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Rich in contrasts – three research months in Shanghai

After graduating, Johannes Zang applied for a Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts China Scholarship to spend three months in Shanghai before going on to do his PhD. At the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, he was, amongst other things, involved in elucidating the crystal structures of proteins. He also had time to learn about the city of Shanghai, China and the Chinese people.

Rich in contrasts: Alongside construction of the second tallest building in the world (in the background), the sight of laundry hanging out to dry in the streets is not unusual in China. It is regrettable that traditional residential districts are increasingly being replaced by modern housing areas. © Johannes Zang

For me, China has always been a country of contrasts. I find it difficult to give a more unambiguous description of the country without generalising too much. The country’s enormous cultural and geographic diversity, the coexistence of old and new, a traditional culture and rapid development create a colourful mosaic of impressions.   

I was able to experience these contrasts in Shanghai, the largest city in China. It is a city that seems to be permanently reinventing itself in its quest for modernisation. Even though it was not my first visit to China, I nevertheless find it difficult to put the atmosphere into words. Maybe photographer Rob Whitworth is right in calling it an atmosphere of departure, similar to the developments in New York City in the 20th century.   

Research stay at the Chinese Academy of Sciences

Thanks to the support of the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts, I was able to spend three and a half months in Shanghai, where I gained scientific experience in Prof. Dr. Jianping Ding’s work group in the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology (SIBCB) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). 

My work primarily involved elucidating protein crystal structures and applying protein analysis methods to the study of epigenetic mechanisms. Professor Ding’s lab was an ideal place for me; it allowed me to obtain additional skills and deal with epigenetic issues on the protein level.

Impressive: The SIBCB is part of the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences and a first-class research organisation in China. © Johannes Zang

Getting into contact with Prof. Ding’s research group was quite easy. I sent my CV to Prof. Ding and asked whether I could join his team for about three months. His response was positive and I soon received the official invitation letter.

Looking for a flat in one of the largest cities in the world

When I arrived in Shanghai, I initially booked into a hostel while I looked for a permanent place to stay on websites like Smartshanghai.com. I must admit that looking for a room in one of the largest cities in the world was quite an adventure, and the navigation function of my smartphone has never been used more frequently than in the fascinating complexity of this metropolitan concrete jungle. 

I eventually found an affordable room in a shared apartment near Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park in the city centre. The apartment on the 26th floor had an impressive view over urban Shanghai, which, on a clear day, extended to the skyscrapers in the Bund waterfront area. My flatmates were all from the States and had lived in China for quite some time. As a result, I sometimes felt that I left one culture and entered a new one when I came home from work. However, I must admit that I liked this retreat, especially because it was a fascinating contrast to the work environment at the SIBCB. 

From the moment we first met, I found my Chinese colleagues at the SIBCB very interested and very helpful. They helped me to solve all kinds of challenges a foreigner tends to encounter in an unknown city, related to work and to other areas. I hope that I will be able to return the favour one day.

The fact that I did not know any Mandarin was the main reason that made me feel foreign, but I did not feel that not knowing the language limited me much. Instead, it encouraged me to use a broad range of communication strategies, which was sometimes quite amusing and worked rather well, especially in the laboratory. 

The strong feeling of togetherness and the way my colleagues cared for each other was especially noticeable. This familiar atmosphere is also reflected in the Chinese culture, where seniors are addressed as “big sister” or “big brother”.

Shanghai itself is definitely worth a visit

Typical stand on one of the numerous antique markets where you can find all kinds of treasures. © Johannes Zang

The peculiarities of the Chinese working mentality have already been mentioned in previous reports. In Shanghai, you will inevitably be confronted with colleagues who spend virtually all day and all night in the laboratory. I tried to find a balance between project work and having enough time to discover China outside of the SIBCB. 

Shanghai itself is definitely worth a visit. As a vibrant megacity, Shanghai offers an almost unbelievable variety of opportunities to keep you busy, starting from the traditional tea ceremony to art gallery visits and a rich nightlife. The many markets are certainly worth visiting and anyone who likes bargaining, will probably find it difficult to accept the fixed prices when they go back to Germany.

I found that wandering through the streets with an open eye was far more interesting than visiting the well-known sights. Life in China tends to happen in the streets. You can never be sure what to expect around the next corner; only a few blocks away from the most modern shopping malls you might come across a butcher at work on the street. 

Traditional architecture close to Yangshuo. © Johannes Zang

A trip to Yangshuo near the well-known city of Guilin during a long weekend revealed a very different China. The magnificent Karst mountains near Guilin are not pictured on the 20 Yuang note for nothing; it is definitely some of the most impressive scenery China has to offer: rivers, rainforests and paddy fields mean that you quickly forget the hustle and bustle of Shanghai and it is a landscape that offers in the truest sense of the word, space for breathing deeply and slowing down.

I was also invited to join my research group for a four-day conference organised by the Chinese Society of Biochemistry in Xiamen as well as being invited to give a talk about Freiburg at the Deutsche Schule Shanghai as part of the school’s “Mittags an der Uni” series of talks. 

Overall, my stay in China was full of different experiences, all of which contributed to my professional and personal development. Due to the ever-growing importance of China in the economic and scientific sectors, and due to my own, very positive experiences in Shanghai, I would be very happy to keep in contact with Professor Ding’s laboratory.

Therefore, I would like to thank all those who have made my stay in China possible, and in particular Prof. Schmid, Mr. Tischer and Prof. Ding for their support in giving me the opportunity to spend the time between graduation and doctorate abroad. 

Further information about the ministry’s China Scholarship and other experience reports are provided through the links on the right-hand side.

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/rich-in-contrasts-three-research-months-in-shanghai