Keisuke Yonehara: How experience gained at DANDRITE helped him secure a permanent professorship in Japan

Keisuke Yonehara is head of the Spatially Asymmetric Neural Circuits in Visual System group at DANDRITE

2021.06.15 | Annabel Darby

Dr Keisuke Yonehara. Photo: Annabel Darby

Having qualified as a veterinary doctor in Japan, Dr. Yonehara became interested in molecular neurobiology and, after a PhD, took up a postdoc position in the Roksa Group at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI), Basel, Switzerland. After gaining valuable experience in carrying out physiological experiments here, Dr. Yonehara accepted the role of group leader at DANDRITE in 2015 and has since worked to build up his group there. 

Following the EMBL model of 5+4 years group leader appointments with a mid-term review, Dr. Yonehara accepted a new role as Professor at the National Institute of Genetics, Japan and Adjunct Professor at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies (SOKENDAI). He will now slowly wind down his activities in Aarhus from October 2021, but will continue to be partly affiliated with DANDRITE until January 2024.

Here, Dr. Yonehara describes how his time at DANDRITE has helped to shape his career as an independent PI and what he hopes for his new role in Japan.

What was the deciding factor in starting your group at DANDRITE/Aarhus University?

Denmark is renowned for having a high research productivity (such as citations per publication) and an excellent quality of life. Denmark is also home to some fantastic private funding agencies, such as the Lundbeck Foundation, Novo Nordisk Foundation, Carlsberg Foundation and Velux Foundation. I think this factor has an extremely positive impact on the Danish research environment. Each of these foundations provides generous funds to researchers in basic biomedicine. I was also excited by the fact that DANDRITE is a part of the Nordic EMBL Partnership. EMBL and its outstations are seen as very prestigious centers of research excellence within Europe. I therefore wanted to join the excellent community that EMBL’s research network provides to Nordic EMBL Group Leaders. Furthermore, DANDRITE provided me with an unmatched amount to start my lab up, which was far more generous than other similar job openings. This factor was important since I wanted to build a two-photon microscope facility, which is quite expensive and thus not easy to purchase with only external grants.

How was the process of joining a newly established research Centre?

I was the fourth group leader to start at DANDRITE, out of a total of five recruited group leaders. I was not familiar with the Danish system, which was a bit different from Switzerland where I completed my postdoc. It took a bit of time to get used to, and I had to learn about different rules and regulations over time. These included, for example, how to start animal experiments, how to buy expensive equipment, how to recruit people, and so on. Other group leaders were also involved in this learning process, so we shared our experiences, which helped. Fortunately, DANDRITE has a team of very helpful administrators who were there to support us. They helped me with my integration into DANDRITE on many different levels, from finding apartments, to recruiting members, and to renovating labs. Without their kind help, setting up my lab would have been much more difficult. Danish people are always open, fair, and kind, and so I never felt isolated in Denmark as an international researcher.  

How has your time as Group Leader formed your research and career choice? 

My research program was gradually shaped by the interaction of my careful planning and new group members’ ideas, abilities, and enthusiasms. When a new member had exciting ideas, I would approve them and we would work on them together. This meant we could shape these ideas into a form that excited both the member and me. I allowed myself to enjoy chances of coincidence, so to say. I think this helped to motivate students also make the most out of our research. As we made several findings in mouse models, I became interested in testing similar ideas in non-human primate models that are closer to humans than mice. However, this type of research is not easy to complete in Europe. 

In terms of career choice, after I have deepened my experience as a group leader in conducting science, managing the lab, and publishing several milestone papers, I gained the confidence and feeling that I could do high-level research anywhere in the world. Japan is my home country and I always wanted to run a lab there, which my Japanese family also hoped for. Japan usually does not provide enough startup funding for a young PI to build an expensive lab like mine. Now that I have published some papers and gained valuable experience, I feel that I have acquired the ability and experience to be able to secure the right grants for building an expensive lab in Japan. It was also important for me that, in Japan, I can use non-human primate models. Because of these reasons, it felt like the right time to go back to Japan and so I decided to take on a new challenge.

What do you think are the advantages of the EMBL non-tenure model (5 years with review plus 4 years’ extension)?

With the EMBL non-tenure model and the generous resources made available, it is possible to rocket-start your big research programme, and then see what kind of challenges you want to tackle next after your first 5 years. If I had taken another tenure-track position, I think I would have had to start a much smaller lab and slowly aim for a tenure contract. Since I wanted to keep the option of returning to Japan with a good research profile, the EMBL non-tenure model was very suitable for me. I do also think there should be opportunities to stay in the host university in case you wish to remain there. This can be made possible by applying for a tenured position through job openings within the university. It is obvious that the EMBL non-tenure model not only heavily contributes to Europe’s research environment, but also to non-European countries by providing experienced PIs. 

Tell me about your next role; what are your plans for your group there?

All of the professors at the National Institute of Genetics, in Mishima, Japan, where my new role is based, are also given a role as an adjunct Professor of the Graduate University for Advanced Studies (SOKENDAI). Since there are no Bachelor programs, my duty for teaching is quite minimal. This unique setting will allow me to supervise PhD students whilst also working at the research institute. This is a great environment for me since I wanted to keep focusing on conducting research. Furthermore, the National Institute of Genetics is equipped with the most advanced animal facility and transgenic mice production unit in Japan. These factors make for an ideal environment for my research program. My big goal is to establish a center of excellence for visual circuit neuroscience, by building a cutting-edge imaging system and gathering talented students and postdocs from all over the world. With such a team, I aim to reveal the mysteries of the function and structure of neural circuits that underlie our vision and visual disorders.

What are you most looking forward to about your new role?

Due to a non-ideal research environment for particularly young scientists, largely caused by suboptimal funding schemes, a low birthrate, and a closed mentality in terms of international researchers, Japanese basic research is weakening. I, therefore, want to contribute towards reversing this trend by preparing an ideal research environment for young scientists. I would like to internationalize the research institute by hosting students from abroad and activating international collaborations. I also want to train next-generation scientists who will keep advancing the neuroscience field and training disciplines through generations. For these tasks, I believe my experience as a group leader at DANDRITE will be very useful. I will be able to use my experiences here as a model for how to fast track and internationalize the research environment. I am also looking forward to continuous collaborations with researchers in Aarhus and Europe.

Find out more

Learn more about the National Institute of Genetics at https://www.nig.ac.jp/nig/

Learn more about The Graduate University for Advanced Studies, SOKENDAI at: https://www.soken.ac.jp/en/

Learn more about the EMBL group leader model at: https://projects.au.dk/fileadmin/ingen_mappe_valgt/EMBL_non-tenure_system_final.pdf

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