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The scientific sun is rising in the East

It was approaching the end of winter at the start of 2013 when I first stepped off the plane in Shanghai and felt my world turn upside-down. This strange new place was to become my home for the next six months, and where I would conduct my Masters project on cancer stem cell quiescence modelling at the Tongji University. No one outside of the university seemed capable of English, the buildings were covered in strange symbols with not a Latin letter in sight, and food was of a questionable nature at best.

Fast-forward four years and I'm in the end-phase of my PhD in neuroscience, looking to round out a comprehensive study on the role of a cellular signalling system (CXCR4/SDF1) in the developing peripheral nervous system. I had started by testing its influence on axon guidance using in vitro models, and then directly manipulating developing chick embryos and observing their further development. After examining the system's spacio-temporal expression via in situ hybridisation, I came up with the hypothesis that this signalling mechanism played a role in sensory neuron precursor migration during sensory ganglia formation. This set the stage for my third planned approach: that of examining the role of my signalling pathway-of-interest in neural differentiation.

The development of the early nervous system is one of the first things to happen during development. This makes analysing neural differentiation from stem cells during embryogenesis an incredibly difficult task due to the impossibly small size of the embryos at that stage. One way of getting around this issue is to direct the differentiation of pluripotent stem cell cultures into sensory neurons using a specific combination of signalling molecules applied at exact concentrations and time points. As it turns out, the lab where I had conducted my master's project are world leaders in differentiating stem cells into neural lineages. A few emails and a lengthy research school plus funding application process later and it was set, I would learn the techniques and conduct this vital part of my project in China.

This time my arrival in Shanghai had a completely different feeling to it, as opposed to overwhelming chaos, it was a homecoming. Everything from navigating the city alone to chatting with the street food sellers in Chinese was effortless. The language came back to me quickly during the first few days and made the difference between just surviving and comfortably living. Back in the lab it's almost as if I never left. At least half of the 15+ students are the same, and just like me, have progressed from master students into PhD candidates.

Falling back into doing lab work Chinese-style was a mammoth undertaking, yet also effortless. Let me explain. The work day begins at 8am, just like in Germany, however the lab is still full at midnight, with students regularly working until 2am. Weekends do not exist. Saturday and Sunday were perfectly normal work days in my lab, and so without a weekend to break up the weeks, time passes as a continuous stream of days. This is simply their work culture, and adopting this lifestyle happens automatically when surrounded by a team which sticks to this schedule through their own ambitions. The amount of work that can be achieved in a week in China would take ~2x as long in here in Germany with our strict work laws and general work/life split.

That's not to say that I didn't also have a life outside of the lab. The nature of my experiments presented opportunities to go on short multi-day excursions. This included visiting and staying in nearby cities, parks, mountains and even the capital 1000+ kilometres away, mainly possible due to the world-class rail network they have there. The first time I travelled alone without any planning or help from my lab mates was to the city of Hangzhou. This involved travel by train, bus and taxi, negotiating prices of goods, fighting for student discount attraction entrance fees, ordering food in restaurants and finding accommodation after arriving, all in Chinese. This success gave me a huge sense of independence allowing me to plan ever more extravagant excursions. In the end, I had still worked far more weekends than I had travelled, but came away with the feeling really having accomplished a lot in just 3 months, both in my amazing experimental results and the cultural learnings from my travels.

To anyone who has the opportunity to leverage their scientific network for getting access to experts in related fields, both here or abroad, I say go for it! You may find that what started out as a strange place with questionable food has become a second home with meals and people that you find yourself dearly missing long after returning.

Daniel Terheyden-Keighley

Some photos of the stay