Faculty of Engineering


Daring to create the engineering leaders of the future

In this edition of “Tell Us Teacher,” we interviewed Professor Osamu Tabata, Dean of the Department of Mechanical and Electrical Systems in the Faculty of Engineering. Professor Tabata has been engaged in collaborative research that links medicine and engineering for many years and specializes in research on “MEMS/NEMS” (short for Micro /Nano Electro-Mechanical Systems, pronounced “mems/nems”) devices that use semiconductor integrated circuit fabrication technology.

Q:First of all, could you please tell us about your research?

Since I became the dean of our newly established Faculty of Engineering in April 2020, I have been focusing on creating and maintaining a proper research environment for our engineering faculty rather than my own research. However, someday (I wonder when…), when I have more time, I would like to resume my own research. At that time, I would like to work on research that combines the MEMS/NEMS research that I have been doing with the field of AI.

The name of the department in the Faculty of Engineering is the “Department of Mechanical and Electrical System Engineering.” You may have noticed, but MEMS/NEMS are just smaller versions of mechanical and electrical systems. MEMS/NEMS are systems that integrate electricity and machinery but have been miniaturized to the size of a grain of rice or smaller using microfabrication technology. Recently, chemistry, optics, and even biotechnology have been used as components of these systems. And so, the Faculty of Engineering at Kyoto University of Advanced Science is a perfect extension of my past research.

Q: What attracted you to MEMS?

I have been interested in the interface between engineering and biology since I was in high school. When I entered graduate school, I chose a laboratory that was doing joint research with the medical school. I found a paper on electrodes embedded in the body, a type of MEMS, in the library of the medical school, which led me to join the Toyota Central R&D Labs in 1981. When I came across the paper “Si as A Mechanical Material” published the following year, I was struck by the possibilities of MEMS-based semiconductor microfabrication technology, and I became engrossed in MEMS research.

Q:Why did you go from being a researcher at a private company to becoming a university professor?

To propose and implement something new in a company, you have to convince your boss. There are two very persuasive ways to do this. You can tell your boss, “Our rival company is already doing X, so we need to do X too,” or you can say, “Doing X will provide the result we are looking for.” However, neither of these methods of persuasion could be used to justify what I wanted to do. Do you know why? Because I think that if someone else is already doing something, then there is no need to do it, and if something will definitely work, then anyone can do it. I realized that I could not achieve what I wanted to in the private sector, so I went to university while working and got my doctorate in March 1993, then moved over to work at a university in 1996.

I started my academic life as an associate professor at Ritsumeikan University. I was not confident that I would be successful at university, and it was difficult to start from scratch, but I thought, “There is no substitute for the freedom of being able to do what I want,” so I think that I made a good choice in moving to academia. I worked on microfabrication technology using Ritsumeikan’s synchrotron radiation facilities. A few years passed, and when I wanted to do something new, I was invited to join Kyoto University. My colleagues jokingly warned me against going because of the triple whammy of lower salary, earlier retirement, and a longer commute, but I wanted to test my abilities in a place that needed me, so I became a professor at Kyoto University at the end of September 2003, where I worked on DNA nanotechnology, the study of creating nanomachines using DNA as their base material.

Engineering can protect lives through medical-engineering collaboration

Q:What specific research did you conduct at Kyoto University?

At Kyoto University, I researched to design and fabricate nanostructures (NEMS/Nanomachines) which were tens of nanometers in scale using DNA nanotechnology. DNA is a single molecular strand composed of 4 kinds of bases (A, T, G, C) and which carry the genetic information of organisms. Only complementary pairs of bases join together. When two DNA molecules are made of complementary base pairs, they combine to form a helical structure with a diameter of 2 nanometers. On the other hand, DNA molecules composed of about 100 bases can be synthesized artificially by engineering their base sequence. Nanomachines are made using about 10,000 bases of harmless DNA extracted from viruses (about 3 micrometers long). This strand is then mixed with approximately 250 smaller DNA strands of several tens of bases each. (If you order these DNA strands from a manufacturer they can send them to you in a week!) The long DNA combines with the shorter manufactured DNA and folds into the desired three-dimensional shape to form nanostructures of several tens of nanometers in size.

Q:How do you think this technology will contribute to society in the future?

I’m sure you have heard of the term IoT (Internet of Things). It refers to a situation where all kinds of things are connected to the Internet, and a lot of data is collected and analyzed, and the results are used for social activities and human life. Sensors based on MEMS/NEMS embedded in things play an important role as an entry point for this data.

In the future, there will be a need for sensors that are smaller, consume less power, and can collect more diverse information than ever before. For example, we could have a wearable sensor that can be embedded in underwear. In addition to information such as body temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure, and electrocardiogram, we could create sensors that continuously monitor physical conditions such as fatigue and sleepiness, as well as psychological conditions such as happiness and enjoyment. By combining these sensors with AI that analyzes this information, I expect this technology will make a significant contribution to the maintenance and management of health, early detection of illnesses, and ultimately the reduction of medical costs.

Q:After Kyoto University, you were appointed as dean at KUAS, right?

Since I was young, I have always had a goal in mind, but around the age of 60, I started to ask myself, “What am I aiming for in life? At that time, I received a request to cooperate in the establishment of the Faculty of Engineering at KUAS. I was convinced that this was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to create an engineering school from scratch, incorporating my long-held ideas about engineering education into the curriculum, so I decided to move to KUAS. I think the important thing is to do in life is to follow your convictions, no matter what you are working toward.

Q:What message do you want to send to students having difficulty choosing their career path?

Whenever I have a chance to talk to high school students, I tell them 10 things that I want them to keep in mind in their daily lives. If they do these things, I’m sure something good will happen.

Discover and deepen your knowledge in something you like. You will be able to do your best if you do something you like.
Do not worry about being like other people. Everyday behavior, going to college, getting a job, whatever.
Believe in your potential. If you think that you cannot achieve more, then that will be the case.
Think and act on your own. Having a sense of responsibility makes things interesting.
Do not let the internet dictate how you think. It is just a tool for gathering information.
Develop communication skills. Speaking, writing, and listening all help you to communicate with and understand others.
Think from other points of view. Accept and respect a variety of ideas.
Never give up. Build on your successful experiences to build confidence.
Imagine yourself 50 years from now to understand what should do tomorrow.
Knowledge is a tool. Keep your tools in good order and always look for more.

Q:Lastly, could you tell us about your hobbies?

I have loved making things since elementary school, and was a member of the invention club. When I was in junior high school, I started to work with electronics and got my amateur radio license. In the third year of junior high school, I started learning guitar through a correspondence course, and within a month, I formed a band and performed at a cultural festival. I was on the soccer team in my junior and senior years. In college, I was a member of the classical guitar club and took private lessons during graduate school. I started playing tennis after I got a job and attended a tennis school at Ritsumeikan University. I started skiing in elementary school, and when I was on sabbatical at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology from January to March 2010, I spent a month on the ski slopes (in secret). When I was 50 years old, I went to voice training and took singing lessons.

I’ve always said that you should never give up on anything, but all my hobbies didn’t last and now I profess that my work is my hobby. I also profess that when I retire and have more time, I will take up cooking as a hobby, but no one believes me. (laughs)

Learn more about Dr. Osamu Tabata