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Nina Denneler’s review of her stay in Nanjing

Nina Denneler spent six months in the Chinese province of Jiangsu, with funding from a special China scholarship from the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts. The 24-year-old is a student in the Department of Technical Biology at the University of Stuttgart and was able to experience the atmosphere of a Chinese lab at the College of Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Engineering as well as gain interesting insights about the country and its people. Below, Nina Denneler shares with you her experiences of her exciting 6-month stay in China.

Nina Denneler (left) having dinner with Prof. Li Yan (centre), Prof. Binfang He (right) and her colleagues. © Nina Denneler

Why China? A professor from the University of Stuttgart told me about the China scholarships sponsored by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts. I never wanted to do an internship like the ones everybody else does. What I really wanted was to spend some time somewhere special. As I am also a big fan of modern megacities and Asian cuisine, I was really keen to apply for one of the scholarships. 

Up until that point, I only knew about China from the media, and all they tend to report on is the strange eating habits of the Chinese. My friends were enthusiastic but had reservations: “China? It’s a completely different world. Are you absolutely sure that’s what you want to do?” I was, it was what I wanted and it was exactly the differences that attracted me to China.

Work at Nanjing Tech University

I decided to do a six-month internship at Nanjing Tech University in the capital of Jiangsu province. I did the internship at the College of Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Engineering headed up by Professor Li Yan and was able to collaborate on a project right from the start. The project was aimed at identifying Guillardia theta CCMP2712 desaturases and I was able to make important project decisions and prepare a plan for the laboratory work that needed to be done. Towards the end of my stay, we were ready to conduct some preliminary tests. This was a completely new experience for me as I had never before been given the opportunity to be part of a project right from the start. I learned that there are far more problems and challenges than one initially expects. 

When I first came to China, I found my colleagues’ habits rather strange. It was not uncommon for them to eat and drink at their desks in the laboratory. I was also invited to join my colleagues to cook dumplings in the laboratory, and I must admit that I felt a little bit uneasy. The working hours also differ considerably from the working hours I am used to here in Germany. In China, it is not uncommon to start with the experiments in the afternoon and work until 11 pm. The resulting lack of sleep is compensated for by taking an afternoon nap at your desk. Chinese students also work on Saturdays.

However, I had Saturdays off. My supervisor Professor Li Yan wanted to make sure that I had time to visit other cities. My colleagues were really nice and helped me with any problems I had, including problems that were not related to university work.

Excursion to Beijing. © Nina Denneler

Life in Nanjing

At first, I lived in a student residence on the beautiful main university campus where my institute was. Unfortunately, the campus was quite a long way from the city centre and it took me more than an hour on public transport to get there. I then got the opportunity to move into a student residence on a university campus closer to the city centre, right next to one of the city’s major train stations and the well-known Hunan Street. I used to take a university shuttle bus to travel to work on the other campus. The proximity to the underground and the main train station was perfect for exploring Nanjing and other cities. In addition to many cultural sights, Nanjing also has a lot to offer in the evening. There is one district packed with modern clubs, restaurants and bars. Nanjing also has huge shopping malls and exciting markets. However, I liked the small backstreets where you could buy all sorts of delicacies. 

The language barrier

From the time I received the confirmation that I had been awarded a China scholarship to the day I flew to China, I only had a couple of months to get organised. I only managed to attend a three-day Chinese language crash course and soon realised that not knowing Chinese was a much bigger problem that I had initially thought.

There are many people at the university who do not speak English. I therefore tried to learn basic Chinese as quickly as I possibly could in order to be able to communicate in daily life. The university found a competent student teacher who taught me and five other exchange students the fundamentals of the Chinese language.

Travelling in China

Besides working and attending Chinese language courses, I was fortunate to also have time to travel around China. In addition to exploring Nanjing, I used my weekends to visit the cities of Shanghai, Souzhou, Hangzhou, Xian, Chengdu, Nantong and Beijing. So I learned a lot about China’s history, the country’s megacities and the beauty of the landscape. I loved the Chinese New Year celebrations which I was able to experience with the family of one of my Chinese colleagues. These celebrations showed me that Chinese traditions are really very different from ours here in Germany. 

Conclusion

I am very grateful for the opportunity the scholarship of the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts gave me. Without this scholarship, I would not have been able to spend six months in China and experience the country and all of its facets. 

All in all, the time in Nanjing was very enriching for me, both personally and professionally. As a European in China you will inevitably run into problems here and there, whether it’s communication, the quite different laboratory working practices, culture clashes including lifestyle habits of the Chinese. There are many differences between China and Germany. A simple bus ride in China might turn into a huge adventure, as did looking for body lotion which later turned out to be shampoo. And these are just a couple of the countless small adventures that I experienced. However, all these little problems and differences made every day I spent in China thrilling and exciting and I would not have missed it for the world.


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