2021 Year-End Letter from President Gruss

Dear friends, colleagues, and members of the OIST Community,

As 2021 comes to an end, and we embark on our holiday festivities, I gladly share with you an important milestone that OIST has carved this year. On November 1 st , we marked 10 years of remarkable growth, accomplishments, and discoveries. I would like to congratulate and extend my heartfelt appreciation to every member of the OIST community for your hard work, dedication, and commitment that has led to OIST becoming a world-renowned graduate university in such a short time span. We have been successful in building a strong foundation on which the future growth and development of OIST can be built.

Any path to success has its fair share of challenges, and so was the case for OIST this year as we navigated our way to a new normal on the campus, completed the evaluation of OIST’s efforts and future development by the external review panel appointed by the Cabinet Office remotely, postponed our 10 th anniversary celebrations to next year due to COVID-19, and most significantly, came to terms with the financial constraints to our budget for the upcoming years.

Never before have I been more convinced of OIST’s potential to bring Japan to the forefront of science and technology, create prosperity for Okinawa by building a sustainable economy, and conduct cutting-edge scientific research as we explore new frontiers of knowledge. More research units were added this year with successful onboarding of researchers while projects from existing research units bore fruits. This is evident in the continued rise in the number of high-quality research papers published by OIST researchers. In the latest published results, the fraction of OIST’s Nature Index Share of all research articles published in peer-reviewed natural sciences journals between 2015 and 2020 are comparable to that of Caltech, MIT, and Stanford. And now, with our rapidly expanding industrial network, new collaborations with businesses, and the ongoing pursuit of an innovation hub centered at OIST, we hope to also lead the charge on technological development and innovation in Japan.

In what could have been an exciting time of growth to start the next chapter of OIST development, it’s the government’s decision to limit our budget. This is disappointing as OIST has time and again shown what we are capable of and proven that we have immense potential to advance our community. I will continue to work diligently with various stakeholders to carve out a path forward for OIST and for the society to trust that in OIST’s growth lies maximum benefit to the society. We must continue to raise the profile of OIST by high performance of our individual work and as One OIST. Furthermore, we will showcase and translate the values of our cross-disciplinary collaborations internally and externally to achieve growth, diversified external funding, and societal impact.


In the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the upheaval of lives and livelihood continued, and Japan spent the majority of this year in a state of emergency that was lifted only a few months ago.

I am proud of how the OIST community weathered this storm and I would like to thank each one of you for your support and hard work during this unprecedented time. Researchers and students across the university used their skills and knowledge to fight the pandemic through timely research on the virus, its mode of transmission, and the effectiveness of vaccines. The PCR testing facility on the campus set up in May of last year completed 50,000 tests for OIST and the Okinawan community. I want to also express my gratitude to the Japanese Central Government for providing us with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines and to the Okinawa Prefectural Government for working with us. About 1,800 people received their vaccination on the OIST campus including OIST members, their families, and local residents.

As a research university carrying out the mission to advance humanity through scientific research, education, and innovation, I count on everyone to unite in taking up the vaccination program, complying with anti-infection countermeasures, and protecting our community.

Campus Update

We have made extraordinary efforts to establish the new normal at OIST and managed to bring new members amid uncertainty.

Joining the executive management this year are: Ms. Melanie Chatfield, Senior Advisor of Strategic Projects; Mr. Gil Granot-Mayer , Executive-Vice President for Technology Development and Innovation; Mr. Isaku Higa , Vice President for Financial Management; Dr. Samantha Ross , Vice President for University Community, Child & Youth Services; Mr. Scott Rudisel , Vice President for Buildings & Facilities Management; and Ms. Heather Young , Vice President for Communication and Public Relations. Dr. Masayuki Shibata came back to us as Secretary General (Acting). It gives me immense pleasure to be joined by such a dynamic and skilled group of colleagues this year. I welcome you all and look forward to working closely with each of you as we enter the next phase of OIST.

This year also saw the retirement of those who were instrumental for OIST development, including Dr. Robert Baughman and Prof. Gordon Arbuthnott, along with Dr. Ken Peach. I would like to extend my deep appreciation to them for laying such a strong foundation for OIST with their many invaluable contributions.

New members joined our Board of Governors (BOG) and Board of Councilors (BOC), maintaining our emphasis on having distinguished scientific and business leaders, and Nobel laureates on the Board. Dr. Ben L. Feringa , who is the 2016 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry and the Jacobus H. van’t Hoff Distinguished Professor of Molecular Sciences at the University of Groningen, has joined BOG along with Dr. Hiroyuki Fujita , Founder and CEO of Quality Electrodynamics, LLC and CTO of Canon Medical Systems Corporation (CMSC). Joining the BOC committee are Mr. Kiichiro Jahana, Vice Governor of Okinawa Prefecture and Mr. Jesper Koll, Senior Advisor at Wisdom Tree Investment Inc., who also serves on BOG. I welcome you all and look forward to working closely with you.

In the latest round of faculty recruitment, we built on the recommendations from the Perspective Council 2017 and conducted hiring in strategic subject areas such as Quantum Cybersecurity that is of national importance, as well as through open searches. From the 554 applications we received, offers were made to 11. Through targeted recruiting, we brought many distinguished faculty members to OIST this year, including new women faculty members such as Prof. Christine Luscombe and Prof. Kae Nemoto. This brings our faculty number to 83 in 2021.

Despite continued travel restrictions, we admitted 43 new students this year, of which 64% of students came from outside Japan and 39% are women. In May, we held our third graduation ceremony to celebrate the graduates of 2021 and 2020 since last year COVID-19 prevented us from hosting a ceremony. The accomplishments of 41 graduates were recognized in a unique hybrid event with people joining either in person or virtually, and many of the graduates attended via a livestream. I was very much looking forward to this important event and what a delight it was to celebrate our graduate students.

OIST's ninth class was officially welcomed to the start of their PhD program and encouraged to embrace the opportunities that are offered and to rise to the challenges that lie ahead.

Construction and expansion work on the campus continues in full swing. The on-campus housing called “The Gardens” opened in the fall and the landscape will be completed by the end of the year, and Lab 5 is on track to be completed by the end of next year in 2022.

Career development is an important skill that we value here at OIST and so we established a new Center for Professional Development and Inclusive Excellence (C-hub) that will provide opportunities for career growth, personal development, and lifelong learning through a variety of activities and services, which are informed by evidence-based practices and research. The center aims to foster the success of all members of the OIST community in a diverse, equitable, and inclusive climate and it will serve the entire university population including the faculty, researchers, students, and admin staff.

Awards and Achievements

We have received many noteworthy laureates this year and celebrated several achievements of our members. Prof. Amy Shen , who leads the Micro/Bio/Nanofluidics Unit, has become a fellow of the prestigious American Physical Society (APS) owing to her significant contributions to the field of fluid dynamics. Prof. Hiroaki Kitano was recognized as a fellow of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) due to his “significant contributions and leadership in robotics, massively parallel AI, and the use of AI for scientific discovery and systems biology.” Prof. Matthias Wolf , who leads the Cryo-Electron Microscopy Unit received a grand prize of the Vorarlberg Science Award in Austria in recognition of his work in revealing the molecular structure of the nucleocapsid of Ebola virus and how it is assembles. Prof. Simone Pigolotti heads the Biological Complexity Unit, and this year, he co-authored the first textbook in stochastic thermodynamics called Stochastic Thermodynamics: An Introduction”. Dr. Motoko Kotani , a member of the OIST Board of Governors (BOG), was elected as President-Elect of the International Science Council (ISC) and will take on the presidency in 2024. My heartiest congratulations to everyone on your success that has made me immensely proud.

PhD student Friederike Metz was part of the winning team in the Qiskit Hackathon Europe 2021 competition, and Roman Koshkin is the 2021 global awardee of the Google Ph.D. Fellowship program in East Asia. My congratulations on your achievements. 

Researchers from OIST’s Quantum Machines Unit , in collaboration with the University of Queensland, Australia, showed for the first time that machine learning can produce accurate control of a particle within a complex quantum system. Post-doctoral researcher Dr. Yosuke Yamada, Associate Researcher of the Science and Technology Group Dr. Reina Komiya and Assistant Professor Ryota Kabe were selected to participate in the prestigious long-term FOREST (Fusion Oriented Research for Disruptive Science and Technology) program organized by Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST).

In important and timely COVID-related research, Professor Svante Pääbo, who won the prestigious Japan Prize last year, and his colleague uncovered a genetic variant inherited from Neanderthals that reduces the risk of severe COVID-19 by about 20%. Professor Rosti and his team worked on finding out how COVID-19 is transmitted by developing a new model that explains how turbulent puffs, like coughs, behave under different environmental conditions.

In research focused on Okinawa’s natural bioresources and their origins, scientists solved the mystery of how diversity arose in the citrus fruits of the mandarin family by revealing the genome sequence of Okinawa’s own beloved fruit Shiikuwasa . On the front of understanding healthy ageing in humans, Professor Mitsuhiro Yanagida and first author Dr. Takayuki Teruya published the latest research revealing 33 metabolic compounds isolated from whole blood samples which are linked to dementia. The results opened possibilities for molecular diagnosis for early intervention.

A better understanding of how different neuronal types in our brain coordinate for us to perform seemingly simply tasks like reaching and grasping objects was made by our recently retired Prof. Gordon Arbuthnott and his team. It is one of the last papers in his long career dedicated to neuroscience and an important contribution towards designing medical intervention strategies for neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.

We launched three new funds this year in partnership with the OIST Foundation. The Rita R. Colwell Impact Fund for Women in science was established to honor the work of Professor Rita Colwell, former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation and OIST Board of Governors. This fund will broadly support women in science and includes grant opportunities to help nurture an interest in science among Okinawan girls. The  Matsuro and Tsuruko Nakasone Fund  was created to support hands-on science education activities, primarily for younger schoolchildren and for girls, with a generous donation from Mr. Robert Nakasone. Lastly, the Seishyoukou endowment fund was established to support STEM outreach by OIST, with a focus on under-served youth of Okinawa.

To commemorate our 10 th anniversary, OIST received a most generous donation of a 1927 (Golden Era) Steinway Piano built in New York and restored in Tokyo thanks to the OIST Foundation. I express my deep gratitude to Dr. Ryuji Ueno and the OIST Foundation. A concert was held to celebrate with the violinist Eiko Kano, music ambassador for OIST Foundation, who gave a spectacular performance along with Okinawan pianist Yuka Oyabu. In the 2 years since its establishment, the OIST Foundation has made significant contributions in raising OIST’s profile and for this, I would like to express my deep appreciation to all the members of the Foundation.

Advancing Initiatives with Okinawa

This year, OIST has had a number of opportunities to work with the local community through education al outreach for Okinawa’s future generations, through projects with impact derived from the results or talents in science, technology, and innovation, or through efforts to protect Okinawa’s natural environment .

Our faculty and researchers who come from all over the world and are distinguished in their fields have acted as role models for children in Okinawa . The OIST Science Festival , our flagship event for families to expose children to the fun side of science, was held online this year with 3,000 participants who engaged on various topics, including COVID-19 and the invasion of foreign species in Okinawa. Most recently, just this month, we held the 10th event of our SCORE! program – Science in Okinawa: Research Skills for Entrepreneurship, which was co-hosted by the U.S. Consulate General in Okinawa, co-sponsored by the Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education, and supported by the Okinawa Prefecture and Council for the Promotion of OIST. Students from six high schools participated in this event, which provided an opportunity to engage in hands-on science education and develop an entrepreneurial spirit.

This year OIST's science festival was held online, and researchers and other members of the community used a combination of livestreaming and pre-recorded videos.

Towards the environment, OIST signed an agreement of collaboration for the conservation and management of World Heritage Sites in Okinawa, with six other parties, including the Okinawa Prefecture, University of the Ryukyus, the Ministry of the Environment's Okinawa Amami Nature and Environment Office, and others.

Representatives from seven parties sign the agreement on the management of the World Natural Heritage Sites in the northern region of Okinawa.

In 2021, we declared our commitment to creating a better and more sustainable future for all. In this regard, OIST launched a university-wide sustainability initiative in response to the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Onna “Coral” Village awarded as one of Japan’s Future SDGs Cities by the Cabinet Office welcomed OIST as a partner for concrete actions. In our first year in the Decade of Action, the SDG Initiative created a platform and forum to facilitate cross-functional internal projects through working groups. It also serves as the knowledge exchange central between OIST and other SDG partner institutions and university and industry sustainability networks locally, nationally, and globally to advance the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As a dynamic, pioneering, and multi-cultural graduate university seeking to explore new frontiers of scientific knowledge, we have a unique opportunity to engage with stakeholders in the society and define a new path that will steer the world back on track towards a more sustainable future.

Embarking on the Decade of Action towards the Sustainable Development Goals at OIST

Innovation Ecosystem

Earlier this year, OIST announced a new partnership with Beyond Next Ventures to create an innovation hub focused on start-ups in deep tech. The OIST-BNV Innovation Hub (“OBI-Hub”) was launched as a platform for startups from anywhere in the world who are interested in gaining access to financial investment and tailored business services needed to bring their innovation to the market. OIST and BNV aim to deploy around ¥500M ($5M) over the next 2 years through the OBI-Hub.

We launched an industry affiliates program, Innovation Network @OIST (“INO”) this year. INO is designed as a gateway for Japanese and multinational companies to be introduced to OIST research, education, and innovation activities, with the aim of building long-term collaborative partnerships. Thirteen founding industry members joined INO during 2021 and we hope to welcome many more members interested in connecting to OIST.

In May, we welcomed two new teams to our Innovation Square Startup Accelerator Program. The first one, GenomeMiner, is developing a platform to identify useful compounds in microbes that can be readily commercialized. The other, Menopause and beyond, seeks to provide an integrated approach to women’s health. These projects showed great potential for the domestic and international markets and are good fits for OIST and Okinawa. The accelerator program continues to garner support from our key strategic partner, the Okinawa Prefectural Government.

OIST born start-up EF Polymer completed the seed round of funding with a total of 40 million yen, making it the first company from the OIST Start-up Accelerator program to receive seed round funding, with many more to come. 

Academic and Industry Collaborations

A prominent achievement of this year was the expansion of our national and international network with prominent corporate and academic organizations.

Within Japan, we have strengthened our collaboration with several prestigious institutes including RIKEN, which is the largest comprehensive research institution in Japan, renowned for high-quality research in many scientific disciplines. In August, the two institutes signed an agreement for research collaboration and implementation of a joint graduate school system, while in October, the 2 nd OIST-RIKEN Symposium was held on the intersection of AI and neuroscience.

OIST-RIKEN joint symposium was held on the theme of “Green and blue planet: How can ecological research shape our future?”, to explore and facilitate interdisciplinary approaches to the resolution of the seemingly inevitable and intractable problem confronting the environment of our planet.

With Tohoku University, OIST researchers applied for joint grants. With Kyoto University, Osaka University, The University of Tokyo, and Keio University, we held several online events this year, including showcase talks, workshops, and symposia.

With our international network, we collaborated with Sorbonne University and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to conduct online workshops and applied for a grant to conduct joint research projects. In July, we hosted the first SHIMA: Okinawa-Hawaii STEM Education Collaborative, partnering with the Hawaiian non-profit organization Kuaʻāina Ulu ʻAuamo (KUA). This science education workshop was designed to promote cross-cultural learning exchanges between Okinawa and Hawaii.

We broadened and strengthened our relationship with the business community through research collaborations with companies and by partnering on events with Asia Society Japan, the Keizai Doyuki-the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, and others. We even partnered with the Ryukyu Football Club (FC Ryukyu) to explore if neuroscience can be used to boost soccer performance. The insight that will come from this collaboration might one day contribute towards enhancing the performance of professional athletes in team sports.

A partnership was launched between OIST and FC Ryukyu, aimed at using brain science to understand and potentially enhance the performance of professional athletes in team sports.

Thank you

2021 has been a busy year filled with many new initiatives, partnerships, and achievements.

I am proud of all the members of the OIST community for your determination as we still recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

A visit this year from the world-class cellist on his Bach Project tour to Okinawa , Mr. Yo-Yo Ma brought to our campus not only excitement but also an uplifting spirit and care for the humanity as we emerged from the state of emergency.

Yo-Yo Ma visited OIST in November and interacted with our researchers to help explore the intersection of art and science.

Along with this, a series of science x art exhibitions as part of our 10 th Anniversary celebration ensued. Our creative and vital community sent a hopeful message that we shall overcome the challenges from the pandemic and budget constraints soon and be back on our path to success in no time. I look forward to the next year when we can celebrate together our 10 th Anniversary and the challenges we have overcome.

OIST Images of Science Exhibition is held in the gallery tunnel to offer a glimpse into the innovative, diverse, and unique research carried out at OIST in the last decade.

I wish you a restful and rejuvenating New Year Holiday. We have bigger heights to climb in 2022 and many more feats to accomplish, so refresh your mind and body this holiday and prepare for another year of opportunities.

Best regards,

Peter Gruss
President and CEO
Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology