China Research


Busy, Busy, Busy

This past week has been a long and busy week in the lab. Since we were able to get forty egg cases from the aquarium last week we have lots of samples. The past two weeks we were limited on samples and would only experiment on two or three embryos. This week we have worked on over ten. We continued in the same process as the weeks before, except on the embryonic sharks that were extremely small. If the sharks are around 5 cm or less we employ a slightly different procedure in the beginning steps of the overall experiment. Instead of starting with dissecting the sharks, we first observed them under an anatomy microscope. We make observations and then put them into solution. After they have been in the solution for about 24 hours we remove them, and depending on size, we cut them into pieces that will work best for slicing. The rest of the steps are the same as the larger sharks. This week has contributed a great deal to my project because I have been able to see many of the different steps of the embryonic development. I have not yet completed my slicing work and been able to observe the heart and liver sections under the microscope, since there are so many samples, but am excited to see the results soon.

Patience Takes Practice

As of yesterday afternoon I have finally finished my first run on the instrument. It took about a week, when it should have taken about six hours. I was very excited last Tuesday to get my data, until like every good instrument the AAS decided to die. I was able to get my lead and cadmium data and nothing more, and it took a day to complete. The technician was called as soon as we discovered that something was wrong. However, we are in a far reaching corner of China, and the technician is stationed in some big bustling city, so it was not until Monday of this week when he finally showed up. Of course when he arrived, it was around 12:30, so he needed to take a nap before he worked. So he did not repair anything until 2 PM. I was able to watch him repair it, however it was not necessarily a repair, the problem was not with the instrument, but rather the conditions of the room where the instrument is. There was too much moisture in the air which affected the performance of the flame and the lamps, it was well known by my lab that moisture is a problem, but due to the cost of constantly running an air conditioner or dryer, it was shrugged off. But finally, yesterday I finished my run, getting my zinc, chromium, and copper data. The data looks as good as it can get, considering that I am looking at the concentration in the sediment, which is bad news for the people drinking the water. So now I get to go collecting on a boat for my own sediment samples around Xiamen, and test them, which should be some frightening data, since people are scared to go in the water already. The week of nothing, turned out to be an alright experience as we went hiking on Saturday, and shopping on Sunday, and we went to lunch at Pizza Hut, which in China is on the same level as a Bertucci’s. I just hope that everything works out for the collecting trip, and I can start to really experience research in China.

Continuing Research

For my research this past week we were unable to remove the heart from either of the two embryos we dissected. This meant that I was not able to collect any data for my project the entire week. We were able to get the brain and some fin samples, so I helped the graduate student with his research. Even though I was not collecting data for myself, it was still a good experience because I got to practice all the techniques involved in the project. When I discussed with my Professor how we were unable to get the heart, she suggested that I choose another organ to look at as well. I chose the liver, so I will now study the development of both the heart and the liver. During the week, the graduate student got a call from the aquarium he gets egg cases from. We went to pick up the egg cases and also got to explore the aquarium. From the experience I learned more about how different groups or organizations can work together for research. We collected 40 egg cases, which is great because it means a lot more samples from the different stages of development. This coming week I should be able to collect quite a bit of good heart and liver data.

The Mad Doctor

I’m now beginning to get quite busy in the lab now that I’ve started working with some of the more complex processes that will lead up to cloning and our goal of transgenic diatoms (a type of phytoplankton). Last week my days were mostly free with one hour spent each day taking small samples from 3 flasks filled with algae that we were culturing and then counting cells under a microscope so that I could create a growth curve of the data and find out how much algae we would have to experiment on. I’ve done this for nine days already and the procedure is now very simple to me. Labs here are definitely different from labs in the United States and it took some adjusting at the beginning to the different methods employed here. For example, when I’m working in a sterilized area I wash my hands with 70% ethanol instead of wearing plastic gloves.

Starting this past Tuesday I started working with some more complex techniques and since then my work has moved on to working with DNA strains, running PCR machines, running gels, and right now my DNA sample is being digested back at the lab. My professor is very nice and is telling me about all of the steps before I do them. He is also helping me calculate the amounts of each solution I should use so that in the coming weeks I will be able to do these procedures without any help. This has kept me quite busy and now I only have free time during the day when I’m getting lunch or waiting for an instrument finish running.


These days each of us spends most of our time in our respective labs so we have gotten to know our lab partners very well. One of the students that Kasey is working with is named Joe and is a very funny guy whose English is quite good. Earlier this week he treated Kasey and I to a traditional Chinese dinner and after that Kasey, Lindley, and I treated him to a dinner at a local cafe that makes American style food which is actually quite good. During these times Kasey and I have been teaching Joe the true American accent, the Bawstun accent. Both of us come from tiny towns in Massachusetts which are right next to each other. I come from Millis and she is from Medway. To make matters simpler we just tell people here in Xiamen that we come from the same town.

So Joe is now learning the Boston accent, which neither Kasey nor I actually have but we both greatly enjoy imitating it. Thus far we have taught him the words Pahk, Cah, Bawstun, Riveah, and of course the best one of all “wicked.” In conjunction with another great word we get the great phrase “wicked pissah.” Needless to say our pupil is doing very well and if he ever does travel to Boston he will fit in perfectly.

Hurry up and wait (Battling Technology)

So what do you do when all of your samples are ready to go but there is no carrier gas or a functioning machine to begin analysis??? You wait! Last Wednesday afternoon I had my TOC (total organic carbon) samples ready for analysis but the machines were not; no gasses. So I waited until Thursday when the gasses came, the gasses were now ready but the machine was broken! It appears there was a block stopping the gas from flowing through the TOC analyzer; without a technician present we were stuck for another day. We tried another machine at what is called the old campus but that was also broken. Friday brought more disappointment as no TOC samples were tested. I was able to begin testing my THM and HAA extractions on Monday using a GC System analyzer. Both the HAA and THM samples will take a little over a day to analyze so more patience required there. With the machines already very tightly scheduled Elsie and I were beginning to worry my samples would not be tested. Monday brought some success and by late afternoon our TOC analyzer was ready to go. We prepped the machine and began analysis by about 5:00pm. I came back to the lab later that night and utilized the TOC values to calculate a percentage of Chlorine to put into an elutriate sample for another test. Once I finished calculations and the experiment it was near 10:00pm. I will again wait for four days for the reaction to take place.  These past days have taught me patience with technology; I have a habit of becoming violent with machines that do not work yet I find myself just getting used to the idea that experiments never go according to plan. I have spent a good amount of my time familiarizing myself with the materials I have been given; studying the different affect THMs and HAAs have on the environment and also how their precursors can be identified early to predict harmful levels in Hong Kong’s drinking water.

Just Like Home

22:00 HKT

HONG KONG- The remnants of Typhoon Fenshen arrived onshore today, canceling work and downing several trees around campus. Over the past 24 hours the tropical storm brought constant rain and gusty winds, but no significant damage.

The BBC reports the Typhoon hit the Philippines over the weekend leaving 155 dead and over 700 missing. The English translation of Fenshen means: “wind god”.

Dirty Dirt

I have now been in Xiamen for two weeks, and have been busy for most of the time. To start off with my research, my professor and I agreed that perhaps it would be wise for me to read some papers on the background and methods of my research. I of course agreed as I want to know the most I can as I perform the experiments. It was also beneficial because the field of study that I am researching in at the university was entirely new to me. I am experimenting with the heavy metals in the sediment in the waters of south China. Right now I am analyzing six samples from Beibu Gulf in the southwestern region of China. I was placed in an organic geochemistry lab, where little to no work on sediments is performed; they mostly work on the geochemistry of biological samples such as fish. I have one student, who goes by the name of Joe who has been helping me through most of the process since it has begun. At the same time he has been trying to finish his thesis and graduate, as well as prepare his applications for graduate school. For him to take time out of his busy schedule to help me, motivates me to do even better and work harder. I have been sacrificing my mornings and getting to the lab as early as possible as well as staying late in the lab to clean and prep for the next day. Today is the first day that I am able to run my samples on the instrument. I am using an Atomic Absorption Spectrometer to detect five heavy metals including zinc, copper, cadmium, lead, and chromium in the sediment samples. This research will hopefully give insight to the people living in the area, that the amount of metals in the water is due to their industry and lifestyle, and that the water is not safe to use.

Getting Started

I started my research this past week. My project focuses on the embryonic development of the white spotted bamboo shark, specifically looking at the heart. I have been paired up with a graduate student working on the same topic, but focusing more on the brain. The student has shown me the different parts of the research and has allowed me to get hands on experience at each step. We began by collecting egg cases and dissecting the shark embryos. We took different measurements and then put certain structures to be examined in more detail, such as the heart, brain, and dorsal fin, in solution. These parts had to be put into many different solutions and were then embedded in paraffin. Next, we made slices of the different parts, fixed them to slides, and stained them. After the staining process we observed them under the microscope. I will continue this process on embryos at different stages of development to observe changes.

Being paired up with the Chinese graduate student has allowed my to learn more about Chinese culture, as well as how research is conducted in China. This experience is helping to prepare me for research with other countries in my future career because it has allowed me to see how certain obstacles can be overcome, such as language barriers.

Ferries, Oysters, Pizza, and Karaoke

In the past few days I’ve started working on my research. At this point I don’t have a lot of work each day so I have a lot of free time. I’ve been using this time to talk more with the people I’m working with and also practicing my Chinese with them. One of my fellow undergraduates in my lab is very helpful and friendly. With his help I’ve been able to add some more words to my vocabulary. Listening to them speak is still very hard since they talk rather fast and I can only understand the simplest sentences. I’ve been eating most of my meals with them as well and its quite funny since they have a set schedule when its time to eat. Its a bit flexible but the times are usually 11:30 for lunch and between 5 and 5:30 for dinner. We usually go to the canteen which has decent food for very cheap. The noodles are very tasty and are made by shaving off slivers from a chunk of dough into a pot of boiling water.

Yesterday I went with three other people from my lab to the island with the University’s other campus on it. To get there we took a bus, a ferry, and another bus. The total travel time was about 40 minutes. The transportation is free for students and was quite convenient since the buses were school owned and came right onto campus. Something I found rather funny was that the seats on the ferry had covers on them with the usual Chinese characters as well as the words “La Vie” in French. Making it quite literally a “Life” boat. When we got to the island we got on the bus and took it a short distance before getting off in the middle of nowhere and walking to the beach. One of the women was collecting shells to help teach her class and there were many to choose from. We walked along the beach for about an hour before we walked inland to the campus. Before we got to the campus we stopped at a small restaurant to get a plate of the local ice and fruit dish. This is really tasty and they consist of crushed ice, sweet milk, and some type of fruit. The one we ordered was mango and we ate all of it.

This campus was built recently and it looked very impressive. The library on this campus was massive but we couldn’t go inside because it’s closed on Wednesdays (no idea why that is). After walking around the campus for a bit we returned to Xiamen island. We then walked into the down town section and went to a pizza restaurant called Jazzy Pizza to have our dinner. The pizza here was similar to Pizza Hut but with a few more options. One of the pizzas I tried had fish on it and was surprisingly good. After we finished eating we joined up with some other students who were at the same restaurant and then went out to Karaoke. I had been to Karaoke multiple times in Hong Kong last semester so I knew what I was getting into. Anyone who knows me well also knows that I have a horrible singing voice, I can hit maybe two notes at best. Its still a lot of fun and luckily for me most of my friends are also bad singers so we are all equally torturing each other’s eardrums. This karaoke bar was a bit different from the ones in Hong Kong in that there were less microphones and a significantly smaller amount of English songs. Some of the songs they had in English were also sung as covers by Chinese artists so those sounded quite different. It was still enjoyable and I got introduced to popular Chinese music. Its quite similar to Cantopop in Hong Kong and bands such as the Backstreet Boys and American bands I’ve never even heard of who have a similar singing style.