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Biophysicist in Profile

Ko Momotani

Ko Momotani

May 2023 // 1432

Ko Momotani grew up in Tokyo. After he graduated from high school in Japan, he moved to the United States to pursue higher education. “I started my education in the U.S. at Van­derbilt University English Language Center because my En­glish wasn’t good enough for college-level classes,” he shares. “I started my actual college-level education at Nashville State Community College, called Nashville Tech at the time, then transferred to Middle Tennessee State University, and trans­ferred again to Penn State to complete my bachelor’s degree.”

While he had loved science since he was a child, moving to the United States for his undergraduate studies reinforced his focus on STEM. He wasn’t yet fluent in English, so the uni­versality of math and science was appealing. “The language of math and science, such as numbers, is the same in any language, allowing me to merge into the American educa­tional system quickly,” he says. “I then became interested in addressing the question of how biological systems work. The initial and fundamental question still is why one state is called ‘alive’ and the other state is called ‘death,’ although molecu­lar construction at a fixed time must be ‘almost’ the same. I understand that these two states are getting lately not clearly distinguishable, but it is still a fundamental question for me.”

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Momotani attended the University of Virginia for his PhD studies. His professors Andrew P. Somlyo and Avril V. Somlyo in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics introduced him to his current area of research in the analysis of molecular pathways of smooth muscle contraction regulation.

Aaron Franke, Vice President of Insight at Brain Surgery World­wide, Inc., first met Momotani when both were trainees in the Somlyo lab. “I was starting my postdoc in the Somlyo lab and Ko was a graduate student at the time. It was in late Novem­ber when I joined the lab and I remember seeing Ko in what I would learn to be his trademark appearance: wearing a puffer jacket and constantly moving at full pace,” Franke shares. “Ko was in constant movement—physically, mentally, and verbal­ly—he loves to talk and share! He was also the first person to offer to show me around the hospital and university, which provided me a quick glimpse into the level that he cares for all people around him.”

“We worked on multiple projects in smooth muscle regula­tion, but we also worked together outside of the lab which solidifies the type of person Ko is,” Franke adds. “We worked together on different home projects to reimagine our living spaces and build something new and different for our fam­ilies. This was important because it allowed us to learn new techniques, be creative, solve new problems, and work as a team. Designing and implementing a more functional bath­room or kitchen is fundamentally equivalent to designing and implementing an experiment in a lab setting. Working on different projects outside of the lab also provided us new perspectives that allowed us to think about physiological pro­cesses differently. Structure dictates function in all settings.”

As a postdoctoral researcher, he focused on the same re­search area. “Being very simple, smooth muscle is regulated via two major pathways, calcium-dependent and -inde­pendent,” he explains. “There was a missing link within the calcium-independent pathway, and I identified a protein called p63RhoGEF playing a role in that pathway.”

Momotani now serves as a professor at Sanyo-Onoda City University in Japan. “Our lab is designing a cost-efficient in vivo screening method for blood vessel relaxing com­pounds—drug candidates for hypertension treatment—using zebrafish,” he shares.

His favorite thing about biophysics is its breadth. “Biophys­ics covers vast areas and has impressive flexibility, from classic biological science to cutting-edge computer science, and serves as an intersection of multidisciplinary areas. My original training was in classic physiology, and flexibility in biophysics gave me an excellent opportunity for a smooth transition to a bit of modernization, bringing in computerized analyses,” Momotani says. “When I attend the Annual Meet­ing, I can meet people from diverse areas, giving me an excellent opportunity to learn what’s happening in every single research area.”

 

“While in this field, I have witnessed the transition from classic physiology to com­putational or engineering-based biology, such as bioengineering. …[R]ecently, the Elon Musk-led company, Neuralink, now plans to embed a computer chip in the human brain to control an electric device or convert and transmit external stimuli back to a biological recipient, i.e., the brain. I don’t know if their plan will succeed, but the trend is certainly flipping science fiction to non-fiction,” Mo­motani says. “Unfortunately, I am not in the generation that saw this trend in vision during our training, but future biophysical scientists like my students will undoubtedly live in this exciting future. I believe the adaptability of the biophysical field will tolerate this drastic tran­sition, and my job is not to block innovative ideas of current trainees but to provide any possible opportunities to broaden their views, not to focus on the information from the past but to know how to tackle unknowns.”

The biggest challenge of his career has been bridging two cultures as he has traveled reg­ularly between Japan and the United States. “I have two homes, Japan and the U.S., which are indeed culturally very different. I spend about the same time in both countries. Some­times, I have lost sense of which side I am on,” he shares. “Many people may think [the countries] share virtually the same values, but after I learned so much behind the scenes, I think they are very distinct from each other, which is true for how science is viewed as well. To overcome transcultural confusion, I go back and forth between these two locations to confuse my sense of where I am and be­long. I had a tough time during the pandemic because international travel was blocked.”

He has helped his trainees with bridging these cultural gaps as well. Yukari Tanae shares, “I joined the global competition for graduate and undergraduate students by FUJIFILM this year. Professor Momotani was the coach of my team and he supported us all the time until that project finished. It was my first time working on that kind of project, and it did not feel easy to communicate in another language regarding the academic program, especially in a specific area. He advised me when I strug­gled to proceed but did not overly interfere. It helped my confidence that he commended my work. In addition, he trains me how to speak English more naturally and convey my opinion appropriately. He has organized a regular ses­sion for students to practice English speaking over two years. I join it almost every day, it is a precious opportunity to practice English in my daily life.”

Outside of work, Momotani spends time with his family, travels, and socializes outside of work circles. “I also help overcome cultural barriers between English-speaking countries and Japan as an interpreter and facilitator, as I am familiar with technical terminologies in both languages and business cultures in both societies,” he shares.

His own desire to foster connection is reflect­ed in what he values most about belonging to the Biophysical Society. “The Biophysical Society greatly helps to keep people work­ing in the field connected. Also, it is a place you ask for help. Whenever you are looking for somebody to solve any problem, from research to career, there is always somebody to help. Extensive diversity among people and the fields provides this capacity,” he details. “I also love that the Biophysical Society pro­motes undergraduate research. I supervise a Biophysical Society Student Chapter, which is the only one in Japan. The students es­tablished this Chapter with the great help of the Biophysical Society staff. The Biophysical Society is supportive no matter where you are in the world.”