Director’s interview
Setting the stage for the next chapter


AIMR director Motoko Kotani looks back on her first year in office and offers insight into her vision for the future of the institute

Motoko Kotani, director of the AIMR.
Motoko Kotani, director of the AIMR.

Since its inception, the Advanced Institute for Materials Research (AIMR) has carried out innovative, high-level research with the goal of becoming a globally visible center of research excellence. In late 2011, the AIMR introduced a fifth element, the Mathematics Unit, to bolster the work of its four existing research groups — Bulk Metallic Glasses, Materials Physics, Soft Materials and Device/System. The brainchild of current director, Motoko Kotani, a distinguished mathematician who succeeded founding director and organic chemist Yoshinori Yamamoto in 2012, the Mathematics Unit places mathematics at the heart of the institute’s research ethos. “Bringing together materials science and mathematics is a unique and rather ambitious idea, but at the AIMR we are committed to collaborative and interdisciplinary research beyond convention,” comments Kotani.

Fusion research for green materials

In line with Kotani’s vision, the AIMR has established three Target Projects with which to test bed its mathematics-driven predictive approach to functional materials research: Non-equilibrium Materials, Topological Functional Materials, and Multi-scale Hierarchical Materials.

“These projects reverse the typical order of experimental research in which empirical observations are subsequently analyzed to form the basis of next-stage theoretical insights. Instead, mathematicians and materials scientists form a team to search for a common interest and a shared goal,” explains Kotani. “While the approach may be new, the focus of the research remains unchanged, concentrating on the development of cutting-edge functional materials.” Key themes include the development of new metallic glasses, spintronic materials and innovative devices such as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) as well as energy-saving nanoporous metal catalysts and novel materials for photovoltaic and thermoelectric energy conversion — all of which will contribute directly to a green-technology-based society.

To support these initiatives, the AIMR established the Interface Unit, staffed by theoretical physicists and chemists. These young independent researchers concurrently participate in multiple projects, unconstrained by disciplinary boundaries, and act as a ‘bridge’ between mathematicians and experimental materials scientists to provide a theoretical underpinning for the institute’s new approach. While radical in nature, the concept of specialists with a roving brief is already bearing intellectual fruit in the shape of advances in fields as diverse as nanoporous materials, metallic glasses and topological analysis for complex structured materials — a strong beginning that Kotani believes will set the pace for the future.

A hub for global talent

The AIMR has steadily built a strong international profile, partnering with overseas institutions and forming ‘satellite’ AIMR Joint Centers (AJCs) at the University of California, Santa Barbara, United States, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Chemistry in Beijing, China. In May 2012, the AIMR and the University of Cambridge signed a Memorandum of Understanding to establish a further AJC in the United Kingdom, creating a dedicated laboratory space in which UK and AIMR scientists can carry out joint research. Kotani believes that as the AIMR becomes ever more influential as a center that develops and promotes the mathematics-driven approach to materials science research, it will become increasingly important to further extend the institute’s network of international collaborations. In this way, the AIMR will be able to influence its international partners and spread wider the mathematics-led approach to materials science. “We aim to develop novel ideas into concrete projects and to share them with the world. The joint centers are our gateway into this,” she says.

In another demonstration of its global outreach endeavors, in 2012 the AIMR hosted a summer school for 30 graduate students, selected from more than 200 domestic and international applicants. The AIMR also actively communicates its research, philosophy and events to the wider scientific community and the general public via the AIMResearch website, published in English and Japanese, and a bilingual newsletter — AIMR Magazine — launched at the start of 2013.

Besides the AIMR’s efforts to nurture the next generation of research leaders and gain prominence in the global research community, the institute places great importance on the scientific and personal welfare of its researchers. “Many staff members and students have expressed their happiness in being a part of the AIMR. They enjoy the freedom they have to visit other laboratories and propose potential collaborations,” remarks Kotani. The air of intellectual open-mindedness that exists at the AIMR is no accident but rather the result of a deliberate policy to assist staff and students to work collaboratively, leading to improvements across all aspects of life at the institute. Researchers are not restricted to working within their own discipline and are given the freedom to discuss their research openly with colleagues from other parts of the AIMR.

This freedom extends to administrative staff, who are also encouraged to come up with new ideas to enhance life at the institute. One of the best known of these initiatives, proposed by the Administrative Office, is the Tea Time program, where AIMR staff meet once a week in an informal atmosphere to share results and discuss their research. “The talks have become a firm fixture at the AIMR and are popular across all departments. We have an open international atmosphere here at the institute,” notes Kotani.

An eye to the future

The past twelve months have proved a rewarding time for the AIMR, which has seen several of the institute’s researchers presented with prestigious accolades. These include rising young stars such as Seigo Souma, who received the Young Scientists’ Prize as part of the Commendation for Science and Technology 2013 from the Ministry of Education‚ Culture‚ Sports‚ Science and Technology (MEXT), and Akari Takayama who was awarded the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Ikushi Prize in 2013. The achievements of senior AIMR researchers were also recognized, including international acclaim for AIMR principal investigator (PI) Kazue Kurihara who, alongside 11 other outstanding female scientists, was selected as one of the IUPAC 2013 Distinguished Women in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering. Another PI at the AIMR, Hideo Ohno, received the 2012 IEEE David Sarnoff Award for his “seminal contributions and leadership in bridging semiconductor electronics with magnetism and spintronics.”

To enable the AIMR and its researchers to continue to achieve similar successes while maintaining their freedom and autonomy, the Advanced Institute for Materials Research Fund was established earlier this year. “The AIMR has made major contributions not only to science, but also to our host university. I have a personal vision of how the AIMR will sustain itself to fulfill all its goals,” comments Kotani. “As accomplishing those goals takes time, the AIMR Fund was set up to diversify our sources of funding.”

The AIMR’s unique mathematics-driven research ethos is indelibly shaping the future of the institute. With innovative and practical strategies championed by a forward-thinking director and an impressive record of high-impact research from top-class international researchers, the AIMR is set to reach even greater heights in the latter part of its ten-year term. “The buds of our efforts are ready to blossom into really positive results,” says Kotani. “In the next chapter of our development, we hope to see our vision coming into fruition.”