you let us know if --aside from funding-- there were other positive aspects to obtaining ERC funding?

Yes, I’m very much satisfied with the grant so far. Thanks to this grant, I was able to set up numbers of instruments, employ people, and travel around the world. Because this is a sole investigator-led project, every decision is at my discretion, which is massive responsibility, but at the same time, makes me proud.

Other than the funding and the project itself, I am happy that many opportunities are coming up to me as an ERC grantee, including this interview. I met many people who I would never meet without the ERC grant. This is really important as meeting new people always expands my horizons.


- How would you say research environment compare between Europe (UK) and Japan? And, what are the challenges of doing research in Europe as a Japanese national?

There is a very large difference between the two countries in terms of leading a research group at a higher education institution (university). In Japan, a number of universities still take a hierarchic academic structure, namely, in order to fully lead one research group, you need to be a (full) professor. Besides, in most universities, an assistant professor cannot be a formal supervisor of a Ph.D. student. Indeed, I practically supervised several Ph.D. students in Japan but this activity is not registered in the university. In the UK, the structure is flatter, lecturers can lead their own research group including supervision of Ph.D. students.

The most challenging issue regarding to research to me was getting used to the new environment. As I explained above, the language and academic culture are very different from in my previous place.


- From your perspective, how can/should researchers mobility flows between Europe and Japan (both ways) be improved?

This is what I want to know the answer to. I raise here potential problems.

Let’s start from Japan to Europe. I opened several positions with my grant and no Japanese researcher has sent me an application. Also, some of my friends in Europe offered Japanese researchers post-doc positions but they refused to come to Europe. There must be several factors, but I assume that they are satisfied with the circumnstances in Japan. There are many term-limited positions available in Japan and this is part of the reason for less people going out of Japan these days; they do not have to go out. Also they have a fear that once they have come out of Japan, that would reduce their chance of getting a position in Japan in the future.

Talking about from Europe to Japan, I’m under the impression that for many European people, Japan is too far, geographically and culturally. The inverse is true as well, but I think the distance affects more Europeans when they think about staying a few years abroad. One of the biggest challenges for them might be the language barrier as many Japanese people including researchers don’t speak other languages (primarily English) well. For female researchers, there may be another concern that women and men might not be treated equally in Japan as the proportion of the female line managers in the society is very low. Getting the gender balance right is an important issue in the world but Japan seems not to be catching up with other advanced countries.

As such, both parties might not be able to see clear advantages in moving to Europe/Japan. None of those problems can easily be solved immediately. One potential way to improve the situation is increased opportunities of interaction between researchers who have and have not stayed in Europe/Japan. If they obtain more information and can grasp what it meansto be mobile there, they might findit more attractive to move out.


- Finally, do you have a short message of encouragement to other Japanese researchers potentially interested in applying to ERC?

Getting an ERC grant is a life-changing event. There are many hurdles to get past, but I would say it’s worth it. Such a huge opportunity is not for everyone, but you should remember that I never got a permanent position in Japan, so you have your chances!


Thank you very much for your time Tetsuya!


read the full piece in our 2017 Q4 Newsletter