On Plants and Places: An Interview with PhD Student Shun Hasegawa

Shun Hasegawa got to where he is today through a love of playing outdoors when he was 11.

I met the 26-year-old PhD student in early 2013, when he became a flatmate to my dear friend Chelsea Maier. I occasionally visited her in Western Sydney, and upon his arrival I quickly noticed that he was very dedicated to his study; he usually finished working after Chelsea and I had gone to bed, and he had already left the house by the time we got up for work. I also noticed he spent 7-10 minutes brushing his teeth, which made me feel I should reconsider my own oral hygiene. But I digress.

Shun moved to Australia in March of 2012 to work on his PhD in Ecology of Eucalyptus Woodlands. Before he arrived here, he was reviewing literature in Ascot in the UK. His PhD focuses on the effect of elevated temperature on the nutrient cycle of Eucalyptus woodlands.

His decision to study Australian trees was spawned during a two year adventure during his childhood.

“(When I was 11) I moved away from Tokyo for two years to Shizuoka Prefecture. I lived away from my family and stayed in a dorm with other students. It was on the coast side, close to the ocean, and I played a lot in nature,” he told me.

“I really liked the nature, and I got really interested in biology and environment,” he said. “Till then, living in Tokyo, I hadn’t had the opportunity to touch nature. When I was 11, I saw how animals need plants and everything is connected.”

Since then, he’s wanted to work in environmental protection and conservation. When he started his undergraduate degree, he was more interested in animal behaviours, but eventually realised he found plants more interesting than animals.

“Plants seem to be more important than animals in ecosystems. Without plants you can’t have animals. Plants are the very base of the ecosystem,” he said.

Shun was born in Kobe, Japan. When he was seven years old his family moved to Tokyo. Shun attended the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki for his Bachelor’s Degree, and his final year lead him to the University of Manchester (UK), where he joined an exchange program. He then spent time at the Imperial College in London, improving his English. He then completed his Masters in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at Silwood Park Campus in Ascot.

Shun’s been based in Western Sydney, and this is where I met him. He is one of the many PhD students who study and work at The Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment within the University of Western Sydney. HIE is a suite of research facilities, where work is dedicated to climate change research and ecosystem functions.

Shun is now finishing his time in Australia and he’ll return to Ascot at the end of the month.

Shun received international funding from the Japanese Government to attain his PhD. Only one in eight to ten students receive this.

“I was lucky because I was in Manchester and I had experience in English; they were familiar with me,” Shun said.

Until he decides what to do, Shun’s enjoyed how his work has allowed him to travel so far. He currently doesn’t have any idea where to go after he finishes his PhD. He feels open to many possibilities. He might look for a post-doc position, he might want to do eco physiology and he might look in the United States.

Shun now speaks fluent English, so he can work in any country, and he’s thinking he might like to travel around Europe after he goes back to the UK. Since he doesn’t necessarily plan on returning to Japan, he doesn’t have to worry as much about travelling hurting his chances at getting a job.

“Some students have gap years, but in Japan it’s not recommended. It’s hard to get a job in Japan if you take time off to travel, they wouldn’t want to hire you,” he said.

Shun shared with me a few observations about the UK, Australia and Japan, including the lack of dancing in Japan.

“Clubs are not really that popular in Japan, compared to the UK and Australia. To drink in Japan we go to a Japanese style pub. Music is very quiet, and people eat at the same time. In UK and Australia you have nuts or chips but mainly just drinking food and loud music. Japan is more about conversation,” he told me.

He said that he and his friends go for drinks after exams and big events, but they usually wouldn’t drink much and they definitely wouldn’t dance.

Shun said he tries to dance with people in Australia, but he feels shy in his heart and he doesn’t want to be isolated.

“I find it difficult to talk in the club. It’s quite fun but to have conversations you have to shout,” he said.

Shun thinks one thing Australia could learn from Japan is how to move faster, especially in the local post office.

“If one person could handle the boxes and the other handled the customers everything would be faster,” he said with mild frustration in his voice.

He said that Japan could learn more balanced ways to work from Australia and the UK. He’s learned that in the UK and Australia, people work nine to five, and they don’t work on weekends. In Japan, business men in particular work 12 hours a day, six days a week. If you don’t work late people think you’re lazy. His whole life, Shun’s been taught to work hard, and he believes both cultures could be a bit more flexible. The Japanese shouldn’t feel so much pressure, and maybe sometimes Aussies could work just a little bit harder.

Shun left me with a fun fact he’s learned from all his research.

“With climate change the increasing CO2 in the atmosphere enhances plant growth. Plants prefer higher temperatures to some extent, they need Co2 for photosynthesis, and they can grow faster. In short, rising atmospheric CO2 and temperature can be good for most plants in general.”

Interesting! So some plants will rise to the climate change challenge, so to speak. There’s a creative writer’s scientific interpretation.

I’d like to thank Shun for speaking with me and letting me share his story on my blog. If you’d like to read some of Shun’s published work, please click here.