Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with clinical hospital training forced to a halt, some students at the Keio University School of Medicine rose to the occasion to play their part as the Keio University School of Medicine Student Ambassadors (KSAM). Formed at the end of 2019, KSAM consists of 12 fourth- to sixth-year students.
Here, we sat down with Masayuki Sato (sixth-year student, former co-chair), Kaworu Takatsuna (fifth-year student), Kensei Oya (fourth-year student), and Itsuki Yamamoto (fourth-year student), who shared what KSAM has been doing to help fight the spread of COVID-19.
Sato: While Keio University was one of the first large universities in Tokyo to offer “workplace vaccinations,” we were unsure how many students would actually want to be vaccinated. As you can tell from the reaction to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, many people in Japan are apprehensive due to perceived adverse reactions and side effects of vaccines in general. Thus, vaccination rates in Japan remain lower than other developed countries. That is why the faculty members of the executive board of Keio University School of Medicine asked KSAM to come up with a way to encourage students to get vaccinated.
We wanted each student to understand the risks and benefits of vaccination and to consider their decision to get vaccinated carefully. We thought that this information would lead to a higher vaccination rate, so we launched the Vaccine Information Website Project to deliver accurate information somewhere available to anyone.
We medical students had been vaccinated in January and felt that adverse reactions were more severe in people in their 20s. Subsequent reports and papers have also shown that adverse reactions vary by age. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW) provides general information on their website, but we thought it would be beneficial to provide information specifically for young people and explain the principles of vaccines in detail for students who want to know more.
─ What were some of the difficulties you faced, and what did you keep in mind when creating the website?
Sato: The primary difficulty was the tight deadline. Keio’s faculty members approached us on June 3rd, but the vaccination rollout was scheduled for the 16th, so we had less than two weeks, which meant we would have to work very efficiently. Four KSAM members (one fourth-year student and three fifth- and sixth-year students) helped prepare the guidelines. Following approval from an infectious disease specialist, we finally launched the guidelines on June 14th.
Takatsuna: It was also challenging to convey information in a way that was easy for students to understand. For example, would a literature student know what an "RNA vaccine" is, or would we have to explain it? I checked my high school biology textbook and consulted with my advisor as I tried to write this kind of science-based information in a more accessible way.
Sato: Throughout the whole process, we tried to remain objective. Even among KSAM members, there were varying opinions on vaccines, so we were very careful to ensure that the website wouldn't be biased against people who decided not to get vaccinated. That is why the homepage reads: "Vaccination is a choice."
─ What kind of response have you received after launching the website?
Sato: The site launched on June 14th, and we saw significant traffic during the first round of Keio’s workplace vaccinations, from the start of reservations on the 16th through the start of vaccinations on the 21st. Traffic again increased during the second round, so I think people looked to our website as a reliable source. In total, close to 10,000 people accessed the site.
As a result, 80% of students at Keio University were vaccinated. Research has shown that in the case of COVID-19, herd immunity can be achieved when 80% of a population has immunity, so we can say that we reached our target. In fact, Keio experienced spikes in infection every time there was a new wave of infection in Japan, but we did not see any spikes after July. We feel that the vaccine was very effective, and we are happy that KSAM could contribute to improving the vaccination rate at Keio.
Sato: When COVID-19 first began to spread throughout Tokyo in April 2020, healthcare-associated infections occurred at several medical institutions, including the Keio University Hospital. In light of this unprecedented situation, the hospital scaled back medical treatments and postponed clinical training for medical students.
Takatsuna: At the time, I remember wondering what medical education would look like going forward. Lack of proper medical education could lead to a shortage of doctors, both in terms of quality and quantity. I also thought it was important for the medical students going into clinical practice as doctors to learn about proper protection against COVID-19.
Sato: The goal was to resume educational and research activities such as clinical training while guaranteeing the safety of medical facilities. To do so, it was essential for us to learn proper infection prevention measures on our own and master them before teaching them to other students. Although there were materials for treating medical personnel and guidelines for the general public at that point, there were no practical manuals that took into account the risks and circumstances unique to medical students.
That is when KSAM, with the help of other School of Medicine volunteers, began to create a manual under the supervision of an infectious disease specialist. The manual was published online in April 2020 as the “Infection Prevention Guidelines for School of Medicine Students” and consists of the following sections: Pathogens and Clinical Imaging; Basics of Infection Prevention among Medical Students; Basic Principles for COVID-19 Infection Prevention for Medical Students; COVID-19 Prevention Measures Outside the Hospital; and Pre-Clinical Practice Checklist for COVID-19 Prevention.
Sato: We created that website after being asked by the All Keio Student Senate to provide students with basic knowledge about COVID-19 and general infection control measures. KSAM was in charge of creating the content, and students outside of the School of Medicine, Faculty of Nursing and Medical Care, and Faculty of Pharmacy were in charge of creating the website.
In recognition of our project, volunteer medical students, including the members of KSAM, were awarded the 2020 President's Award. I am very honored that this project, which started out as a desire to contribute something as a medical student, was officially acknowledged by the university.
─ KSAM has also interviewed researchers who have been awarded the Keio Medical Science Prize.
Sato: That’s right. I’ve been interviewing Keio Medical Science Prize recipients since 2020. The trouble is that there are already countless articles and videos with these acclaimed researchers, so we try to make our interviews stand out by focusing on their lives as students and how they built their careers.
It’s a great opportunity because we typically wouldn’t have access to such esteemed researchers, but you have to remember that they, were once university students just like us and have endured many challenges to get to where they are today. Their stories are very inspiring. We make all of our interviews available on YouTube in hopes that many people will watch them!
─ Would you mind sharing some memorable moments from your interviews?
Takatsuna: I interviewed 2020 laureate Dr. Atsushi Miyawaki, a graduate of the Keio University School of Medicine who developed molecular imaging technology. When I asked him why he went into this field, he replied, "As a medical student, I spent a lot of time in the Kitasato Memorial Medical Library, reading amazing books and journals on engineering, biology, and physics. It was during this time that I discovered photobiology, which has been a focus of my research ever since." This story of how he found his research topic was really inspiring.
Dr. Aviv Regev, the other 2020 laureate, has developed an analysis technique for understanding gene expression and cellular conditions at the single-cell level. During her session with students, she took questions from undergraduate students, and when asked about how she maintains work-life balance, she told us: "Follow your heart, follow your compass," and urged us to stay true to ourselves. That message has stuck with me ever since.
Takatsuna: Every month, the Keio School of Medicine Newspaper publishes its column “Tell Me! Ambassador” (Oshiete! Ambassador). In one issue, we wrote about a small gate on the northeast side of campus. The gate was created by late Professor Emeritus of Neurophysiology, Motoichi Kato, so that he could spend every minute of his day on his research, as the other gates were too far from his laboratory, which was located where the JKiC building now sits. This is just one example of the deep, obscure trivia that we uncover and share in the column.
Takatsuna: Indeed, we have. We have started a series called "My Blueprint," where we look at what School of Medicine faculty were like as students, using photos from their time at university. I hope that this series will be informative for people both inside and outside of Keio and highlight the inspiring stories of our professors. We have posted interviews with Prof. Masaya Nakamura (Orthopaedic Surgery) and Prof. Katsunori Masaki (Pulmonary Medicine) and will be publishing articles on Prof. Takeshi Arimitsu (NICU) and Prof. Hiroaki Miyata (Data Science), with more to come.
KSAM is in a position to share what makes the School of Medicine great, and I feel my own love for the school growing as I learn more about it from our professors. I hope that others will feel the same way when they read the “My Blueprint” series.