RIKEN BSI News No. 32 (Jun. 2006)

Language: English » Japanese


Tomasz Rutkowski

Dream of the Return

Dr. Tomasz Rutkowski
Laboratory for Advanced Brain Signal Processing,
Brain-Style Computing Group

Just under three years ago, Dr. Tomasz Rutkowski left RIKEN Brain Science Institute for Kyoto University. As happy as he was to be going to Japan's most lovely city, he was also happy to be leaving RIKEN BSI for new experiences. Some might have said that he was ecstatic. Anyone who watched him leave, believed he would never return. And yet, last April, he came back. All the way back to the same laboratory. Those who saw him leap to Kyoto were surprised by the prodigal's joyous return. When asked, he would smile and say, "BSI is paradise!"
A paradise? Sceptical, I tracked down the returnee and, over coffee, pressed him for an explanation: why is RIKEN BSI is a haven for researchers?

(Photo: Tomasz getting an EEG for science)

Okay, it is not quite paradise, but according to Rutkowski, BSI's atmosphere is open, international, and well connected with the larger international science community. Its facilities are ideal for the work he wants to do in neuroscience. Kyoto University, despite its impressive publication record, is not such a haven for multidisciplinary research. It is harder to build bridges between neuroscience, computer science and applied engineering there. He does, however, miss the weekends in Kyoto, and working with students. Luckily, the Internet ameliorates the latter issue somewhat, allowing him to interact with former students from the distance. Still, he says, "every researcher should work a year or two outside of RIKEN just so they can appreciate what they have here.

"In Poland, I pursued biomedical engineering. This degree fused my mother's career as a medical doctor and my father's work as an engineer. However, since the national economy was so weak, I was encouraged to complete my work in speaker recognition, that would lead to my PhD, as part of an exchange program in Japan. " Rutkowski came to BSI in 1998, as a graduate student to work as a technician in Andrzej Cichocki's laboratory, Advanced Brain Signal Processing. In this laboratory, he focused on applications of blind source separation techniques for sound separation and modelling of so called "cocktail party effect" in auditory pathway.

Ph.D. in hand, and seeking a real researching position, Rutkowski moved to Kyoto, where he hoped to embark on a promising career. He left RIKEN BSI happily, eagerly even. "Unlike RIKEN BSI which is set outside of Tokyo, Kyoto University is located in the heart of Kyoto and its publication record is also impressive.And, I was a researcher."

But he made concessions. First, his research focus changed. Instead of working on basic research with real possibilities to improve the quality of life for many humans, he was now working in multimedia technology for commercial purposes. He switched from biomedically oriented signal processing and experimental research conducted in BSI RIKEN to work that fused audiovisual information processing, social psychology and computerized virtual reality. The university also made it clear that he would have to publish in high-tiered journals. Suddenly research was more about possible fast applications. With a smile, Rutkowski remembered, "I was told I could to do whatever I wanted, but I needed papers, yet in that environment the only real exchange of ideas I got was external, during the review process that killed or published my papers."

Cultural differences between RIKEN BSI and Kyoto University made day-to-day experiences more challenging. According to Rutkowski, who unfortunately has yet to learn to communicate in Japanese, the students were wonderful, if relentless in their demands to understand concepts. "They asked lots of questions. So many good ones in fact, that I was able to clarify and deepen my own understandings of these ideas for my work."

Yet, he had no real interaction with his peers. At the university, Japanese was the operating language. Despite strong abilities to converse in English, "meetings that started in English," he says, shrugging his shoulders and chuckling, "almost always switched to Japanese for important matters and I could not follow those conversations." The overall experience was isolating.

While the pressure to publish is far greater at RIKEN BSI than at Kyoto, the former is strongly linked to the larger world of science. Meetings and seminars are all conducted in English, the environment is international, and researchers from around the world frequently visit. That connection reduces the cultural isolation that living in Wako may sometimes bring. "But then, Ikebukuro is ten minutes away by train," Rutkowski says.

True, he is less free to explore is own ideas than he was, and he appears to miss working with students, but RIKEN Wako Campus is lovely, in its own way, especially now with the last of the cherry blossoms are starting their graceful descent to the ground.

Rutkowski is currently helping to develop non-invasive brain computer interfacing (BCI) technology that may one day help handicapped people interact with the world more easily. It may also let people manage devices or play computer games without using their muscles. "Just imagine playing a computer game in a crowded train during morning rush hour without using hands or your car 'knowing' by your reaction time that you were drowsy."

As if suddenly aware of his surroundings, he looks around Tully's Cafè the year old coffee shop in RIKEN BSI's main building that has become the informal hangout for its researchers and staff. "Every afternoon, the cafè is crowded with people, laughing and talking. This would not happen in Kyoto, where people could easily step outside to a cafè in town." And there is always the weekly gatherings at A-One, the local pub that fills with brain researchers on Wednesdays.

And, for our dear prodigal, that is perhaps the best part of RIKEN BSI. The institute has a number of young researchers with whom to make friends, lifestyle in Kyoto pales next to the social experiences that can be had in RIKEN. "In Kyoto there were no people my age, and those few who are, are not there for long." Case in point, Rutkowski came back after just two years in Kyoto.

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    Brain Science Promotion Division
    2-1 Hirosawa, Wako, Saitama, 351-0198 JAPAN
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    Email: bsi@riken.jp
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