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February 2, 2024

CiRA Research Internship Program Student Interview vol. 6
-A Life-altering Experience Finding Harmony Working in a Multinational Team Away from Home-

Jose Paolo Aguilar (University of the Philippines Diliman)
poses at an open lab in CiRA.

By Kelvin Hui, Ph.D.
CiRA Research Promoting Office

It has been three years since Jose Paolo Aguilar initially set his eyes on joining the CiRA Research Internship Program as he was planning his next steps in 2020 while he was enrolled in his master's program. Those plans were delayed, unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but he finally had the opportunity to come to Kyoto for the internship for a month and a half starting in September 2023.

Through a clinical rotation opportunity with Harvard Medical School at Massachusetts General Hospital, his research interest in the genetic basis of human diseases grew. There was limited time for research during his undergraduate and medical studies at the University of Santo Tomas, however, so he decided to pursue a master's degree after completing medical school. Now, on his way to completing his M.Sc. degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Philippines Diliman, Aguilar looks to challenge himself and determine whether he can survive doing independent research outside of his home country because he plans to pursue his Ph.D. abroad.

"My objective is to marry medical and molecular biology to establish a research laboratory focusing on the application of molecular techniques in the development of novel therapies, like gene and cell therapies," he explained.

While he is already familiar with various molecular biology techniques, such as cloning, gene expression analysis, and bioinformatics, from his master's studies, he got to learn stem cell culture and gene editing techniques as an intern in the laboratory of Dr. Knut Woltjen (Associate Professor, Department of Life Science Frontiers).

"To pursue research focusing on the utilization of iPS cell technology, essentially at the birthplace of iPS cells, was an amazing opportunity," he said. Taking full advantage of this opportunity, Aguilar spent the maximum duration of six weeks at CiRA for the internship, testing new ways to apply CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing techniques for potential clinical applications.

When asked about his experience with the CiRA internship program, he exclaimed enthusiastically, "It was a life-changing experience." Aguilar explained that before starting his Ph.D., he wanted to equip himself with an arsenal of experimental techniques so he could think outside the box and be flexible with alternative approaches when tackling scientific problems.

"I feel ready for my Ph.D. after this internship experience. A major advantage of working in the Woltjen Lab is working in a multinational team," he said. "Everyone coming from different countries, backgrounds, and cultures working together to solve scientific problems provides a sense of harmony," he added, professing a desire to return to CiRA for his Ph.D.

Aside from learning new things in the lab, Aguilar had another fantastic experience. "One of the most memorable moments of the internship was to interact with Dr. Yamanaka," he noted, showing off the photo of him with the 2012 Nobel Laureate and CiRA Director Emeritus.

Being in Japan for the first time and believing food to be his gateway to new cultures, Aguilar was well-prepared for this trip as he proudly listed various items from a long list of foods he had wanted to try (with great success) at Nishiki Market when he had time away from CiRA during the internship, including nure okaki (wet rice crackers), soymilk donuts, and taiyaki (fish-shaped cakes filled with red bean paste). He also had a wonderful time catching the sunset at Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, enjoying a coffee at the ever-popular Starbucks in Ninenzaka, and a calming walk at Arashiyama.

"Whenever I had a good day at the lab, like if I got good data or something, I rewarded myself with yakiniku (grilled beef)," he said.

Cheers to more yakiniku ! We look forward to having you back at CiRA for your Ph.D. studies and more days celebrating good data.

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