KYUSHU UNIVERSITY 先生の森KYUSHU UNIVERSITY 先生の森

Finding a life path as sweet as nectar in “measuring taste”Finding a life path as sweet as nectar in "measuring taste Research and Development Center for Taste and Odor Sensing Research Professor / Institute for Advanced Study,University Professor Kiyoshi Toko

Research and Development Center for Taste and Odor Sensing Research Professor / Institute for Advanced Study,University Professor

Kiyoshi Toko

He is a passionate 45-year veteran of Kyushu University. Around ten years has passed since Professor Toko came up with the idea, sunk the scalpel of science in the subjective and vague “taste,” and developed a taste sensor that objectively measures and quantifies, surprising the whole world. A favorite phrase of his is: kotetsu no fugyo “impending doom” (lit. “fish in a wagon rut about to dry out”).

He is a passionate 45-year veteran of Kyushu University. Around ten years has passed since Professor Toko came up with the idea, sunk the scalpel of science in the subjective and vague "taste," and developed a taste sensor that objectively measures and quantifies, surprising the whole world. A favorite phrase of his is: kotetsu no fugyo "impending doom" (lit. "fish in a wagon rut about to dry out").

Profile Details

Professor Toko was born in Kitakyushu and raised in Fukuoka. After graduating from the doctoral course at the Kyushu University Graduate School of Engineering, Department of Electronics in 1980, and after placements as a researcher and then associate professor in the School of Engineering's Department of Electronics at Kyushu University, in 1997 he took on the role of professor in the Faculty of Information Science and Electrical Engineering, also at Kyushu University. After this he has consistently remained in the same faculty, becoming the dean there in 2008, a distinguished professor in 2010, and in 2013 becoming the director of the Research and Development Center for Taste and Odor Sensing. During this period he has received many awards for his achievements in developing the world's first taste sensor, such as the MEXT Science and Technology Award in FY2006 and the Purple Ribbon Medal of Honour in spring of 2013. He has written over 20 books including "Making Taste Science" (in Japanese; published by Kadokawa sensho) and "Turning Custard Pudding into Sea Urchin by Adding Soy Sauce" (in Japanese; published by SB Creative). He also makes media appearances on television programs like "The Most Useful School in The World" (Nippon Television Network).

What is your research about?What is your research about?

Professor Toko giving an explanation while operating a device.

Taste sensing device TS-5000Z.

Personal SPR sensor RANA.

Professor Toko giving an explanation while operating a device.

My specialization is material science—that is to say the field of electronic materials properties—and research into bioelectronics and taste and odor sensing. Of the things I have come up with, the one I like to brag about most is the concept of "measuring taste" and the taste sensor measurement device for such. For many years it was said that "the taste that human beings feel subjectively cannot be measured," but taking the engineering approach that "taste is a reaction of the nerves" I was able to scientifically elucidate and imitate the organic system through which human's perceive taste, and succeeded in developing a taste sensor using artificial lipid membranes. After that, venture enterprises (Intelligent Sensor Technology, Inc. and Taste & Aroma Strategic Research Institute Co., Ltd) were established in order to inherit and implement taste sensor operations. Until today, the sensors have been used at over 400 companies around the world in the development, manufacturing, and quality control of foods and pharmaceuticals, etc. The Kagoshima Highball alcoholic beverage that was released for sale in 2015 is one of these, and was sold inflight on all of All Nippon Airways' domestic routes.

Taste sensing device TS-5000Z.

To say that it was family love that produced the taste sensor is no exaggeration. One day during my time as a research assistant, the Hamburg steak my wife made for me was more delicious than usual, and on complimenting her on this, she replied, "I was thinking of your health so I took some of the carrots you hate, cut them up extra small, and mixed them in." Having not realized this at all allowed me to experience the mysteries of taste. Upon researching, I found that there were sensors for sight (light sensors), hearing (microphones), touch (pressure and temperature sensors), and smell (gas sensors, etc.), and of the five senses it was only taste for which no sensor had been developed. In "measuring taste" I found a path for myself as a researcher that was as sweet as nectar.

Personal SPR sensor RANA.

My research base is the Research and Development Center for Taste and Odor Sensing on the Ito Campus. The five departments of engineering, physical science, medical science, agriculture, and dentistry together with the Kyushu University Hospital form an organization that goes beyond the divide between the study of letters and science in organic cooperation in research into an extremely wide range of fields, making it unique even worldwide. Here, various types of research/projects are underway in the practical development of taste sensors (e-tongues) and odor sensors (e-noses). As a new personal project, in 2016 I tried my hand at giving online lectures titled "Science and Technology of Taste and Odor" through the Japan Massive Open Online (JMOOC)* system. After reviewing the video for transmission several times in advance, I was once again reminded of just how annoying my voice (and personality) are (! bitter laughter), but I ended up being boastfully pleased that the lecture format and content were imbued with a pleasant sense of presence and realism. In the future, too, I hope to do my very best in spreading widely throughout the world the science and technology of taste and odor that was developed by Kyushu University.

*JMOOC
JMOOC is an abbreviation for The Japan Open Online Education Promotion Council (and its Japan Massive Open Online Courses)—an organization that was formed in 2013 with the aim of spreading and magnifying the Japanese version of the originally American "MOOC" (an educational service that provides massive-scale open lectures that anyone can access for free online and issues evidence of course completion for learners).

The key to this research course is here!!The key to this research course is here!!

Where one can also investigate humankind and research psychologyWhere one can also investigate humankind and research psychology

Sense of taste is a topic of research that is grabbing very wide global interest in terms of food culture—in the micro sense from the perspective of chemical substances, and in the macro sense from the perspective of body and cell studies. Moreover, as someone with an interest in the idea of what it is that makes a human "human"—to the extent of formerly having considered moving into the study of philosophy—it also fulfils my intellectual curiosity. For example, each of the five taste sensations of sweet, bitter, sour, umami savoriness, and salty have their own meaning, and human beings perceive poisonous components as "bitter" and energy sources such as proteins and starches as "sweet."

When it comes to bitter things, babies, too, find even unicellular organisms like Paramecium caudatum and ameba distasteful, but as humans become adults they come to drink things like bitter beer. Don't you think that is strange? Where is it that humans and other animals are the same and where are they different? For me, the possibility of this sort of investigation into humankind and research into psychology is one of its greatest charms.

DAILY SCHEDULEDAILY SCHEDULE


Time-out Session

Professor Toko said, “For me, there is no such concept as off-time or holidays. The distinction between work and private time, between weekdays and weekends, is vague and I also go to the university on Saturdays and Sundays. Every day is spent at around the same even pace. Thus, I never have ‘one spare hour.’ Please forgive me!”Professor Toko said, “For me, there is no such concept as off-time or holidays. The distinction between work and private time, between weekdays and weekends, is vague and I also go to the university on Saturdays and Sundays. Every day is spent at around the same even pace. Thus, I never have ‘one spare hour.’ Please forgive me!”

The Teacher's Must-have Items!The Teacher's Must-have Items!

Commuting bag and computer bag

Both were made by his wife, and he has them remade around once every three years. Pictured at right is his perfectly-fitting computing bag, with quilt material acting as cushioning. It is placed in the slightly larger heavy duty white canvas commuting bag for carrying. The pockets for mobile phone, writing instruments, and business card case also act as design accents.

Packed bento lunch from his beloved wife

For several decades without change, his wife's love and the taste of home have been his greatest motivators. The contents of the two-level lunchbox are never at Professor Toko's request and are always left to his wife but, "There are never any large carrots in there (laughs)!" In winter he takes a heat-insulated lunchbox.

Writing instruments

He is not particular about brand but, rather than ballpoints, he prefers shorter mechanical pencils with a secure cap that easily fit in a pocket (the five pencils in the center of the photo). So he is not troubled with losing them, and to shorten time when searching for one, he often purchases several of the same type at once. He has five of the wooden mechanical pencils of which he is fond (on the left side of the photo).

Message to the StudentsMessage to the Students

Maintain a strong will and courage

Life is an accumulation of small steps. If you start out aiming at something big and try to get there all at once, things will not work out well. Please deal first with the things in front of your face, relax, properly take care of the things you need to do one by one, and build a firm foundation of confidence in yourself. Then, if you are able to maintain a strong will and have courage, your dreams will definitely come true one day.

This interview was conducted in August 2016.
Kiyoshi Toko, Professor of Faculty of Information Science and Electrical Engineering
*Professional affiliation and title are at the time of interview.

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