China Research


Sediment Analysis

Today, on our final day in Hong Kong, I finished a week long sediment analysis of four surface samples collected around Sharp Island, Hong Kong. I only performed two analysis on the samples- grain size and carbonate content, but it proved to be extremely worthwhile and will hopefully be tied in to Sara’s research on the coral communities around sharp island.

The people in my lab were great at helping me find the supplies needed to run the same kind of analysis techniques I learned at Eckerd’s sediment lab. Asking for a set of seive’s of different sizes was a particularly interesting adventure. The students in the lab usually use sediments for pollutants so they commonly grind them up into powder and extract things from them in various ways. The fact that I wanted to dry the sediments out without baking the muds together seemed like a foreign concept (which…if you think about the situation…it was), as well as my need for a whole stack of seives to separate out the grain sizes.

Eventually most of my needs were met. The only thing that was not available was full time use of a fume hood for adding the HCl. I initially mixed the HCl in a fume hood and then added it to the samples in a fume hood but eventually had to give up the space to other researchers and I was forced to leave the samples sitting in the open air. It seemed safe enough but I wouldn’t like to run too many samples like that.

They don’t use safety goggles here. You have to wear a lab coat at all times. 99% of the time students are wearing latex gloves. I haven’t seen a single pair of safety goggles since I’ve been here. This became most distressing to me when I was mixing concentrated HCl with water. ‘Always do what you outta, add the acid to the water’. The phrase never sounded so important.

Anyway, I’m pretty much finished with my studies in the lab and have to get ready to leave Hong Kong tomorrow. What an interesting adventure it has been. I have met some wonderful people on this trip, most notably a couple from the mainland called Xun Wen and In Ge (or Wen and GeGe as they are known around the lab). They have been extraordinarily kind to me, inviting me out the play baketball, badminton, go to the beach, and even invited me around to their apartment in kowloon city for a home cooked dinner by Wen! Wen is also a great guitarist and we have made a few trips to local music stores as well as having a couple jam sessions ourselves. Words cannot describe how grateful I am to them for making sure I had a friend or two in this massive city.

Farewell Hong Kong, you are a magnetic city that people of all nations are pulled to and I know I’ll be pulled back here again someday.

last week in hong kong

as things wind down while we prepare to leave hong kong, my research is starting to take off. we went to sharp island on monday to do the last transects at sites two and three. however, analyzing the photos has gone so well, dr. qiu decided to add another study site, which makes a total of 6 sites. so my last week here  has been filled with 9 and 10 hour days inputing the data, throwing together preliminary graphs, making figures, and deciding how to put the whole paper together. ive been using a map-based method for calculating wave exposure at all 6 sites, putting together several descriptive figures of the study region, creating depth profiles for each transect at each site, and generally trying not to loose my head in all the numbers! we will carry out two statistical tests on the data, one- way ANOVA and multi variate MDS, to try and find the greatest influential factors on the distribution, density, and richness of the coral communities.

this afternoon i ran into a pretty frustrating road block, because i was trying to average coral cover by depth, but realized that i cannot combine data across different transects at the same site, because then the replicates become what is called a pseudo replicate, which makes each replicate somewhat illegitimate. the hardest part about this is that this type of statistics is completely new to me, and explaining my misunderstanding to people who speak another language proved extremely hard.

on a different note, last night i went up to the top of the peak, which is the highest mountain in hong kong. from up there, the entire city is visible, and on a clear night like last night, i got a sense of the city that i was previously unaware of. i never though a bunch of skyscrapers lit up could be so beautiful. there was also a full moon last night, which may have added to the scene. or the fact that the air was better, more clear and more quiet than anywhere else in the city.

we leave for xiamen on saturday, and while ive sometimes felt overwhelmed by this city, ive had a great time exploring it, getting to know it, and making it my own.

getting started……. with 10 days to go!

my photoquadrat was finally finished by monday, so we went to Sharp Island on tuesday to collect the data. turbidity was high due to huge amounts of rain this past weekend, but we decided the photos would be good enough to quantify coral cover, and identify species at least down to the genus level. two of the sites i was planning on sampling from were way too muddy to take any photos, because they are both in small, protected bays off the shore of mangrove habitats, meaning that there is a freshwater input, and therefore higher levels of sediment than at the other 3, more exposed sites. we will be going back to the island on monday to take photos of those last two sites.

in the lab today, i found identifying the corals to be a piece of cake! there really is not much diversity at all, so after learning to spot the dominant species, the rest was pretty easy. i actually got through analyzing all the photos we have so far! this is good news, given that i have so little timeleft. i really was worried i wouldnt have time to finish the study before i leave, but now it looks like its going to be possible (with some hard work and long days!). i also finished making depth profiles for each transect at each site, which are actually so helpful in getting a visual on the environment. in doing so, i noticed a very interesting, very strong correlation between certain depths, and species richness of coral, that i want to look into further, as i believe it may be an important controlling factor in their growth. im currently downloading a 30-day trial of Adobe Illustrator on to my computer in order to create a grid that i can superimpose onto each photo, to make it easier to quantify percent cover of coral in each photo.

all in all, a great day, and i am very excited to finally be able to get my hands on the data!

It’s soooo HOT!

For the week of June 22nd through the 26th, we continued work on our project by discussing our options after we had a mass mortality of the green mussel larvae. We decided to use oysters as well in our study and compare the embryonic development but remove the portion on larval rearing due to interest of time. We went to the local market to obtain our specimen. One difference with spawning of oysters and mussels is that you only need the meat of the oyster. We took about 1lb of oyster back to the greenhouse where we set up a tub of filtered seawater and began extracting milt and eggs by hand. This process is carried out by making a small incision in the gonads of the oyster and applying pressure until the gametes flow freely. After we obtained enough gametes we stirred the sample to induce fertilization. About 20 minutes later, we took a sample of water up to the microscope laboratory and began recording cleavage patterns with an electron microscope. Almost immediately we noticed that oysters have rapid cell cycles when compared to the green mussel and blastomeres are almost immediately recognized.
The later part of the week was spent staining our fixed samples from the previous week and using a fluorescent microscope to record pictures of our specimens. A fluorescent microscope is used to study properties of organic or inorganic substances using the occurence of fluorescence and phosphorescence. The flourescent microscope is able to highlight cleavage patterns and make them appear clearer than the electron microscope and to make polar bodies more evident.
After the work week was over, the students that I have been working with decided to see Transformers together and to have a bbq at the beach. We played volleyball, frisbee and soccer on a local strip of beach. The weather was great considering how hot it has been. We grilled tofu, makeral, chicken, pork, beef and even some vegetables. It was nice to be together outside of the lab because we were able to get to know one another more and see eachother more laid back. I think this day was definitely one of the highlights of the whole trip because not every person traveling internationally gets to experience what it’s like to spend time with locals and appreciate the differences of other cultures. Throughout this trip we have been well taken care of by the students and I am convinced that our experiences would not have been half of what they are without them.
We were just informed at lunch that tomorrow we will be taking another trip to KTV with the students to sing….why don’t we have these in America?

Waiting for Godot (a.k.a Photoquadrat)

Heading into the third week of waiting for the quadrat to be constructed, I’ve learned some important differences between the scientific process in America and China. If I were doing this project in the US, I would have gone to the hardware store 3 weeks ago, bought some PVC pipe and glue, and constructed a perfectly good quadrat within 2 days. The process here takes much longer, from what I gather, because scientists are not as hands on. They have a workshop at the university that deals with constructing the necessary equipment, whereas researchers are mostly concerned with whats going on in the lab. This is something I wish I knew before, because I could have proposed building the quadrat myself. This is the type of hands on science I am used to from my experiences at Eckerd, where nearly all the equipment we use is home made, using plenty of duck tape and ingenuity.  But, I have definitely learned an interesting lesson about the differences in the scientific process, and have gained valuable insight into the international research experience.

As of today, the quadrat should be finished, and I was told we would be going into the field tomorrow, if the weather is good enough. If we get all the data I need tomorrow, that leaves me with 10 days to approximate coral cover, identify each genus of coral, note rock formations and dominant coral-associated macroinvertebrates, and identify species of algae in 75 photos, as well as quantifying sediment samples, looking at water quality data, and calculating the degree of wave exposure from all 5 sites. Basically theres no way I’m going to finish this before I leave. I talked to my labmates about it, and they said they would finish whatever I can’t, but I’m still very unclear on how that would work, and am nervous about the outcome of my project.

Meanwhile, so as to keep busy in the lab, one of Dr. Qiu’s grad students has been teaching me how to identify polychaetes down to the species level. Before I started this, I thought worms looked pretty similar to the naked eye. Well, turns out they look just as similar under a very powerful microscope, making identification a long and frustrating process. I.Ding to family level is fairly easy, as there are some distinct characters that differentiate the worms. Species level is a whole different story. But, some of the techniques used are very interesting. For example, some polychaetes can be identified based on their chaeta, which are small hair-like appendages that aid in movement, and are attached to the podia, or feet, of the worm. These can be extracted from the worm, and placed under a special microscope that has an attachment for creating a faint outline of whatever is under the microscope on a white piece of paper. I can then trace the outline of the chaeta, and try to identify the worm by comparing the shape to shapes of chaeta in papers and textbooks. I also learned how to use Adobe Illustrator to make textbook- quality illustrations of the worms, which I’m sure is a very valuable skill.

So thats a summary of my research this past week. Wish me luck finishing my project!

Rainy Day Update

A massive thunderstorm hit us today so I thought I use my time in my room to tell you about my research. I’ve been chlorinating three amino acids for different lengths of time to see what byproducts are formed. The amino acids we use are commonly found in algae from fresh water reservoirs so any byproducts formed by chlorinating these amino acids would has a high probablility of forming in drinking water supplies after chlorination of reservoir water. After chlorination we extract the disinfection byproduct (DBP) from the sample and put it in a small bottle for gas chromotography analysis.

We also perform a test called the ames test which uses salmonella to determine the mutagenic potential of a chemical. The salmonella is a special strain that only grows on histidine. We make agar plates containing no histidine and then place the bacteria in the DBP and put it on the dish. If growth occurs then a mutation has taken place so the salmonella can grow without histidine. We count the number of colonies that form to determine how mutagenic the chemical is.

All of these tests don’t take long to explain but take quite a while to perform. We have three different amino acids which are split in to two groups. Bromination (use of bromide) is another form of water disinfection that is often used along with chlorination so we have three amino acids with bromide and three amino acids without bromide. We have 9 time slots we chlorinate the samples with- 30 seconds, 1min, 2min, 5min, 10min, 30min, 1hr, 2hr, and 120hr (though the 120hr is not used as much). We split the chlorinated amino acid into 9 small bottles to extract different DBPs- HAA, HAN, and THM (which have long, fancy sounding names that you can google to find if you want). So that makes 486 bottles we take DBPs from. Then for the Ames test we put different concentrations of the DBP at each time slot- 6%, 12%, 25%, 50%, and 100%. So with 9 time slots per amino acid and 6 amino acids with 5 concentrations per time slot that makes 270 agar plates…except we run three plates per concentration for accuracy so it’s actually 810 agar plates.

As of now we are finished with extractions and only have about three more amino acids to run ames test on so I’m confident that by next week the lab work will have reached its conclusion.

Our Trip to The Wuyi Mountains (武夷山)

The semester for students here at Xiamen University came to a close last week. This brought work in my lab to a screeching halt as students sought time to unwind and celebrate the success of graduating students. Christy and I were invited to KTV, a popular karaoke chain, where we spent hours singing, laughing and enjoying a few drinks with our Chinese friends.


Our break continued with an extended-weekend trip to the Wuyi Mountains (武夷山) with the student I work with, Li Wen, and her 3 roommates. Getting there was simple enough for Wen, Christy and I: about an hour by bus from campus to the airport and a 40-minute plane ride to Wuyi Mountain. Wen’s roommates, who weren’t able to book discount air tickets, took the train, a 12-hour journey through the mountains of Fujian province!

Each day began with a traditional breakfast of preserved vegetables, hard boiled eggs (in tea, not water), steamed buns and pork filled dumplings. A couple of chickens, which Christy prayed we wouldn’t eat, wandered around the tables looking for scraps as we ate. Our days were spent climbing countless stairs as we followed winding paths through the mountains, down into cool caves and by the side of breathtaking waterfalls. Though not a problem I often experience I was just overcoming a slight cold and the heat was too much for me on our second day. Halfway up the side of one mountain I sat down with a splitting headache. It hurt so bad I couldn’t move my neck and struggled to open my eyes. Next thing I know one of Wen’s friends whips out a green box and passes her a dark vial with Chinese characters I probably won’t learn until the semester after next printed all over the label. Wen hands it to me and says “Here, traditional Chinese medicine”. Now I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take medicine or see a doctor unless I think I might be dying. I thought I was dying, so I downed it and hoped for the best. It was naaaaaaasty… but my headache was gone almost instantly. I sat the rest of that day out with Wen at the bottom of the mountain working on my Chinese and smiling for the camera’s of countless Asian tourists who wanted a picture of the “Laowai” with a fro (老外, literally “old outside”, or foreigner). Better days were spent rafting down the Nine-bend River and eating countless watermelon’s which could be purchased along almost every stretch of road in town. There was also a very popular cave called “Thread of Sky”. At the entrance to the cave was a sign that warned pregnant women and people with high blood pressure to take another route. We could hear people screaming but I thought it was because of the bats flying overhead. We didn’t realize that people were getting stuck in the path’s tightest point (30cm) until we were hugging the dripping rock walls ourselves.


We slept and ate most of our meals at a small, family run, budget hotel that I would highly recommend to any adventurous traveler heading that way. Come Sunday night we were all exhausted, thoroughly cooked by the heat of southern China, and ready to get back home to Xiamen. At dinner, however, we were greeted with the news that a typhoon had stirred up in the waters around Xiamen and that our flight had been canceled “until further notice”. The airline put us up in another hotel until our flight the following afternoon. After arriving in Xiamen the six of us hired two cabs to take us back to campus. Along the way we could see the damage that had been done by the storm, mostly tattered billboards here and there and a few fallen trees and large branches closer to campus. Everyone is fine though and we’ll be headed back to work first thing in the morning.

Wen and I have a lot of catching up to do with our work. We purchase the sharks (Scoliodon laticaudus) for our research from a local vendor at the fish market. The vendor also supplies us with the shark uteri for free since people don’t normally buy them. If we don’t call in advance though she doesn’t know to save them for us and we end up with a smaller sample size. That’s what happened last time, hence the “catching up”. I think our problem may also be tied to a little miscommunication since Wen doesn’t speak the local dialect, a fact the vendor always forgets and attempts to conduct business in when we arrive.

I’m a little worried that the pickings will be particularly slim this week because of the storm. Though we could always gather more uteri closer to the end of the experiment, it would help to have a significant number of embryo’s this week to increase our chances of producing a complete record of the developmental stages. I have faith in our vendor though and am sure that this week at work will be a fruitful one.


research and such

so my research is on the coral communities surrounding Sharp Island, which is north east of hk. the island itself is protected by the government, but the waters around it are pretty much a free for all, which means that the coral that is still alive is in pretty rough shape. ive chosen 5 sites around the island, and am going to do what is called a photo-quadrat survey along a transect. basically means that im setting up 3 lines of rope, 25 meters long each, perpendicular to the shoreline. then i swim along the rope, and set down the photo-quadrat every 5 meters and take a picture. a photo-quadrat is just a .5meter by .5meter outline of a square that has a pyramid shaped camera holder on top. so i can set it down, and the underwater camera takes a photo of an exact square of coral. then im going to analyze the pictures in the lab, by estimating how much of the quadrat is covered in coral, and also identify the species of coral in each quadrat. then i take measurements of the degree of wave exposure at each site, and am going to see if wave exposure has any influence on the amount of coral cover, or species diversity at each site.

right now however, my research has come to a standstill, because ive been waiting for the workshop to build a quadrat for me out of pvc pipe, which in normal life would take like maybe an hour, but has taken more than a week. in the meantime ive been doing a ton of research and writing all the parts of my paper that i can without any actual data…. introduction, literature reviews, methods and materials etc. its been rough because this is the part of doing research that i hate the most! also, because no one has ever done research on this island, i have no papers to pull any type of solid facts from, so ive been pulling info from all over the place, and its kind of a mess that im not sure how to fix. but i think readers will be lenient given this is the first research done on the coral communities of this particular island. im just excited to get back into the field!

but, as a result of this lull, ive gotten the worst parts of the paper out of the way, and have gotten to see some parts of hk i havnt seen before because i dont have to go into the lab every day.

its really hard to be a vegetarian in this city, so ive been buying fruits and veggies from whats called a “wet market” which is an outdoor market that sells literally everything edible. when i go i have to be careful not to go to the meat section or else i will vomit. but its always a very cool experience to gosee all the weird things that i never knew were edible!

last weekend my hiking club went to abandoned villages in the mountains above the new terratories of hk. really creepy! some of the houses still have pictures hanging on the walls, as well as playgrounds covered in overgrown vines, and apparently some houses still have coffins in them. the hike leader told us that the first time he came to these villages, about 20 years ago, he even found human skeletons inside some of the houses. awesome.

every night at 8pm there is a huge light show involving all the skyscrapers along victoria harbor, which is accompanied by music and lasers. i saw it for the first time last night and probably have never seen such a blatant misuse of electricity in my life. but i guess anything for tourists!

all in all, still having a wonderful time in this big crazy city!

All-nighters and such…

So I started my research project about two weeks ago. The title may be Morphological observation of embryonic and early stage larval development of Perna viridis. It has been interesting for the most part since my first day I was able to visit a village further south with a professor and his students and see what aquaculture was like in another part of the world. This is definitely something I have only dreamed I could do! Not what most people would say is a “dream” of theirs I guess….I was able to watch local workers shuck oysters for their meat and go out on a boat to collect traps with a fisherman and even visit a local hatchery where they were raising oyster spat, green mussels and abalone. Who would have thought that all the things you only get to see on discovery channel or read in magazines, you could experience for yourself.

Most of my days though, consist of research on the computer, or collection of our species at the local fish market. Either way, still pretty interesting stuff when you can walk outside and your in China! So when I say there is lots of research on the computer, it’s mostly because the green mussels we are trying to spawn, like to do things on their own terms. This means, we get to wait allllll day until 9:30p or so until they feel like the time is right….then we get to stay up until 6a.m. watching the embryonic development of larvae. So…watching them turn from a circular blob (cell stage #1), to observing cleavage patterns and the formation of blastomeres (blobs 2 through >32). Then we squeeze in some sleep only to return to them spinning and twirling all over the slide while we scramble to take a picture while keeping them in view under the scope.

During free time, we usually do some touring or I try to challenge myself and go down to the markets with all the great language skills I now have (pretty much ordering a drink, pointing at food and getting the check!) Usually my answer to everything is smile and nod…they are probably saying something like “I’m charging you double,” or “are you an idiot?”. I just say, yes…For the most part though, I am usually getting awkward looks from people with the occasional pointing, Oh! and the shoving to get a friends attention…and no, I don’t think it’s what I am wearing….maybe.

Steven Jong Vs. Xia Men (Who Will Be The Victor?)

Hello everybody. My name is Steven Jong and I’ll be your blogger for today. I have been in Xiamen for about two and a half weeks now and things are starting to settle down. The name of the project I am working on is called “Whole Cell Response Characteristics of Ciliated and Microvillous Olfactory Receptor Neurons to Amino Acids, Pheromone Candidates, and Urine in Chinese Black Sleeper Fish.” It’s quite a mouthful. But basically, I am studying how the neurons in the fish’s nose react to different kinds of stimulus. I dissect the olfactory sacks out of the Chinese Black Sleeper’s nostrils, blend it a little bit to release all the cells, separate the cells using an enzyme, and then use the patch clamp technique to examine the cells when stimuli are introduced.

Alright, time for a weekly update.

Research wise, this week was very similar to last week. From Monday through Wednesday, no experiments were conducted. Since the other students in the lab share the same fish we use for our experiments, and since this week was finals week, nothing was done for these three days. Instead, I spent the time on my computer researching background information for my project as well as reading and understanding the manuals for the devices I use for the experiments.

On Wednesday, I was lucky enough to practice on the machines used for the project. Before Wednesday, I was always a spectator. The experiments were always done by my partner in crime, Lai Xiao Jiang. This project belongs to Lai and this is for his doctorates degree. I was able to try out the micropipette puller, which is a machine that heats a glass tube and pulls it in order to form a pipette with a tip opening that’s smaller than a cell. I was also able to practice on the patch clamp machine. The device is connected to a rather large microscope. The clamp is an electrode that you insert into the pipette you make from the puller. The pipette is then used to “suck” onto the membrane of a cell. The electrode then runs a current through the cell and the changes in potential and resistance are observed. Every piece of equipment in this project is highly fragile so a steady hand and patience are required. I’d post up some pictures of the device but the school’s internet says otherwise. Our internet connection is downright terrible. I’ll load the images when I go back to the lab.

Thursday was experiment day! Yeah! We spent the afternoon dissecting enough olfactory sacks to use for patch clamp. I don’t really want to get into great details about how we treat the fish because it is a bit graphic. Thats one difference between China and America, China does not have the same moral conundrums with animal cruelty as we do. After the dissection was done, we proceeded to clamp the cells. Lai and I ran into the same problem we had last week, the cells weren’t sticking to the cover glass. In preparation, a cover glass is placed in an amino acid solution. Since the amino acid solution and the cells hold opposing charges, they would attract causing them to “stick” together. Well, they didn’t. It was impossible for us to suck onto the cells if they weren’t anchored down. Our best course of action was to send an email to the professor who had a similar procedure in his experiment asking for advice.

Yesterday, we took a day off to go visit the famous earthen houses of Fujian. Our adventure began bright and early in the morning. We all hopped onto a tiny tour bus and traveled for three hours before arriving at our destination. The ride there was terrible. Since we signed up with a tour group, the whole bus was packed. I wont make fun of any companies adding leg room to their seats anymore. Being in the fetal position for three hours was not comfortable. If that wasn’t bad enough, the air conditioner occasionally blew out cold air when it wasn’t giving a complimentary shower, aka a leaking pipe. Once there, we all had lunch in a little restaurant. The food wasn’t too good either but they had bamboo, which was something I’ve been looking forward to eating for a while.

The earthen houses we visited were massive structures used as forts during several dynasties. Most of the houses we saw were made in the Qing dynasty. My rant continues. I was really disappointed with the tour. It would have been much nicer if we could freely roam around the area instead of being lead by a tour guide. The scenery and the outside of the earthen houses were quite majestic. But once you got inside the houses, it was an onslaught of other tourist groups and gift shops. Once the tour was over, we made our way back to the bus and headed on back. The bus ride back was the same but felt a lot longer. Funny, I thought it was the return trip that felt shorter. Our Xiamen University friends that came along with us were kind enough to bring us to a nice hot pot restaurant. Our dinner was absolutely delicious. Everyone had a great time.

After dinner, one of the students working in Cathy’s lab was nice enough to take Cathy and I to a rather nice Mahjong parlor where she and her friends go to play every Friday night. It felt kind of weird barging in on their Friday night tradition, and I’m sure Cathy felt the same way, but they seemed really happy to have us with them. I was raised up playing the Taiwanese version of Mahjong. The students were playing the Xiamen version. It was very different from Taiwanese Mahjong. They really urged me to play so I tried it out. I was so lost at first but I slowly understood the differences and actually won a bunch of matches. Hopefully we will get a set for ourselves to play with. I could use a bit more money from Duncan anyways.

Phew… that was a lot. Thanks for tuning in and hopefully next week will be as exciting as this week was. Till next time… Zai Jian!