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Varied and multi-facetted – life and research in Nanjing

Joachim Koepff spent six months in Nanjing from June to November 2012 doing practical training at the “College for Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Engineering”. Here he recounts his experiences in China and his thoughts about the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts scholarship that makes such short-term research stays at a Chinese research institution possible.

Excursion with friends © Joachim Koepff

“Hey, haven’t you just been in China for six months? Did you like it?” I’ve been asked lots of similar questions since I came back to Germany in December. However, I find it rather difficult to answer any of the questions in just a couple of sentences. China is far too varied and multi-facetted to be able to give a short answer.

During my six months in China, most of which I spent in Nanjing (200 km northwest of Shanghai), my experience of China showed it to be an exciting country, a country full of contradictions that is developing with breathtaking speed. I sometimes felt that these changes were somewhat uncoordinated, chaotic even. But there seems to be a general trend away from the “having it all now” mentality, and towards more sustainable development.

Chinese work routines

I worked in Professor Jiang Min’s laboratory in the College for Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Engineering at the Nanjing University of Technology (NJUT). Laboratory work was very varied and I received excellent support from the laboratory’s PhD and master’s degree students. I worked in the field of metabolic engineering, and one of my tasks related to the overexpression of several genes involved in succinate production in E. coli. When grown under anaerobic conditions in shake flasks and bioreactors, bacteria modified in this way produced higher than normal succinate yields. 

The atmosphere among the young team members in the laboratory team was excellent. Shared leisure activities (basketball, table tennis, cooking, swimming) livened up the relatively long working days, which I felt were somewhat inefficient, at least from my German perspective. Professor Jiang Min, despite being a very busy man, was very friendly and helpful. He supported me in every possible way. He ensures that the laboratory is well-equipped, especially as far as the areas of fermentation and analytics are concerned. Successful publications in international journals clearly show his commitment. 

Unforgettable experiences

There were only a few foreign students on the NJUT campus, which is located in a suburb of Nanjing. And this really enabled me to intensively experience and obtain in-depth insights into the Chinese way of life, culture and language. My experience of China is that it is a very hospitable country with open and considerate people. I found it easy to make good friends and I would like to keep up these friendships in the future. And then there was Chinese food. Sometimes I ate in one of the ten campus restaurants and other times I enjoyed freshly made fried noodles in one of the large number of street stalls close by and the food always tasted really good. Sorry, but I really have to admit that my German university cannot compete with such tasty food. 

Laboratory team in Nanjing © Joachim Koepff

In the past, six different dynasties chose Nanjing as their capital, which is why the city is full of historical sites. The ruins of palaces, Ming graves, pagodas, temples and towers are all witness to these eras.

Nanjing is also not very far from the cities of Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou, and I used my free weekends to travel around. Anybody who is open to other cultures and languages and loves to engage in something new will benefit from the Baden-Württemberg ministry’s scholarship programme. It enables people to obtain a completely new insight into the (Asian) world as well into the values of one’s own society.

I am really happy that the programme gave me the opportunity of an intensive immersion in Asian culture and can wholeheartedly recommend it to other students!

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