In Conversation with Hideo Ohno

Hideo Ohno has been a familiar face on campus for 30 years, arriving at Tohoku University in 1994 as a professor at the Department of Electronic Engineering and serving as its 22nd president since 2018. Along the way, he was also director of the Research Institute of Electrical Communication, and the Center for Spintronics Research Network.

During his tenure as president, the university navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, introduced wide-ranging digital transformation and strengthened engagement with local and international communities. It is currently the only candidate to be a "University for International Research Excellence," a government initiative to raise the profile of Japanese research around the world.

Before leaving office at the end of March, President Ohno shared his thoughts on the last six years.

For some people, the goal in any job is to leave the place better than when you first got there. How do you feel about the end of your tenure as president?

I've always had a vision of what a good research university should be like. And I think, my team and I, we tried to make Tohoku University closer to that image. Specifically, we wanted a more progressive approach to research and education, and stronger engagement with society. While there are many things still to be done, I think we succeeded to some extent so I'm happy. And these last six years, well, it was an interesting journey.

You're famous for being a researcher, but you've also spent many years teaching students. As an executive, did you miss the daily interactions with students?

Yes, I really loved teaching and I still try to keep in contact with students from my former laboratory.

As president, I made it a point to talk to students whenever I got the chance, like at student council meetings, award ceremonies, student festivals and roundtable discussions. Unfortunately, the pandemic prevented me from doing more of those, but talking to students, hearing their thoughts on issues is something I always enjoy.

What's the biggest change you've seen at the university in your 30 years here?

I think we've tried to be more progressive. I wanted make Tohoku University a place where students can find themselves, where they feel like they can do things, achieve things and become more confident to take on the world.

Of course, you need to be able to understand certain principles in order to get to the next stage. But knowledge transfer alone doesn't constitute a university education. We want students to think for themselves and develop their own new ideas.

You have been very encouraging of students having international experience. Why is that important?

Research is always global. You're dealing with colleagues around the world, collaborating, competing. You just cannot do research without global components. So a good research university has to be a global arena.

There is a perception that doing research is working alone in a lab, but that's far from the reality these days. And that's one of the reasons why in our application to be a "University for International Research Excellence," we've proposed a more English-intensive education at the undergraduate level. It's so that students are better equipped to engage with people and resources outside Japan. We'd also like to increase the number of international students so that there's more cross cultural interaction on our campuses.

And you yourself once studied at Cornell University...

Yes, I was a non-degree graduate student in New York for a year and it was a wonderful experience. It was nice to see something new and different, and to build a network of friends and colleagues from different backgrounds.

What inspired you to do research in Spintronics?

I got my Ph.D. in 1982 and worked on semiconductors for almost 10 years. I wanted to do something different, to add a new thread to my research. I spent a year and a half at IBM as a visiting researcher, creating new ferromagnetic semiconductors with Hiro Munekata in Leo Esaki's group. Munekata and I were talking at an international conference in Sapporo, and I told him that I wanted to try making 3-5 semiconductors magnetic. It was a wild idea that I was almost certain would fail. But he said, "Let's try it!' and we did, and we succeeded.

In retrospect that was possible because we were in a free corporate setting, which no longer exists. At universities, chasing a wild idea would be a luxury because it takes funding, it takes time, and you might not succeed. But this freedom to pursue wild ideas is very important and Tohoku University is working on it.

Did you always want to be a physicist?

Both my parents were theoretical physicists and when I was younger, it did not sound like my cup of tea at all. You have to be extremely good in various aspects of physical theory, and I did not think I would be.

So what then was the childhood ambition?

I wanted to drive. I liked cars - cars were quite rare when I was young - and driving was something I really enjoyed.

Like rally cars, Formula One?

No, no, (laughs) just an ordinary car. I still like driving, even now.

What would you say were the biggest milestones during your presidency?

Well, in the first year, we set up our vision 2030. We had an idea of where we wanted to go, and we started working on how to get there.

But then we were suddenly thrown into a pandemic in 2020. That was a challenging time, but more so I think because we'd never experience something like that before. We did our cluster analysis and came up with a strategy to keep the students safe, and to keep the virus from spreading onto campus. Despite that being a stressful time, especially for the students, we managed to introduce some good policies, such as augmenting our remote and digital capabilities. We accelerated our plans for digital transformation and ended up being among the first institutions in Japan to do so. I think our experience with the Great East Japan Earthquake helped us a lot in navigating this pandemic.

And then this opportunity to apply to be a "University for International Research Excellence" came along and now we're the only candidate being considered.

So those are the three main things that stood out for me these last six years, and I'm optimistic about our future.

Looking ahead, you're transitioning to a newly created position at the university. What will your role be?

After this, my role at Tohoku University will be twofold - to be an advisor and to also do some research with my colleagues on spintronics. These last few years I've had to think about Tohoku University 24/7. Now I'll be able to think more about research, and I'm looking forward to that.

And there'll hopefully be some rest and relaxation too?

Well, I hope to attend more international conferences, perhaps with my wife. We've been to several memorable places like Istanbul and Singapore and that was a lot of fun. To me, just going somewhere like a vacation without knowing anyone is not terribly attractive. I like going to places where I can meet people or visit friends and have stimulating conversations, even if it's work or research-related.

And I still like to drive. My wife and I would get in the car and drive somewhere for the day or stay somewhere overnight. So maybe we'll try to do that a bit more. That would be nice.


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