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Six Months Research in an Incredible City at the other Side of the World

The fellowship program “Research stay for application-oriented bioscientists and biotechnologists in Shanghai and Jiangsu/China” funded by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts enabled Sonja Blasche to spend six months at the Minhang Campus of the Jiao Tong University in Shanghai. During this time she worked in the laboratory of Professor Zhao Liping, an internationally known expert on microbial communities and the human gut microbiota. Read more about her experiences in China in the following article.

After completion of my PhD thesis at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg and an extension of a couple of months for publishing the results of my past efforts, I was looking for a position as a postdoctoral fellow, preferably abroad. While screening the internet for interesting projects I discovered this fellowship. Although it was not what I was originally looking for, I was fascinated, since I have often toyed with the idea of going to China for some time, mainly to get an idea of the Chinese lifestyle and their way of thinking, which is said to be quite different from the ‘Western way’. So this was the opportunity for me to not only gain insight into Chinese culture, but also get an impression of everyday work in the life sciences at a highly ranked University in one of the biggest cities of the world, Shanghai.

Colorful kois in a buddhist temple near the Dalian Rd Station. © Sonja Blasche

Since I am interested in microbial communities, I joined the group of Prof. Zhao Liping, who is an internationally known expert in the field and worked on the connection between obesity, diet and microbiota composition, a topic I found quite interesting. When I started my work I was surprised at how well equipped the laboratory was, and the way the campus was organized reminded me of the American system. In contrast to German universities, the students of the Shanghai Jiao Tong University spend most of their time on the campus. They live in the dormitories, eat in the campus restaurants and spend the whole day in the lab, many of them even on the weekends. It’s not that they’d work throughout the day; they combine work and leisure time - just the opposite of what Europeans try to reach by the optimization of the work-life balance. It works for them. However, I preferred to spend the weekends sightseeing in Shanghai, since the Minhang campus is too far from the city center to go there spontaneously on a normal worknight.

Great wall at Badaling. © Sonja Blasche

Shanghai is an amazing city. Even if I had stayed there for several years I’m sure I still would have been far from having seen everything worth seeing. Aside from the classic tourist attractions like the Bund, Nanjing Road, Yuyuan Garden and Tianzifang, there are so many hidden places e.g. in the French concession, along the Huangpu River and in parts of the city where you’d never expect them. I loved the Chinese malls with all the tiny shops, and the vegetable markets where farmers and traders sell fresh vegetables, eggs, noodles, fish, meat, sprouts and even seaweed and algae. But my favourites were the street kitchens in the side streets close to Nanjing Road. I ate there whenever I managed to stop by, and every dish I tasted was fantastic! The flavours of the Chinese cuisine are very different from what you can find in Europe, and although I’m vegetarian, I always found something delicious that contained neither meat nor fish. Especially impressive is the variety of different tofu products available. In Germany I used to be the kind of person who thought of tofu as a pretty much tasteless kind of meat replacement, which is true for most of the tofu I tried at home, but Chinese tofu is so different, that you sometimes don’t even recognize it as such. Tofu is the cheese of China and this is reflected in the diversity of tofu variants offered.

Qibao by night. © Sonja Blasche

Although I was quite busy during my stay in Shanghai, I took a trip to Beijing (Peking) and was very lucky with the weather. The four days I spent there in a rustic backpacker’s hostel were sunny and smog-free (the latter is said to be a rarity in Beijing!). Beijing is very different from Shanghai: the city center around Qianmen is very green, and there are few high buildings. Life there seems to be more Chinese, and the malls are not as fancy as in Shanghai. Shanghai is new and fancy; Beijing is old, historic, traditional... and so exciting. It’s worth a trip; in particular, the great wall and the Forbidden City (Gugong) are impressive, and travelling by train in China can be quite an adventure...

This half a year in Shanghai was an exceptional and precious experience for me. China is very different from Europe and the US in many ways; the taste of the food, the way the system works, how people live and how they think. The atmosphere feels different and the streets are crowded most of the time. Shanghai is huge and there are so many people... but once you get used to it you’ll miss it after you return to Germany.

There is only one thing I know for sure: This was not my last trip to China!

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