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Confronting a PhD defence date: Miho Tanaka shares her feelings as she prepares for the big day

By Matthew Pariselli  •  February 5, 2018

Unlike hair colour and nose shape, perseverance isn’t an attribute normally mentioned on the subject of hereditary traits. Ask Miho Tanaka what she’s inherited from her family, however, and it’s among the first words she utters.

Born and raised in Osaka, Japan, Tanaka grew up in what she calls “a working class” family. Her father, uncle and grandfather began academic endeavours but were forced to abandon them when funds ran dry. Determined to become the first in her family to achieve a PhD, she immigrated to Canada on her own. In January 2011, she landed a position in the lab of Sunnybrook Research Institute (SRI) senior scientist Dr. James Carlyle, studying natural killer cells and their function as a defence against cancer. “In the immune system there are different cell types. It’s almost like a battlefield, where there are different parts at work—a sniper has a different role than a medic. I look at a specific cell type called natural killer cells and its role in the battle against cancer,” she says.

It’s a function she has evaluated closely and one she will unpack when she defends her thesis in spring 2018. Despite hurdles along her academic course, including failed exams and periods of deep self-doubt, Tanaka has indeed persevered and can see the light at the end of the PhD tunnel. Here, she shares with Matthew Pariselli the challenges she encountered during her thesis, what her source of motivation is and what she wishes she did more of throughout the process.

Why did you decide to come to Canada?

I always wanted to get out of Japan. It’s such a unique country with a unique culture, but I wanted to know different points of view. Canada was a place my family talked about immigrating to, but we never did. I heard that Canada was inclusive, there was beautiful nature and the people were nice.

How would you describe your experience of acclimation?

It was tough. The transit system, the people, how people communicate, it was all very different. Relevant to my PhD, the biggest difference was the education system. In Asia, education is very one-way. You sit down, memorize things and write them out; that’s it. The first exam I had here was essay-based. I was given an idea, and I had to plan experiments to prove a hypothesis. I struggled with that and actually failed the course. Also, in labs, the supervision style is very different. In Japan, it’s very hands-on. The PI [principal investigator] takes care of your progress. Here, the approach is mostly hands-off. You have to take initiative. That’s not something I had. A lot of students who receive most of their education in Asia don’t have that.

What fuels your drive?

My family. It’s in my family’s blood to never give up. My grandparents and parents made an effort to put my generation in school. My sister was the first one to go to grad school; she has an MBA. I’ll be the first to get a PhD. I want to give back to my parents who sacrificed so much. I have four nephews and one niece, and I want to be a role model for them. It’s easier to do something if you have someone in your own family who’s done it, someone to look up to.

How do you feel as your defence date draws near? 

I’m excited and proud. I know toward the end it’ll be really tough, but I like challenges. When I overcome it it’ll feel really good, so I’m excited for that reason.

I’m proud because it hasn’t been easy, but I’ve managed. Two years into my PhD I did an oral defence about my work and I failed. That was my biggest struggle. It’ll be a similar process this time, but there will be more pressure because I’ll be finishing up. I’m not too nervous because I’ve worked so hard over the years and gained confidence. Two years ago, I was at the edge of quitting. I had to take time to think about things, but I decided to stay, face my PhD and pour all of my energy into it. It was tough, but I found my passion again, and for that I’m proud.

What have you learned since you began your PhD that you wish you knew earlier?

That talking about my work with my peers is really important. This teaches you a lot every day and makes you see a point you may not have seen. I wish I’d done it in the first few years. I was not confident or comfortable talking about my project, but speaking with my lab mates when they asked about the work would have been great. It would have been especially helpful when I was feeling discouraged. I also wish I reached out to female senior scientists, professors or PIs—women who could understand the experience. That’s something I’d recommend to other students. Learn from my mistake.