Akihabara, Tokyo Akihabara, Tokyo Christian Bertens

UM students head to Japan for double degree

In Body
Written by  Graziella Runchina Thursday, 05 February 2015 12:15

Call it a kind of integration ritual. An extended introduction to Japanese traditions and customs, including soaking up culture in temples and shrines and attending a school festival in a kimono. This awaited the UM students of the European–Japan double master’s degree in Neuroscience (Edu-Neuro EU-JP) on their arrival in Japan.

Initiated by the European Union, the programme in Biomedical Science and Neuroscience was launched in October 2013. “The partners are four European universities, including Maastricht University, and three Japanese universities”, explains Professor Harry Steinbusch, who founded the international exchange programme. Steinbusch is professor of Functional and Cellular Neuroscience and director of the School for Mental Health and Neuroscience (MHENS) at Maastricht University (UM). In his view, the project – which gives graduates both a Dutch and a Japanese master’s title – provides an excellent springboard for UM students to serve as ambassadors in Japan. “They promote the Anglo-Saxon education system and give talks on the way we work at UM.”

At the core of the four-year programme are 20 Japanese master’s students who come to Europe for one year, and 20 European students who go to Japan. The first Japanese students are expected in Maastricht in April 2015. Meanwhile, the first UM cohort is already on its feet at a Japanese university. Christian Bertens (24) is among them. “We’re the first Western students Toho University has ever had”, he says. “When we walk around the campus, people stare at us with open mouths. Most of the students now recognise us and are excited to talk with us, be it in a limited form of English–Japanese.”

Bertens arrived in the land of the rising sun in September. At Toho’s biomolecular laboratory, he is using animal modelling to investigate a form of dementia that develops in the frontal and/or temporal lobe. Trading in his house on the outskirts of a Limburg village for a tiny third-floor apartment in a city of one million residents took some getting used to, but Bertens is now relatively accustomed to Japanese customs and habits.

“Japan is full of contradictions. People drive electric cars with Wi-Fi in them, but they’re really behind in other areas. Take the payment system in shops and supermarkets. Everyone pays with cash and you can only use your card at the ATM, not in the store itself.” In particular, he had to get used to the hierarchical structure in Japan. “Between students and professors, but also among students themselves. Because I’m a second-year master’s student, every Japanese student who is ‘lower’ in rank shows me a great deal of respect and accepts everything I say without question. In my view that’s not a great structure.”

“The Japanese education system is indeed very different to ours”, Steinbusch says. He is speaking from experience: in 2013 the neuroscientist and his team visited the three Japanese universities that are taking part in the exchange. “The teaching method is very traditional, what you might call ‘old fashioned’. There’s little to no room for debate or discussion: the professor lectures and the students listen. The notion that you as a student or researcher might come up with your own ideas or proposals is highly unusual.”

This cultural difference will also be a hurdle for the Japanese students due to arrive at UM in April. “Because of the language barrier, first and foremost; the Japanese don’t speak much English. But also because of our directness and the less hierarchical nature of our work relations – they’ll have to figure out how to deal with this somehow.”

The main task for the students in Japan, besides taking courses in biomedical science and neuroscience, is to follow an internship in a research laboratory at one of the participating universities. Every year, scientists from Japan come to Europe and, vice versa, European scientists go to Japan to supervise students and evaluate the programme. In addition, European and Japanese professors organise two workshops on Translational Neuroscience in Maastricht and Japan, respectively.

“The programme fits seamlessly with our international strategy”, says Steinbusch. “The UM seeks connections with leading institutes all over the world, and the programme has given us an opening at a number of renowned Japanese institutes.” 

Moreover, it gives students like Christian Bertens the prospect of possessing two separate master’s degrees: one from UM, and one from a Japanese university. Steinbusch: “This is the first and only double degree programme at UM. It represents great added value for graduates who are looking to start a PhD programme or launch their career.” UM is now exploring the feasibility of establishing similar exchange programmes with South Korea, Chile and Brazil.

Harry Steinbusch (1950) is professor of Cellular and Translational Neuroscience at UM. He is also director of the European Graduate School of Neuroscience and the UM School for Mental Health and Neuroscience. In addition, he has been affiliated professor at the universities of Guangzhou (China), Chungham (South Korea), Murcia (Spain) and Hasselt (Belgium) for a number of years.

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