Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Taking a Stab At It

Reflecting back on my stay in China, I've been able to come up with a list of some aspects of living there that were good and others that weren't.

The Good:
Everyone was friendly – Especially the people who I worked with. Even with the language barriers, everyone in the Shi group was very helpful. When I mentioned that I needed a bicycle for transportation around campus, Chun-Xiao had posted on their network for one, and when that failed Bi-Jie Li gave me one to use for my stay here (unfortunately, a pedal broke and then it was stolen later on, but all was well...).

Chemistry – I learned more chemistry and laboratory techniques there than I would have under any other circumstances. Long hours and dedicated, friendly group members contributed to that for sure. Additionally, my name was submitted on the Fe catalyzed sp3 C-H bond activation paper after I demonstrated competency in the project early on. What will come of that I do not know. Either way, I had a good time in the lab. Granted, it was extremely stressful at times.

Active – Beijing was a pretty happening city with plenty to do as long as you're willing to find it. However, my work hours and M-F, Sunday schedule often left me too dead on Saturday to do anything too adventurous.

Prices – Even the tanking US dollar can get you very far in China. With what I paid for lunch when I returned to the US I could have purchased about 6 lunches at the Wan liu apartment restaurant; on campus, possibly more. If you can haggle well, the markets offer a wide selection of cheap goods as well.

Language – Since everyone there speaks Chinese, it's fairly easy to attempt to practice. I managed to get free food a number of times by using my limited Chinese and by helping them learn English.

The Not So Good:
Pollution – On some days I couldn't see down the street. Most days I never saw the sky, and I could easily glance at the sun because it was covered in enough smog (not that I recommend directly looking at the sun, of course).

Internet Access – Internet access was spotty at best. It took forever to get a reliable connection, and even then reliable is a relative term because it was anything but. Outages were frequent, sites were blocked haphazardly, rates were slow, and a lot of times I never bothered to turn on my computer because I didn't feel like dealing with the hassle.

Food – Until the second week of July experiencing China's assortment of food was fairly interesting. After that, however, I dreaded eating anything aside from egg-fried rice and watermelon. Even when eating other foods, I felt like I wasn't getting the appropriate nutrients as I would when I shop for myself in the US. Toward the last week I really couldn't stomach it. It doesn't help that my options were also fairly limited. Wan liu didn't have many restaurants around it, campus food was repetitive (and eventually mostly shut down), and it was difficult to travel around the chemistry building for food in a way that would coincide with my schedule. The closest options tended to be either worse than what was on campus or comparatively expensive. Additionally, since we had neither an oven nor a reliable stove (or even a microwave for that matter), preparing our own meals was also quite restricted.

Transit – Although public transit prices were excellent, actually traveling on a bus in Beijing can be a nightmare. If you don't time it right, you'll end up crammed into a scorching hot bus, sweating to death, and having others drip their deathly sweat on you too. Going to work was usually terrible, but coming home was all right because most sane people were already home by the time I left the chemistry building. The subway was pretty good, especially since it sported air conditioning.

Weather – Beijing seemed to like to handle weather at the extremes. For the first few weeks there it rained frequently. Although it wasn't as hot as usual, the place was practically flooding at the most inopportune times. After that it was mostly hot and dry. Overall, it made my sinus problems a consistent mess.

Olympics – The Olympics were a headache before we even came to China. The closer it came to the Olympics, the more difficult life in Beijing became. Just trying to get the appropriate stamps to get in both the chemistry building and on campus became a bureaucratic nightmare.

Overall, it was an opportunity I certainly wouldn't pass up. China is definitely moving quickly, and developing ties with its scientific community is of utmost importance.

Seizing the Blog, pt. 2

It has been brought to my attention that my sense of humor doesn't carry well over the internet. I should have expected this was the case, but I went for it anyway. After all, it's only natural.

With that said, I owe the blag some much needed love regarding my experiences in the People's Republic of China (China/中国). It's a duty I've mostly neglected due to a variety of circumstances, but I won't go into them. If it has been unclear, I spent my summer working under the guidance of Professor Zhang-Jie Shi.

When I initially showed up to the laboratory I was only given three instructions from Professor Shi: 1) Read his papers 2) Clean glassware 3) Talk to people. Immediately afterward he spent the week tending to business matters and rarely showed up to the laboratory. In a sense, I was on my own right from the get go.

So I did what I thought was most appropriate and scanned through the articles enough to gain an understanding of what went on, and moved on to befriending any of the group members and deciphering what exactly was going on in their C-H, C=O bond activation divisions. It worked, and soon enough I found myself consistently talking to Dr. Zhang, Chun-Xiao Song (undergrad), Bi-Jie Li (grad), and Da-Gang Yu (grad). For what it's worth, I ended up not cleaning much glassware. Only Miss Gui-Xin Cai (grad) was eager to have to me clean for her.

As it turned out, within a few days I was already in one specific laboratory room at the very end of the 5th floor of the old, run-down chemistry building reserved for pesky organic chemists. Dr. Zhang, Chun-Xiao Song, and Miss Cai primarily worked there on C-H bond activation. It was then that Chun-Xiao Song took me under his wing. He had been preparing for his undergraduate thesis defense, and he had shown me his presentation since it was written in English. His work for the past year consisted of C-H bond activation at the benzylic position catalyzed by Fe (iron). In turn, my work was to expand on these reactions, but before I could get anywhere I needed to learn the ropes. My task was to perform the general reaction he had developed, so that I could compare my results with the expected yield. Since my results were within the experimental error range, I was able to rapidly advance to the chemistry.

For what it's worth, I'm fairly certain that Professor Shi didn't know that Chun-Xiao was already having me do the chemistry. By the time I saw Professor Shi again, he said I should learn how to use the GC machine, and Spencer could help me out with that if necessary. However, by that time the GC machine to me was just another tool at my disposal, and I had already used it a number of times that day to monitor my reactions.

Nevertheless, I continued about on this path for the rest of the summer. I became quite good friends with Chun-Xiao and Dr. Zhang, and our time in between tasks or during clean-up mostly consisted of Chinese/English language exchange and Chinese history lessons. As it turned out, Dr. Zhang obtained his PhD for physical chemistry, and jumped over to organic for his postdoctoral research. He was also always fixing machinery that broke down. His family also could make traditional Chinese food. In other words, he's a fully competent jack of all trades who also happens to be the nicest person I've ever met in my life.

Come the second week of July, however, my laboratory was set to lose a member. My main man Chun-Xiao graduated and had to leave Beijing for his home in Southern China. Eventually, he'll be in the US for graduate school at the University of Chicago, but at the time I had to say goodbye to him and continue where he and I left off. His project was formally transferred to Miss Cai, and she and I worked together for the rest of the trip. To be honest, I barely understood a word of what she said to me, and she couldn't understand me either. Sometimes it was easier to use Chinese, but my knowledge of chemistry specific Chinese was very limited. For example, there was once a bit of a dilemma after a long day of work when she excitedly said to me: “Han-Song! There is a small animal in the refrigerator!” (Han-Song Li is my Chinese name). You can only imagine what went through my head until I discovered she meant an insect. I thought I was going to have to remove a squirrel or something absurd like that.

Given all the circumstances and Olympics nonsense, my work in the laboratory went reasonably well. The hours were excessive at times, and the heat toward the end of July nearly killed me. Nothing good comes of trying to work in an organic lab that's hotter than the temperature outside with no way of cooling. Thankfully, this occurred when I was wrapping up my work.