Earlier this year, 2012 Nobel Prize laureate in Physiology or Medicine, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka captured the audience with his high energy, warmth and some surprising personal insights in the keynote speech at the Rakuten New Year Conference in Osaka, a semi-annual conference for Rakuten Ichiba merchants. The text below is based on that presentation.

Dr Yamanaka giving the keynote speech at the Rakuten New Year Conference 2016

Dr Yamanaka delivers the keynote at the Rakuten New Year Conference 2016

Why I entered medicine

At the moment, I am a medical researcher, but in fact, I was originally a clinician. And the reason behind this was my father.

You see, my father was very sick. He had contracted Hepatitis C through a blood transfusion after having an accident at work. At the time, there was no treatment available and soon the disease began to run its course and his condition worsened. But he always had a strong interest in medicine and I believe it was his wish that his son would become a doctor.

So, I pursued medicine, but just as I began my residency, my father passed away. I was stunned. Even though I had become a medical doctor, I couldn’t even save my own father.

My time in America

In 1993, at the age of 31 years, I went to the U.S. to pursue medical research. My three-and-a-half years there became crucially important in shaping my life and my future. It was then that I learned that the key to research could be found in “VW.”

The concept of “VW” was impressed upon me by the head of the Gladstone Institute at the time, Dr. Robert Mahley (currently serving as Professor Emeritus). The VW he was referring to was “Vision and hard Work.” His message was simple: Have a clear vision and work as hard as you possibly can. I’ve never forgotten this.

Implementing VW

As I said, the concept is simple, but actually putting it into practice is not always so. I didn’t have a problem with hard work, as I worked as hard as anyone, even on holidays and late into the night. But vision was not so simple. I had goals, such as conducting valuable research, writing strong papers, and securing funding, all of which would hopefully earn me a more senior post. But when I told this to Dr. Mahley, he said, “That’s not a vision. It is simply a way to achieve your vision.”

He didn’t leave it there and continued to help me understand my vision: “Shinya, why did you become a researcher? Why did you come all the way to America?” This brought me back to my original reason for becoming a researcher. I remembered that my vision was to help patients like my father, who couldn’t be cured by current medical science.

Coming full circle: Strategy

I am currently serving as head of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA), among other affiliations. In this role I am faced with extremely difficult strategic decisions about which direction to take the institute. If we go one way it may be financially lucrative, while the other way may generate excellent media coverage.

At times like these when I am stuck on a difficult decision I turn to my trusty VW, which is now focused on CiRA. The vision is that through iPS cell technology, we can find cures for patients to whom no cure is available. When I remember this vision, I always know which way to turn.