With his wife and his son, Takashi Suzuki is living in Martinsried near Munich where he is working at the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology. He is head of the research group "Neuronal Connectivity".
His team of young scientists is investigating the secrets of the brain: How do the billions of nerve cells know how to connect to each other? Which genes are responsible for this? A question which plays an important role during the brain development.
For these studies, Takashi Suzuki is using a model organism, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Even though the size and the complexity of the brain is very different between fruit flies and humans, some basic aspects of behaviour are comparable, like innate sexual behaviour, memory, even sleeping. 'If we know something about the fruit fly,' he says, 'it can also be applied to humans'.
Takashi Suzuki in Tomorrow Today's interview:
Why fruit flies? Dealing with them must be tricky and difficult. They are so tiny ...
Fruit flies are a very old model system, because they have a very short life span. They are very small, yes, and the handling is a little bit difficult. But if you look at the cell size: it is pretty much the same as in other organisms. So in this aspect, the fruit fly is not too different from other organisms. Maybe half or more than half the number of its genes are comparable to the human genes.
What does brain research make so challenging?
For a biologist, the brain is one of the most interesting organisms, and it is not really understood. What we are aiming for is to understand the consciousness and how the brain is functioning. From the development to the function - this is the way how we would like to find an answer.
The complexity of the brain wiring - nobody can explain it with the existing number of molecules or genes. So the complexity itself is challenging to solve, and we think it is the best time for us. Before, it was technically very difficult to explore the brain. Now we have lots of good techniques and tools.
So as someone said before: the Brain is the last frontier of biology.
How did you find the way from Japan to Garching?
I did the postdoc in Vienna, Austria. And after four years of staying in Austria, I came to Germany. As a scientist you have to be open: You can work at any place or any institute that is available. And among these available places you choose the best place, and that is what happened to me: I chose Munich to come to.
In German science, the Max Planck Institutes are the best place to do science. They are well founded, the people are the best, and the productivity is also very best.
What do you like most about your job?
That I can ask questions according to my intellectual interest and pursuit. And here, with my own research group, I can do it with my own ideas and own thinking.
Why have you chosen Germany and not the United States?
As a foreigner, I hesitate a little bit to go to the United States. After the terror attacks, the policy went pretty much against foreign people. But besides this: The United States are very good for the very best scientists. There you have to be very productive consistently. But if you are having a little gap, you are just eliminated. Here in Germany, it is more supportive. So as a scientist, this kind of supported way is also very attractive.
You are living in Germany together with your familiy. How do you manage to combine your job and the family life?
My wife Satoko Suzuki and I, we did the PhD in Japan and went together to Vienna. And now she is working as a postdoc in my lab. My son was born in Vienna in 2003. He is now 3 years old. After 9 months, he started going to the Krippe, now he is in the Kindergarden.
My general impression is that the society rather wants the mother to stay at home, and that is more prominent in Germany than in the USA or in Japan. But I don't complain about the system here. It is very supportive for a family: There are lots of kindergartens, and if you want, you can work, and you can be successful as a scientist with your familiy.
I try to be more efficient in the working hours. And my wife doesn't stay in the lab for 12 hours a day, she keeps the normal times. We put the child in the kindergarden, and after 5 o'clock we try to compensate this and play with the child as much as we can.
And your son, how does he feel in Germany?
He has good friends in the kindergarten. But these 3 year old boys are pretty much individuals: they don't want to play so much with the others. So I hope he is going to become more friendly some day.
I think he is enjoying life in Munich. But he is suffering a little bit with the languages: we speak a lot of Japanese at home, and in the kindergarten, he has to speak and to understand German. I hope that he will start speaking both languages fluently: German and Japanese. And eventually he will be working at one of these international companies in Germany, connecting Japan and German.
And you, when you are having holidays or free time, what do you do?
I like sports, for example watching football on TV, but I have not been to the Munich stadium yet. What I also like is driving along the countryside and going to the mountains. And I like skiing: this year I want to go to the Alps.
What I have not yet done is go to the Deutsches Museum here in Munich. I heard that it has a wide collection of airplanes, tanks, locomotives, submarines and so on, which German science and technology has developed. I have never been there, but I am sure that there are still a lot of other things, scientific exhibitions etc.
How is your experience with the Germans?
Outside the lab, we just have contact with the neighbourhood. They are very polite and nice people. I think it is very easy to live here. Even if I don't understand high German so much, I first try to communicate in German. And then, when it gets to the point that we cannot communicate with each other, then I shift to English. Most people speak English, which is a good thing in Germany.
What I like about the German people is that they are responsible for their own work. So if you tell them, they do it til the end. But they take too long holidays: The individual holidays are too long, like 3 or 4 weeks. So if you deal with them, they suddenly disappear for a month. In Japan, they try to separate the holidays into smaller pieces, and the maximum will be 1 week.
If you compare the life of a scientist in Japan and in Germany – where is the difference?
The scientific power and the founding possibilities in Japan may be similar to Germany. But still there is lot of hierarchy in Japan. If you are young, it is very difficult to get an independent position in Japan. In this way, Germany is more radical and more advanced. That's why I chose Germany,
200 years ago, Germany was the teacher of medicine and chemistry for Japan. Lots of Japanese people came to Germany and studied and went back to Japan, where they started western medicine and chemistry. For instance my grand-grandfather was a chemist and he came to Germany to study. And I heard lots of good things in my family about the powerful science that happened in Germany.
And now you are walking in his footsteps?
I think he was more brave and courageous than me, for today, it is much easier: everyone is doing the same, like going abroad and studying abroad to stimulate the science and yourself. So I would not say I am in the same footsteps.