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Jin Nakashima: Life Through the Lens

Noble Profile

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Before he was even in kindergarten, Jin Nakashima, Ph.D., was mesmerized by the constant circles of airplanes arriving and departing the airport near his home in Nagoya, Japan.

The planes slicing the sky sparked his imagination, as did his father's and grandfather's love affair with photography.

Soon his own love for photography took hold. It wasn't long before aviation and photography merged into a unified interest as he found great delight capturing the Boeing and Douglas planes as they navigated through the sky.

Today, Nakashima's hobbies have transformed into a career where he looks through a different type of lens, a microscope lens. This career advances agriculture while still sparking his boyhood imagination.

How did you get to the Noble Research Institute?

I came to the Noble Research Institute in September 2005. Previously, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas in Austin and was searching for a new job.

I saw a flier about (former Plant Biology Division Director) Richard Dixon, Ph.D., speaking at a seminar. I knew who he was, so I approached him about needing a new job and wanting to work at the Noble Research Institute. He immediately gave me a job on his way back to the Foundation.

What is your current job at the Noble Research Institute?

I am the cellular imaging facility manager.

What is the cellular imaging facility?

It is an 11-room suite that contains equipment for modern light microscopy and biological imaging. The goal is to use light microscopy to address a range of plant biological questions.

What does your job entail?

I provide training to researchers who want to use the microscopes and related instruments. The microscopes we work with allow us to see living cells and the individual elements within the cell, such as mitochondria and chloroplasts. I also collaborate with internal and external researchers on their projects related to plant cell walls.

What is your favorite part of being a facility manager?

I'm able to see the full picture of the research projects I'm working on. Scientists are usually focused on their specific area of a project, but my job allows me to see the bigger picture while helping work toward the same goal. I like helping people get motivated and excited about science.

Didn't you help send plants into space?

Yes, I am part of Principal Investigator Elison Blancaflor's research team. Our research project with NASA begin in 2010. We used Arabidopsis thaliana (thale cress) seedlings to study vital plant functions in near-zero gravity. The seedlings were exposed to near weightlessness for almost two weeks on the space shuttle Discovery. We continued the research in 2013 (using the same seedling type) to analyze gene expression and cell wall changes in the plants.

Why send plants into space?

There are a few reasons. Studying vital plant functions in near-zero gravity shows how gravity impacts cell development and growth. Gravity not only helps anchor plants here on Earth but also orients plant growth and development for nutrient and water uptake. Uncovering genes associated with these traits will help researchers improve agricultural crops. For NASA, this research could lead to understanding how plants behave and develop in space. Plants are a vital component of regenerative life support systems as they would provide oxygen and food sources if humans were to embark on a long-term space mission to Mars. It is important to better understand their biology in the microgravity environment of space.

But isn't there more to your NASA connection?

Outside of the Noble Research Institute, I am a professional aviation photojournalist. I work with a Japanese aviation magazine providing articles and photos about various aspects of aviation. In 2003, the magazine editor contacted me to get information about human space flight in the U.S. I am the only Japanese photojournalist to continually cover space shuttle flights from 2005 to 2013, when the NASA space shuttles were retired. Now commercial rockets provide all transportation to the International Space Station.

Did you write about the Noble Research Institute plants mission?

Yes, I am currently working to provide an article and photos to the web-based Science Window magazine from Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST). Being part of the research team allowed me to have a more in-depth look at NASA and human space flight. I also write about our adventures for the Noble Research Institute Plants in Space blog.

How do microscopy and photography relate?

Microscopy is basically taking pictures of plant cells. Microscopes and lights allow us to see even the smallest detail within the cell when it is happening, much like a camera lens.

What motivates you?

Seeing other perspectives and views through writing and photography.

Robyn Peterson
Former Public Relations Coordinator