From Fukushima to Costa Rica: A Rocket Scientist’s Quest for World Peace

Next month, my son Peter will graduate from Missouri Southern State University. As part of his education, this past summer he attended the Summer Peace Institute at the UN-mandated University for Peace in San José, Costa Rica. As a recipient of MSSU’s McCaleb Initiative for Peace, he reported on his experience for the university’s student-run newspaper, The Chart. Following is one of the eight articles he wrote for the paper. I will post another of his articles on Tuesday.

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Satoshi Miyatani, from Japan, takes a break from classes at this year’s UPEACE Summer Peace Institute in Costa Rica.

Most of the students at the UPEACE-Berkeley summer program came from backgrounds in subjects like peace and conflict studies, economics, politics, sociology, law and anthropology.

Satoshi Miyatani, a rocket scientist, was one of the exceptions.

A recent graduate of aerospace engineering at the University of Tokyo, Miyatani now hopes to attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But why did Miyatani choose to attend a program focused on peace?

Miyatani’s reasoning goes back two years to an event that was significant for him and for Japan.

On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Fukushima, Japan.

Miyatani was staying at a hotel in Fukushima at the time of the earthquake.

“I have never experienced such a big earthquake,” he says. “The ground was shaking. Everything was shaking.”

Tsunami waves caused by the earthquake battered Fukushima’s coast, even reaching Miyatani’s hotel. The hotel owner drove Miyatani to safety. Thirty minutes after they left the hotel, it was destroyed by the tsunami.

“I almost lost my life,” recalls Miyatani.

For the next week, he slept on a gymnasium floor made cold by the Japanese winter and ate only dry, tasteless cookies.

Before this near-death experience, Miyatani was only interested in developing machines, as most of his fellow engineering students still are. After this experience, he wanted to help victims of natural disasters such as he had endured. He resolved to study the environment and contribute to peace by applying his specialty in aerospace engineering.

Miyatani speaks humbly about his 100-page bachelor’s thesis, which addresses his change of thinking. He describes how satellites can be used to monitor the effects of natural disasters and inform disaster response.

His thesis focuses on the use of many satellites to maximize the information gathered and minimize the time of response.

For the first portion of the UPEACE-Berkeley program, Miyatani says, “Every day I can get a new idea from the lecture.”

His favorite lecture was given by Dr. Bryan Down-Uribe about the environment and climate change. Down-Uribe employed a more scientific approach than previous lecturers, using more statistics, graphs and charts. Miyatani says he was “used to this type of lecture.”

During the field work portion of the UPEACE-Berkeley program, Miyatani went with four other students to work with an indigenous Costa Rican family in Kéköldi.

After a long bus ride toward the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, he and his group hiked an hour into the jungle to reach the research center where they stayed during the field work.

Miyatani says the group worked hard every day— digging and building trails, counting frogs and repairing a bird observation tower.

They also had no electricity during the day time, but “we could survive,” Miyatani says, chuckling.

Drawing a larger lesson from his experience in Kéköldi, Miyatani says, “In the city, there are a lot of things such as supermarkets, Internet, electricity. Everything is useful, but, actually, I don’t think we need to use it.”

Miyatani feels the tension between what he is learning in Japan and what he has learned in Costa Rica: “My major is aerospace engineering, so every day I also study about technology, but there is no technology in Kéköldi.”

“I have no idea how to apply the idea to my life. I have to think more,” he says.

While he is thinking about how to apply his experience in Costa Rica to his life, Miyatani is also planning to commemorate the experience with his work.

As a rocket scientist, Miyatani has launched a satellite into a space and talks excitedly about launching more, proudly declaring what the name of the next satellite will be: Kéköldi.

Related Posts:
New Data Show a Record Number of International Students in the US, Let’s Welcome Them
8 Maps and Globes That Will Change Your Perspective of the World
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Welcome to Clearing Customs. This space is part blog, part annotated bibliography. It’s a collection of thoughts, information, links, and articles about how the people and parts of our world fit together across cultures. It's for those of us who, on our journey, sometimes have to check the box "something to declare." —Craig Thompson

The views and opinions expressed in Clearing Customs are my own and do not represent any group, organization, or institution.

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