Next Generation Talent:
Studying Cutting-Edge Environmental Sciences at the University of Tokyo

Eric Holton lives as a University of Tokyo PhD candidate, teaching assistant, and academic tutor, all while exploring what he once called "the evolution of death."
Eric Holton in the University of Tokyo, Komaba in Meguro City. He was attracted to Tokyo by the chance to study at an institution that had many Nobel laureates.

The University of Tokyo: Where Great Minds Study Great Matters

Eric Holton had a problem. After graduating from the University of Minnesota with a Bachelor of Science in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, he could not find a graduate school with a program in his niche area of study. In order to continue his research, he ended up traveling all the way to Tokyo.

Holton studies evolutionary demography in the Department of Multidisciplinary Sciences at the University of Tokyo, Komaba Campus. He chose the university because of the reputation of a professor who later became his mentor, considered a leader in what is essentially the study of life history through the prism of evolutionary biology. "Demography studies how mortality and survival changes across age," he explains. "Evolutionary demography studies how those patterns evolve in different populations and in different species. As an undergraduate, I was interested in the field, but didn't have the knowledge to get started in it."

Eventually, Holton found fellow researchers he could associate with in Tokyo. Though the group was and still is small, it consists of experts across various fields plus graduate students and postdoctoral students, who speak at the University of Tokyo about the science of life and death. "I study a phenomenon called senescence, which is the idea that as organisms get older, their likelihood of dying increases and fertility decreases, which is fairly straightforward. But that's not always the case. Sometimes fertility is completely independent of age. I like to think about what else impacts that."

"If we understand age-specific survival and how that's changing through time, perhaps we could make government policies to support sections of our population," says Holton, "this could perhaps be helpful in dealing with the problem of Japan's aging population."

Although Holton works with plants like orchids rather than with humans, his work could potentially have widespread applications in Japanese society. "One important thing is the conservation of rare species. Yet alongside this, there are plenty of applications on the human side. We have a lot of dispersed populations in Tokyo of older people." His research could help identify sections of that demographic that are at risk. There is still a long way to go, but the prospective applications of evolutionary demography are fascinating, and the University of Tokyo is the perfect place to explore them further.

Science Refuses to Be Pigeonholed

Holton is enrolled in the Graduate Program on Environmental Sciences (GPES) in the Department of Multidisciplinary Sciences, which mixes perspectives and studies from various fields, including economics, politics, technology, physics and chemistry, ecology, agriculture, and more. This is considered to be one of the program's biggest strengths.

"It's a very interdisciplinary program," Holton says. "We're right next door to some physicists and chemists, and then across the hall we have a lot of mathematicians and economists. We're all in the same program, and when we interact, it's really interesting because you can't use the jargon of your field. You need to be able to communicate with other scientists and other professionals. Thanks to this, people aren't pigeonholed into just their specialty and don't become an echo chamber (someone who is only open to opinions that resemble their own). There are so many resources to speak and interact with in the university."

Working with people from different disciplines and backgrounds has helped Holton hone his communication skills, which will become essential as science grows and becomes more global.

Another strength of GPES is that the program is conducted entirely in English, which widens the pool of experts, professors, guest lecturers, and most importantly, students who may want to study innovative science in Japan's capital. "I probably wouldn't have come to Tokyo if the program was in Japanese, just because I didn't know Japanese," Holton admits. "A lot of students that I've met, especially younger students, intend to come here because they want to live in Japan, first, and they want to come to the University of Tokyo, second, and they want to join their program, third. For me, I wanted to be studying with one of the leaders in evolutionary demography. I don't think I would have been able to accomplish nearly as much in my research if my classes had been in Japanese or if I had needed to complete my research in Japanese."

That said, Holton admits that he loves living in Tokyo now and has a lot of fun in the city. "I could live here for a hundred years and probably not run out of new things to do. My only advice to those planning to come here for, let's say, their master's degree, is to find someone who's lived here for at least as long as they are going to live here, preferably twice as long, to tell them exactly what to expect."

Eric Holton

Born in 1994 in Richfield, Minnesota, he received his master's degree in multidisciplinary sciences from the University of Tokyo's Graduate Program on Environmental Sciences in 2019. He is now pursuing his PhD in the same program, while also working as a teaching assistant in various courses at the university and as a learning coach for a private-tutoring company based in Tokyo.

The Graduate Program on Environmental Sciences (GPES)

GPES provides students with analytical tools for assessing environmental policy. It deepens their specialization in relevant fields like natural sciences, agricultural sciences, industrial technologies, and social sciences; and offers opportunities to collaborate with world experts on pressing global issues.

The University of Tokyo
Interview and writing by Cezary Jan Strusiewicz
Photos by Julio Kohji Shiiki