Sometimes, when everyone else in the house is sleeping, Yukina Yajima is burning the post-midnight oil, studying biomechanics in the single digit morning hours, along with the rest of her classmates in BMED 3410. It’s because she is based in Tokyo, Japan, and the class is based in Atlanta, at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“I have some synchronous classes that I attend in the middle of the night,” admitted Yajima early in the fall semester. A third-year undergraduate student in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, she has another class at 4:30 a.m., Japan standard time, that is recorded for later viewing, “but it’s a class that is helpful to attend real-time and ask questions, so I try to attend as much as possible,” she said. “I’ve started to try to adjust to Atlanta time and get sleep during the day since meetings and events for the three clubs I’m in, and sorority chapters, also happen early in the morning Japan time.”
This is her university experience in the pandemic age, which is an age of adjustment for a young woman who has grown used to making adjustments in her life. Born in Luxembourg, her father’s job moved the family to Japan when she was in kindergarten, to Mexico when she was in middle school, then back to Japan. She moved to the U.S. three years ago to come to Georgia Tech and threw herself into campus life.
“I miss being with the people at Georgia tech, and just being able to spend time with my friends, studying in the Bio Quad, spending the weekends going to football or baseball games, picnics and concerts,” said Yajima, who last saw the campus in May at the end of spring semester, just before she flew back to Japan. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom on campus, and she recalled, “It reminded me of home.”
• Tell us why you chose Georgia Tech and BME.
Science had always been my favorite subject, so by the time I was in high school I considered pursuing a field in STEM. Around the end of my junior year in high school, my interest in biology drove me to join my school’s team for the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition, which is a worldwide synthetic biology competition with an annual Jamboree held in Boston. With my team, I conducted research for the first time to develop an early-detection system for colorectal cancer using bioengineering. I really enjoyed working together on a project with my teammates and presenting [the results]. I was amazed by how the rapidly-growing bioengineering field has a lot of potential to improve the lives of patients. So after doing some research, I learned about the BME major and some fascinating ongoing research projects within the department and decided to pursue a degree in BME at Georgia Tech.
• What were your thoughts about distance learning before the Covid pandemic?
I’d been interested in virtual learning even before the pandemic, and was actually considering taking [remote] courses in the future. Although I value the physical interactions between students and professors, I think virtual learning can be very effective. I find it helpful that pre-recorded lectures allow you to pause and re-watch whenever you need to, and I like that it’s easier to hear the professor well and see the writings clearly, whereas that might not always be the case for in-person lectures.
• Tell us how the virtual structure is working for you now.
I’m still getting used to the fully remote structure, but it’s been working out pretty well. The greatest challenge for me is adjusting to the huge time difference. Since Japan is 13 hours ahead of Atlanta, it’s been hard for me to manage my schedule to virtually attend synchronous classes and club meetings. Luckily, a lot of my courses have recorded lectures that I can watch outside of class time and assignments that are available for long time-windows, which have been extremely helpful for me in managing the time difference. However, this means that for most of my courses I don’t have a set time to watch lectures, so another challenge would be having to set my own schedule and be consistent with it to avoid falling behind in classes. As the vice president of the Japan Student Association, it’s also a challenge to create opportunities for members to learn about the Japanese culture and language as many of our traditional events and activities cannot be done virtually.
• What can you tell us about social distancing and how your family is coping with the pandemic in Japan?
The situation seems to be getting better gradually, although we seem to have just hit the peak of the second wave of infections and the number of cases are remaining high compared to the past few months, especially in Tokyo. I think the mask-wearing culture that existed here even before the pandemic is helping, but some public places are starting to get crowded. Luckily, my family has been healthy. We try to avoid going to crowded places, and we make sure to follow the social distancing guidelines and be cautious when going to public areas. Since staying at home for a long time can get tiring, my family and I like to drive to places that are not crowded and enjoy spending the time outdoors in nature on the weekends.
• Do you have advice for other students who are taking classes virtually?
Since online learning tends to give us a bit more freedom on when to watch lectures or complete assignments, my advice would be to set a manageable schedule for yourself and be consistent with your studying schedule. I had been struggling to keep up with my lectures, homework deadlines, and club meetings, so I started using Google Calendar to keep all information and plans in one place. I find it to be a helpful tool to organize my course schedule and meetings especially if you’re in a different time zone, as it has the option of displaying two time zones.
• What are your hopes for the future of your student experience, and your career?
When the pandemic calms down and it gets safer to be on campus, I’m hoping to fly back to Atlanta and continue my campus life at Georgia Tech. I miss the in-person interactions that I had during my first two years at Georgia Tech. In the future, I’m hoping to use my experiences and knowledge obtained from classes, research, and extracurricular activities at Georgia Tech to pursue a career in pharmaceutical or medical device industries to work towards bringing a positive impact in the lives of patients.