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From nuclear engineering to independent research

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From nuclear engineering to independent research

My professional and research journeys that have spanned over 23 years have been atypical. How so? After finishing my PhD, I started working as a nuclear engineer before coming back to academia to work as a faculty and a researcher!

After majoring in nuclear engineering in Japan in the 1970s, I worked in the nuclear industry there which was thriving at that time. I remember visiting a lot of nuclear power plants and distinctly recall being awestruck on seeing large vessels containing several tonnes of water. Somewhere at the back of my mind, this led to a switch in my mind that changed my focus in the future.

I used to work for the nuclear fuel company from when I was twenty-eight till I was forty-six. While I was working there, I was dispatched to a nuclear fuel company in the US for two years. At that time, I participated in an American Ceramic Society Congress in San Diego. While there, I exchanged my business card with a professor from a Japanese university. After almost a decade, in 1987, I met that professor again and he asked me, “Why don’t you work for our university as a professor of electronic ceramics?” This was fortuitious because it was around the time when I had become keenly interested in developing advanced materials for local energy generation. The professor asked me to join the newly established faculty of material science and engineering at his university. How could I refuse the opportunity! Incidentally, the faculty was focusing on electronic and ceramic engineering, which was precisely what I wanted to pursue. Soon, I started conducting research at that faculty to develop eco-friendly and local energy sources that wouldn’t need a power line. So as a professional engineer, I started conducting research in material science for fuel cells that would also function as a local energy source that wouldn’t need a power line.

I stayed at that university until my retirement. But three years before my retirement, I shifted my focus and started doing research on water. I must mention that by that time, it had been about thirty years since I had worked in the field of nuclear engineering. It was a stroke of chance that brought me back into the field. On May 7th, 2011, I visited Fukushima and tried to treat the contaminated soils with the water that I had developed. I found that the radiation reduced drastically compared to tap water. I repeated the experiment many times to confirm the results. These findings were published between 2013 to 2019 in some academic journals.

In 2018, I visited a famous company in Kansas city (US) to develop a deeper understanding of the role of water in keeping food fresh for longer. It was so exciting to study water in terms of fundamental chemical physics. I still enjoy researching water. Unfortunately, I am no longer affiliated to any university or institute. Thankfully, my research on water doesn’t need any special equipment or facility. Since my retirement, I have continued to publish papers and submit them to international journals once a year. My belief in water research has let me continue on the beautiful path of research.

Although my path has been unconventional in that I left academia before coming back to pursue research, it has shown me that I am a researcher at heart. The driving characteristic of a researcher is to be curious and to keep an open mind to the possibilities around. Because I had those qualities, I could pursue research in a field different from where I had started, at a later stage in my life. Being a researcher at heart means that I can keep contributing to the field and adding my work to the existing body of knowledge.


This story was first published on January 15, 2020. Following some clarification with the author, the story has been modified.

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Published on: Jan 15, 2020

Passionate about elementary particle research and contributing to the existing body of knowledge in the field
See more from Sunao Sugihara


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