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Fusion research abounds with infinite possibilities


Recently appointed WPI-AIMR deputy director Motoko Kotani plans to use the power of mathematics to accelerate fusion research between the institute’s various research groups

In any walk of life, communication matters, and science is no exception. So when one of the leading experts in the world in mathematics—a field that has the power to generate closer communication among scientists from different backgrounds—is brought in to enhance fusion research, good things are bound to happen.


On 1 May 2011, Motoko Kotani, who is a special advisor to Tohoku University president Akihisa Inoue, officially started her tenure as deputy director of the WPI-AIMR. Kotani heads up the newly created Mathematics Unit and has been charged with overseeing research carried out at the WPI-AIMR. This will include the important task of furthering fusion research between the four material science research groups that make up the institute: the bulk metallic glasses group, materials physics group, soft materials group and device/system group.

An internationally renowned mathematician, Kotani received the prestigious Saruhashi Prize—given to female Japanese scientists for achieving outstanding research results—in 2005 for her research on Discrete Geometric Analysis on Crystal Lattices. When talking about mathematics, Kotani’s face becomes animated and her voice takes on a strong, persuasive tone. “Mathematics is appealing because it can break things down to their very essence,” she says.

It is this strength that Kotani wants to use to bring researchers from different backgrounds together to work on cross-disciplinary research themes. This can sometimes be a challenge because the principal investigators in each research group speak a distinctive scientific language that is not necessarily easy for others to understand. “That is where we mathematicians come in. We can try to understand the background principles between each scientific field, and then simplify them to create a universal language that is understood by everybody,” explains Kotani. “Simple ideas have the ability to inspire others to develop their own thoughts, which is how real fusion research is conducted.”

Communication is another key element for promoting collaboration. Kotani plans to have researchers in each group conduct introductory seminars and survey talks that give their colleagues a basic understanding of what their field of research is essentially about, rather than the kind of presentations where researchers simply announce their latest findings. Without such activities, Kotani believes that researchers will find it hard to bridge what can be expansive scientific divides.


Kotani brings a wealth of international experience to her role and knows the value of close-knit collaboration. In 1993–1994, she spent a year at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and in 2000–2001, she spent a year in Paris at the prestigious Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHÉS), an institute predominantly staffed by overseas researchers who mainly come from a mathematics background, as well as some theoretical physicists and biologists. The spirit of cooperation prevalent at the IHÉS allows researchers to bounce ideas off each other and make breakthroughs in their research—something from which Kotani herself benefited. “At the WPI-AIMR, I would like to create an ideal research environment similar to the one at IHÉS where researchers can freely immerse themselves in their work,” says Kotani.

Another goal that Kotani feels passionately about is helping her fellow female researchers. From 2006 to 2008, she was the project leader in the Tohoku Women’s Hurdling Project—an initiative established by the Japanese government to ‘develop models that support women researchers’. The establishment of such a program is very much in keeping with the strong tradition of promoting female involvement in science at Tohoku University, which in 1913 was the first university in Japan to admit women as undergraduate students.

Today, the university provides researchers with family assistance, including kindergarten and babysitting services. Such facilities are particularly important for female researchers from overseas, who may lack the ability to communicate effectively in Japanese and thus find help on their own. Kotani says she will do her utmost to create a system that allows female researchers to concentrate on their research but also spend time with their family—essential for allowing them to relax and formulate ‘wild’ ideas. “If you have to worry about your family, you cannot concentrate on your research,” she notes.

Establishing an environment in which female researchers find it pleasant to work is also crucial. “If you create an atmosphere that is comfortable for female scientists, it is comfortable for everybody,” says Kotani, who is eager to stress that her goal, and that of the university as a whole, is to make the university a top-notch research university that is attractive to men and women alike.

Such ambitions extend not just to researchers from inside Japan but also to those from other countries. Kotani is quick to point out that the WPI-AIMR has much to offer researchers from overseas, including a wealth of opportunities to interact with preeminent scientists from a wide spectrum of disciplines, creating an environment where stimulating ideas are often exchanged. The possibilities for fusion research at the WPI-AIMR, Kotani notes, are practically endless. “We want researchers to think of one and one as not being equal to two—but to infinity,” she says.