A few moments with Professor Reiko Kuroda and it is readily apparent that she is an unbridled bundle of energy. Indeed, her upbeat attitude and curiosity are infectious. It is quickly clear how this award-winning scientist has been able to make discoveries that reversed assumptions that have stood for more than a century.
Kuroda humbly characterizes her success and achievements as an utter “coincidence.” While chance surely did play a role, this chance was almost certainly the result of her insatiable curiosity, amazing perseverance and a sense of adventure.
In a career of nearly four decades, Kuroda's work has spanned multiple fields. She has authored numerous papers, penned opinion pieces for leading newspapers, has several patents and received multiple accolades. Indeed, her work has been so diverse and interdisciplinary that one is almost tempted to call her a renaissance woman. However, her crowning achievement likely has been demonstrating that the world's assumptions of the handedness or chirality gene for more than a century were in fact wrong.
“My research group has revealed the link between the handedness-determining gene and cytoskeletal dynamics in a very early embryonic stage and snail shell coiling.
We have also shown that by mechanically altering the cell-shape namely, manipulating the embryo chirality at a particular point when cell-shape are dividing in the embryonic stage—that we create healthy creatures that are the reverse or mirror image of the original,” Kuroda explains.
Put simply, Kuroda and her team showed that gene expression of handedness in snails could be affected without changing the genes themselves. This is a discovery with significant potential implications in the life sciences including when it comes to vertebrates.
Her research in chirality recognition of small molecules has vast potential applications related to drug manufacturing, agricultural chemicals and food additives. Likewise, her chiroptical instrumentation work has broad applications such as in understanding the mechanisms of neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer's.
A Circuitous Journey
Kuroda's journey has been anything but a straight line. In fact, Kuroda's groundbreaking discovery of chirality gene expression in snails and her journey to TUS took her around the world and back again. She has called TUS home since 2012, finding it a great environment with much to recommend it—especially for students interested in science.
“TUS offers a great education, especially if you want to do something in science. Visitors are always surprised to hear student conversations here. They discuss the lectures, while at other schools, students talking about their part-time work or socializing is more the norm,” Kuroda says.
The focus on learning at TUS is very strong. “The students are very eager to learn and the teachers are very keen to teach. This desire to learn rubs off on others. So, you don't see people skipping class. You have to work hard or you risk repeating a year,” Kuroda explains.
And Kuroda should know, having spent years at top institutions of higher learning in Japan and abroad.
Here, There and Back Again
Kuroda is globally active and has an international pedigree. Frequently invited to lecture on an array of topics in myriad places—ranging from integrative comparative biology in North America to solid state organic chemistry in the UK—and affiliated with many leading organizations, Kuroda's success was forged in part in the crucible of adversity.
As she looked for avenues to apply her doctoral degree in chemistry prior to graduating from the University of Tokyo in 1975, she found nothing.
“It was really discouraging. I was told by my advisor that the best thing for a woman to do was to get married. I realized it would be impossible for me to find a position and that there was no future for me in Japan, so I started looking overseas,” she explains.
She landed at King's College in London. There her expertise—such as in the field of x-ray crystallography— was appreciated. While there her work spanned chemistry, biology and cancer research. An inveterate multitasker, she studied molecular biology in her free time and increasingly she found herself drawn to the life sciences.
As she so aptly puts it: “One thing about me—I am willing to go anywhere.”
After 11 years in England, she learned that the University of Tokyo was hiring and decided to apply half on a whim. She was shocked when she was accepted, becoming the first woman hired as an associate professor in the natural sciences at Komaba Campus of the university. Subsequently, she became a full professor in 1992 and the first female professor in natural sciences in the history of the university.
Nevertheless, being at the Komaba C ampus of the University of Tokyo she found few resources and was limited in what she could do. Eager to put to her interdisciplinary expertise to work, she applied and received generous Exploratory Research for Advanced Technology (ERATO) funding from the Japan Science and Technology Agency. This marked a major turning point.
“The grant was an incredible help. It gave me much-needed freedom. For the first time I could employ postdocs and buy the equipment that I needed,” Kuroda explains.
The application process also gave her an opportunity to draw on both her background in chemistry and expertise in biology. She recalled reading a review article describing a hypothesis that chirality or handedness in snails was determined by a single gene and proposed the Kuroda Chiromorphology Project, coining the word “chiromorphology” to mean the chirality of shape.
After landing the funding, she unleashed her curiosity in full. She studied how to rear snails, and made her groundbreaking discovery, ultimately publishing it in Nature in 2009. For her research in the field of solid-state chiral chemistry, she invented instruments to obtain new insights into the aggregation state of small molecules or proteins.
In 2013, Kuroda was recognized with the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award. A role model for all, Kuroda has shown what a female scientist can accomplish in Japan. And she shows no signs of resting on her laurels .
“The biggest thing that I would still like to do is determine the gene that is responsible for chirality (in snails), the mechanism behind this and how the cells are communicating—and then broaden this to other animals including handedness determination in human beings,” says the effervescent Kuroda.
Kuroda's curiosity and enthusiasm remain undiminished.
“There is so much I still want to do that I could use another 50 years,” she concludes.
Professor Reiko Kuroda, Ph.D.
Professor Reiko Kuroda is a chirality specialist and one of the leading authorities in the field. Her basic research at the molecular level, whether biological or non-biological, has potentially vast implications in areas such as the manufacture of pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals.
Professor Kuroda has served as the vice president of the International Council for Science (ICSU), and has been an executive advisor to the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.