China Research

Handin’ in the keys

Thinking back on today makes me sad; it was my last day of work here in Hong Kong. Even now, I can not believe that I will not show up to work on Monday. Seven weeks sure flew by…  I came close to finishing two genes for my polychaete phylogenetic project.  Originally I planned on doing 4 genes, thus completing the project, and attempting to publish a paper.  However, now if things go according to plan, Yanan (or someone else) at HKBU will be doing the second half of the project.  Correspondence between Hong Kong to write the paper will hopefully not be a big issue.  While I left with a sense of disappointment because my half of the project was not complete, I know that my lab mates are more than willing to help me out.  They are great.

Having such a great ending week makes it this much harder to pack up and leave Hong Kong.  The past couple weeks I decided I wanted to learn mandarin (for Xiamen and Beijing), so they have all been helping me learn the basics.  They are highly entertained by my sentences that I can formulate (and butcher…).

On Wednesday, my lab group and I did not have to work.  Instead, we had the most fun day ever imaginable.  Because my professor is affiliated with Hong Kong’s “Reef Check”, a program to maintain a healthy relationship with the coral reef ecosystems of HK, it meant that we all got a free day of fun.  While some people on the large scuba boat were spending the day measuring coral, my lab mates and I had the opportunity to tag along.  The day was spent swimming, snorkeling at the reefs, eating lots of food, sun bathing (sun burning…), and generally having a great time. The most interesting part of the trip was definitely introducing Yanan to water.  While my lab mate is completely comfortable and in control in the laboratory setting, one thing she has never mastered is swimming.  In fact, I believe it was her first time in a body of water.  Coming from mainland China, she did not have a lot of opportunities to learn to swim.  Having grown up as a swimmer and lifeguard, my life has revolved around the water.  Yanan knew she was in good hands. Initially, with a life jacket on, she could not turn/move in the water.  Adding in goggles and snorkel to the equation was another issue…  I was happy that for once I was able to be helping Yanan.  There were times when I literally had to take her by the hand and pull her away from the coral.  I also had to swim her out to the reef, by pulling on her life jacket.  The combination of being out of shape, having to swim her extremely far away from the boat, and not wearing a life jacket myself, meant that it was quite the feat… But by the second snorkeling session, she did not want to leave the reefs! While she was still lacking motor skills, Yanan was able to become moderately comfortable in the water.  I think that it was a great experience for both of us.

On Thursday, my lab team and I (and Stephanie) went to have a farewell hot pot dinner.  Steph and I were thinking it would take an hour, two at the most, for this celebration.  Boy, were we wrong.  Four hours!!!! Four hours of non-stop food consumption.  I do not know how they do it.  Once again, I had a great time.  Sharing the boiling pot of soup in the center of the table to cook our foods led to constant interactions.  I tried eel, ox stomach, pig liver, and all sorts of foods that seem foreign to me.  Side-note: Last week I tried jelly fish, (called “sea blubber”) not so good.  When thinking back about all the great times I have had in HK, the hot pot festivities will rank highly.

Today was the day filled with goodbyes.  My lab crew, usually such sticklers for the rules, tried to convince me to not hand in my key card.  When I told them I was going to hand it in, they said “No, you should keep it! That way you can come back in anytime.”  I handed it in anyways, because it had to be done.  After having the key card in my back pocket for 7 weeks, leaving the building for the final time with an empty pocket was a strange feeling.

Walking The Plank!!!!

Well let’s just say that this week everything has changed. Basically the second I made last weeks post my research in Xiamen began in full force. Since then I have worked at least twelve hours a day (Including the WEEKEND!!!) in order to complete the analysis of fifteen samples from an arctic research cruise that took place in 2008. Its not that the work itself is terribly difficult it is just that it is extremely time consuming to say the least. The average sample takes three days to analyze from start to finish and the most samples we can run at a given time is four. This sample time also does not include the time that is necessary to clean and prepare all the equipment to run the next set of samples. So as you can see this is extremely time consuming work. That being said all fun and china exploration has not been lost.

Yesterday professor Chen set us up to go on a research cruise with undergraduate Marine Biology students from XMU. We had to be ready to go at seven in the morning but given that I had been cooped up in the lab for the past week I jumped at the opportunity to be outside and see how field work is done in China. The experience was quite amazing. To begin when we get to the port where the boat is docked we see that boats are docked together three deep and we soon learned that our boat was the third boat from the dock. To make matters worse in China safety regulations can be non-existent so of course to get onto the first boat we had to walk a 6 ft X 1ft plank with a nice 25 foot drop if you fell off. On top of that getting over to our boat involved jumping over a series of deck rails to finally get to our boat. O just to add to the fun we were all carrying something, which was just heavy enough to throw our balance off the slightest bit. With all that said we some how all made it over to our boat unharmed and that’s no small feat considering there was over 50 of us!!!!

After that exciting bit we began the cruise, which was in many ways similar to field courses at Eckerd College. They used most of the same equipment for benthic and pelagic sampling and for the first time we worked at an American pace. It was quite interesting and showed me that solid fieldwork is pretty much completed in the same way around the world. We also made plenty of exceptional acquaintances and we had a great time getting to know some undergraduate students at XMU. Well that’s it for this week and I hope you tune in next week to see how my research in Xiamen Concludes!!!!!!

P.S. We did not have to walk the plank on the way back because we were at low tide and could use previously submerged stairs haha!

A Memorable 4th of July

This year’s 4th of July celebration was unique, to say the least. For as long as I can remember, I have spent Independence Day either with family in St. Louis, or friends in Chicago. Regardless of where I was celebrating, each year consisted of the standard grilling of hot dogs, burgers, brats, and other various barbecued meat products, to go with a day filled with patriotism, various assorted beverages, and of course, fireworks. This year, however, was quite different. A couple of days ago, Cathy came to us with an idea that Maria, one of her other American friends, had brought to her, which entailed an afternoon on a boat with around twenty-five of her friends. She went on to explain that there would be all kinds of food and we would be stopping at a little abandoned island to hang out and grill, which sounded like a great time, so we jumped at the invitation and we eagerly anticipated what was sure to be a fantastic day. With seemingly each passing day, the temperature started to rise. On the day of the 4th, as Bryan, Cathy, and I ate breakfast, we kicked around the idea of finding a fun activity to do inside and comfortably situated in a nice, air-conditioned room. Fortunately, we were told that the boat had a cover, so we could hide in the shade if we needed to and didn’t have to sit out in the sun all day. We decided to give it a try, so we packed up our things and made our way over to meet the group.

I figured that the group would primarily be composed of Americans, with it being American Independence Day and all. Much to my surprise, the only Americans there were Maria, Cathy, Bryan and I. We had people from all over the globe, including Indonesia, Holland, Russia, and of course, China, just to name a few. There were even a few Red Coats, but relations remained friendly and we saw no need to refresh their memory on how our forefathers dominated theirs, a mere 230 years ago. I was a little disappointed, however, that I was not able to parade around the boat with my King George effigy doll. Even though we were the only people actually celebrating our independence (one of the men from Holland actually wished us a happy Thanksgiving), we were still able to have a great time with everybody. While we were not united by our nationalities, in the case of the other foreigners, we were able to share the common bond of leaving our homes for this very different environment. With the Chinese people on the boat, it was just as exciting to talk to them about what brought us to China and the various things we have done here, as well as their suggestions of new places to go and things to try. All and all, it made for a pretty incredible day. While it wasn’t as steeped in tradition as all of the past celebrations, it was a truly special experience and one of my most memorable. Over the course of the day, it was said on numerous occasions that if somebody would have told us a year ago that on July 4th, 2010, we are going to be on a boat, hanging out with a group of people from all over the world, sailing to a deserted island off the coast of China, there was no way we would have believed them. I feel like that has been the theme of this summer. Whether we are playing basketball with the locals, buying various foods from street vendors, or even singing karaoke, I know I can speak for everybody when I say it is pretty amazing how many new and unique opportunities we have had in these past six weeks. With our departure for Beijing about ten days away and our return to the states just two weeks away, our time here is drawing to a close. How we will spend these last few days, I cannot be sure. What I can say for certain is that we will continue to add to our pretty incredible list of memories from an unbelievable summer.

A taste of Hong Kong

After living in Hong Kong for over six weeks, I feel that I have a good grasp on the typical Hong Konger’s diet.  In Hong Kong, food groups can be broken down into five major categories: meat, rice, noodles, tea, and meat.  As a vegetarian, this has brought up some interesting obstacles.  I eat lunch with my lab mates, and literally every meal period we share together is an adventure.  They simply do not understand this foreign concept of “vegetarianism”… “Why would anyone choose to not eat meat?”, they ask me. Abstaining from meat for environmental reasons, it actually frightens me to think that the majority of the 7 million people in Hong Kong eat meat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Back to the point.  One day, my lab mates ordered me tofu.  I, of course, am totally useless in ordering my own food here because I just slow everyone down.  I was very excited to get tofu, because it is actually an uncommon find in Hong Kong.  Imagine my surprise, when my tofu lunch has a thick layer of pork sprinkled on top!! This type of event happens often; luckily it does not bother me.  I guess it is good practice for Xiamen!

Being in a foreign country, I make a point to try all the local dishes; regardless of meat.  This past Friday, we had a dinner party at one of my lab mate’s apartments. All fifteen of us crammed in a tiny Hong Kong apartment actually was a really fun time.  And typical of any gathering within Hong Kong, the food never stopped coming.  I always think that dinner is over, and then more food is brought out.  Culinary highlights of the night: trying to eat a chicken wing with chopsticks (semi-successful), trying to decapitate and de-shell a crawfish with chopsticks (unsuccessful), and finally: the carp eye.  You only live once right? Yes, I ate that carp eyeball. No, it was not good.

As far as preparing myself for Xiamen, another issue that has arisen in Hong Kong is stalking!  Sure, I catch kids and some adults staring at me sometimes on the MTR.  Not a big deal.  But on Saturday night, this was taken to a whole new level.  While waiting for the MTR in Kowloon Tong, I could feel someone staring at me.  I look up, and sure enough, a man next to me is staring.  After staring back at him, he did not stop staring.  Actually, I started laughing at him, because he was clearly unashamed about his behavior.  We get on the train, and he stands across from me and continues to stare.  At this point, even my ipod could not distract me.   After a couple stops I need to switch trains.  Sure enough, he gets off the train too. As if a scene from a movie, I veered in a strange direction to try and shake him off my trail.  On the next train, I try to ignore him as he stands next to me.  Soon our elbows are touching… And I have had enough! I get off the train and start running.  As I get to the exit of the train station, I take my headphones off.  I look to my left, and the man is still next to me!!! He says “Why did you laugh at me?”.   He tells me that he was only staring at me because I am so pretty. (Probably just because I have red hair, actually….) This weirdo clearly was not going to leave me alone, even after I told him to go away; he was following me down the street.

This is where my luck comes into play.  I see my friend (!!!!!) on the corner, handing out fliers for the Indian restaurant he works at.  Side-note: He is a chubby, 14 year old Indian boy who had given me a secret restaurant VIP card a couple days earlier.  My room mate and I had talked to him for a while, he definitely remembered me.  So I see my Indian friend, and I say “Take me to your restaurant! NOW!”.  He asks me if my boyfriend wants to come, and I tell him to walk faster.  The creepy Asian man follows for about another half block, and finally gives up.  Joking with the kid, I tell him that the man was going to chop me up and eat me. The boy responds “Yes, they do that here.”  Completely serious.

The boy refused a tip, even though he probably saved my life.  So I gave him a USA nickel.  He was excited for his “souvenir”, I was excited to be alive.

The Snow Dragon

As I pointed out last week I thought finally in week four I would be able to dive full force into my study on OCP’s in the Arctic Ocean. However, as I walked in Monday the professor and Huang Peng were getting ready to leave for Shanghai as I was told, but preparations for the cruise were still underway. After a few minutes I was able to put together that more preparations for the cruise had to take place because they were not able to complete all of the preparations by Sunday night. Also I learned that the ship going to the arctic would be arriving in Xiamen on Monday June 28, and that until the ship left on Thursday July 1st my project would be put on hold to finish any last minute preparations.

Well last week proceeded much like the previous two in the lab. We had to do preparations, preparations, and some more preparations thrown on top for good measure. Like the previous week though it provided me with ample time to get to know my lab mates and we figured out many ways to pass the time in a constructive manner, mainly through language classes. They are so eager to learn English and after a couple of weeks their oral skills have improved considerably. They have great knowledge of the language just no confidence what so ever when talking to a native speaker because they feel their pronunciation is “noo guud”. That may be so but unbeknownst to them they speak well enough for us to get the point of what they are saying.

So Lets move on to the real good stuff.

I was originally going to tell a little side story called Xiamen 48, however it seems Brian has beaten me to the punch, literally (If that punch was a guy on a moped getting hit by a bus) haha. Well lucky for me i had more then one exciting moment over the past 10 days albeit are star actor the crazy bus driver wont be making an appearance. On Monday June 28 I got to be the first Westerner to set foot on the Chinese Research vessel the Xue Long (The Snow Dragon). It is the Chinese premier Arctic research vessel and was designed to be a self-contained research vessel/ice breaker. The ship was definitely the largest I have ever been on with a crew of nearly 200!!!! Well that’s it for this weeks edition of Anthony reporting from the orient!

Redemption & Exceeds Expectations?

Well as I was waiting for my thermocycler at work today to finish, I decided that I should not waste time and to write an update! Plus almost everyone in the lab was gone because tomorrow is a public holiday so they wanted to get out a bit early but of course not me ;) Actually in all honesty, I was a bit of an overachiever today so I kind of did it to myself! But it was really not that bad to get out a bit later because in the grand scheme of things this extra half an hour will allow me to get a whole lot more work done on Friday!

But as I said before, I bit off a lot to chew today and I somehow pulled it off! Today I was able to prepare and to perform the protocol for my samples (24 samples!) all the way from their salinity treatments to cDNA! Which is quite a feat if I must say so myself and I think that even Oscar was impressed! Well I am just so thankful that all of my samples came out because these are the freshwater samples that I had to re-do from last week when bacteria decided to crash the party. So in a way I feel that I have redeemed myself from last week’s little slip up J and who knows I may have even exceeded expectations! Well the reason that I say this is because my samples (for both 6 and 24 hour treatments) have thus far (knock on wood!) have come out beautifully! The 260/280 ratios (this can tell you about the quality of your sample), which can be obtained from the nanospectrophotometer, were wonderful! The best range to get is like 1.8 -2.0 and I was getting like 1.98 for most of my samples!!! I was/am so excited! So excited that I decided to have a celebratory ice cream on my way back to my dorm (yes another one! haha)!!

And the best part is that because I was able to convert my samples into cDNA today that on Friday I will be running quite a few real-time PCRs which means a whole lot of results are coming my way! So I will keep you posted!

Near Death

So it has now been five weeks, eight spawning trials and at least 20 different fish, and we have still been unable to get our fish to spawn. Because we are now coming down to the last two and a half weeks in Xiamen, and I need to give a presentation on the results of my project to a group of professors here in Xiamen, I am now starting an entirely new experiment on Monday. Although this is frustrating, I am just looking at this as an opportunity to learn new skills that I would not have learned otherwise. I will now be using high performance liquid chromatography to try to separate and identify the different sex pheromones in the testes, ovaries and urinary bladder of the Chinese black sleeper. I truly hope that this experiment will be more successful than my previous efforts.

I am continuing to have a great time in Xiamen, and I really wish I had more time left in college because I would love to spend an entire semester here. The few things that seemed strange or I didn’t like when I first came here I have grown to live with and even enjoy some of them. For instance, my journey through the world of Chinese cuisine really got off to a slow start, and I thought I wasn’t going to make it 8 weeks eating Chinese food. I have now tried food I would have never imagined eating, and other than the occasional pig intestine or bee in the chicken, I really love most of the food I have eaten.

Language wise, I still struggle most of the time communicating with people outside of my lab. For the most part I am able to get through situations just by pointing and looking confused, but it was very frustrating when we were at the club the other night and there was a beautiful girl that I asked to dance with me, but of course she had no idea what I was trying to say so I just had to slowly walk away.

A little side story… for the most part we have done very well with the public transportation using the buses only requires memorizing a few characters and the cab drivers can always get you back to the university, but the other night we truly took a bus trip for the ages. So before we even get on the old 48 bus, the driver manages to hit a man driving on a moped and although he wasn’t injured, it was still very shocking to see. So despite our best judgments we still get on the bus and as we are going we realize the bus driver is an absolute maniac. He was using all four lanes on the road, two of which were full of cars heading in the opposite direction. So as we are coming into a stop our bus legit crashes into another bus. Instead of stopping and seeing the damage, the lunatic shoots a dirty look at the other bus driver and speeds off as if trying to make up time. We then pull up to a traffic light and as it turns green, the driver looks out the window and as a cab starts to pass us, the bus driver guns it and forces the cab into oncoming traffic. By the time we finally got off this hellish bus trip I was truly thankful for my life, and I can guarantee I will never ride the 48 bus ever again.

Shanghai World Expo!

This past week I took a trip to Shanghai to see the World Expo with two of my lab mates and Cathy, another Eckerd student who is currently attending Xiamen University for a study abroad program. The theme of this year’s World Expo was “Better City, Better Life,” and one of the most interesting parts of the expo was learning about the ecological problems in other countries. Many of the pavilions explained major issues in their cities, suburban areas, and rural regions and explained their efforts to solve those problems. For example, Saudi Arabia presented their new technology that gives hundreds of thousands of people access to clean water at the annual Muslim gathering at Mecca. Each country also presented cultural aspects in the form of art, dance performances, food samples, and videos. It was interesting to see how cultural ideals influence how ecological problems are addressed in each country. For example, the Australian pavilion focused on the challenge of balancing life, work, and family. I was able to read short encouraging stories about people who understand the importance of taking time for themselves and their family, but are also extremely successful and have a significant influence on the decisions made in their country.

We spent three full days at the expo visiting pavilions for different countries and interacting with other tourists. While the World expo attracts tourists from across the globe, Cathy and I still found ourselves to be two of the very few international tourists. With the combination of my height and Cathy’s dark skin, we clearly stood out in the vast crowds. The great thing about this was that we had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of people who were curious about where we came from and why we look the way we do (and when I say hundreds of people, I am not exaggerating!). Whether we were standing in lines, exploring the pavilions, eating meals, or watching performances, curious people were never hesitant to ask questions or take pictures of us. Back in the United States it would be odd for a stranger to ask to take a picture with us, so this unusual type of attention really made me think about the differences between American and Chinese culture.

In the United States, midwest, southern, east coast and west coast states have certain cultural aspects that make them different from one another, yet most Americans speak the same language and have major cultural aspects that bring people together. American students from Eckerd College come from all over the U.S., but can easily communicate and generally eat the same foods and interact with others in similar ways. Chinese provinces have very different cultures that make them distinguishable, much more so than regions of the United States. Throughout China there are many different dialects that might as well be considered separate languages. People who speak different dialects cannot understand one another, which makes communication very difficult. Food preferences are also very different throughout China, so people from the different provinces may have completely different dishes and diets. Provinces might also have their own ways of interacting with others, for example, beginning conversations with strangers or playing with strangers’ children might be encouraged in some provinces and thought to be rude in others. After learning about so many cultural differences throughout China, I thought about how unique our American culture is. People in the United States are often brought together by current cultural similarities like foods, language, music, and by their ideas for a better future. Since Chinese people currently participate in such different cultures, everyone is brought together by their common past. America’s history is relatively young and since our American culture formed from pieces of very different cultural backgrounds, it seems that we are brought together by our current culture and our plans for America’s future. I had an interesting conversation with the group in Shanghai about this difference, and one of my lab mates said that young people in China have an obligation to carry China’s past with them as they grow older. As Americans, I think we consider ourselves more as a part of the future than as a part of the past.

Success & Experience

As you may recall, last week was a very successful week in terms of progress in my research. More specifically, I got some results from my cDNA samples by performing real-time PCR. So we kicked this week off with some analysis! First, we had to convert the cycle numbers of the specific transporters we tested into their relative expression levels. After this was done we could than compare the relative expression levels of specific transporters within the cell for the different conditions (salinities) and organisms (freshwater environment eel and saltwater environment eel). With the data we collected we think that there may be a difference in the relative expression level of two of the transporters, sodium hydrogen exchanger 1 and 3 (NHE-1 and NHE-3), between the freshwater and saltwater eel within the same salinity treatment! However, before we get too excited we have to realize that it is difficult to say for certain because we only treated our cells for six hours so they had low expression levels. So in order to test this hypothesis we need to treat our samples for a longer time frame in order to get a better grasp on what is happening within the cell, which means that we must start the process from the beginning.

So this week we dissected again and collected the gills (from both freshwater and saltwater environment eels), performed primary gill cell culture and treated the cells with a smaller range of salinities (because we realized that the extreme salinities were causing too much cell death) for a longer time frame (6 and 24 hours). After the treatments, the idea was that we would perform RNA extraction and convert our RNA samples into cDNA so that way we could re-test the expression levels of NHE-1 and NHE-3 along with other transporters. The only obstacle that stood in the way of this was bacteria!

Yes, unfortunately 2 of the 3 freshwater samples somehow became contaminated and bacteria made its home right smack dab in the middle of all of our beautiful samples. When I saw that all of our samples had turned red in color (because we treat our samples with a pH color sensitive solution, so they normally are a wonderful array colors from yellow to purple) I went from happy and excited to sad and discouraged. But Oscar and Professor Wong were very encouraging and even told me some stories of their own in which bacteria had overtaken their samples too. So I just decided to take Oscar’s usual advice and to not worry about it.

But thankfully the freshwater sample that we prepared for the MTT assay and all three saltwater samples were unaffected! So we were able to continue on with the protocol for the saltwater samples but this week we did not have time to test the transporters. We also got to perform the MTT assay but once again we did not have time to interpret our results (yet). So next week will be another busy week for us in the lab! So overall, I would like to think that this last week as another success. Plus as Professor Wong and Oscar would say that anything that is not considered a “success” is considered experience… so this last week I would like to think that I had both success and experience! And I would like to keep this in mind for the rest of my time here, so that no matter how I get accomplished here in terms of results and in term of progress that I am definitely getting some good experience!!!

Persistence commands success

The internet refers to my situation as the “Pilot error hypothesis”; I call it sabotage.  When a young scientist initially begins doing PCR on their own, it can often go wrong.  This hypothesis states that it is a common issue simply due to inexperience.  The first two weeks of PCR were excellent (Under lab-mate Yanan’s supervision of course), it was looking like I could finish my project on time.  However, the past week has surely put me behind.  For a reason unknown to me, my DNA never comes out on my PCR.

This is an issue.  I have tried: changing the amount of DNA in the initial mixture, creating a new DNA template, checking DNA concentrations in the template, changing the PCR program temperature, using brand new buffers, new primers, new polymerase, changing PCR machines, changing electrophoresis machines, increasing/decreasing electrophoresis voltage, everything I can possibly think of… but nothing has given me the correct results.

It takes nearly the entire day to learn the results; there is no DNA in my agarose gel. Then I do it again.  I have been working 10-6, a couple times coming back at 8:30 pm.  It is really frustrating to work all day, and then finish with no results.

Last Thursday was even more frustrating.  At 2 pm, after waiting all day for the PCR to finish, I found the machine had been turned off! As if my week was not discouraging enough, someone ruined my samples! I had to completely re-start the day’s work.

Today, I booked the PCR machine in advance. (THE PROPER THING TO DO) Then, when I went back downstairs with my samples, someone had put their samples in the machine and had started running their PCR! This is a 2.5 hour procedure, so obviously I was annoyed.

Having 10 failed attempts at PCR is clearly upsetting. Today, (otherwise known as attempt #11) I am trying to use a new gene, with a new primer.  If this does not work, then I will have to think of a new method for #12…  While reading a National Geographic (I am finding myself with a lot of free time while PCRs are running…) I read the phrase “Persistence commands success”.  Generally I do not give inspirational quotes a second glance, however I find this exceptionally relevant.  I kept it in the back of my mind for the past 5 or so PCR/electrophoresis attempts, and I think it is an appropriate summation of the past week.

Hopefully next time I report back it will be with positive news!