Last week I was feeling somewhat hopeless about my project and realizing that our lab isn’t really set up for what I was trying to do. On Friday Dr. Chang asked me how things were going and I brought up my concerns. He was sympathetic and persuaded me to jump on to working with a couple of undergrads in the lab on dormancy in E. coli. So, I’m now embarking on project number 3 in the Chang lab this summer. This project involves working with a system developed by the just-graduated undergrad in our lab that causes only dormant E. coli cells to produce green fluorescent protein, and thus glow green under UV light. This is very convenient because it provides an easy way to identify which cells in a culture are dormant, something that was formerly not so easy. This is achieved by transforming the bacteria with a plasmid she designed and synthesized. The plasmid contains the gene for GFP and regulatory genes. When the cell is happy (not dormant) a repressor is produced that prevents the production of GFP. When the cell is dormant the repressor stops being produced and GFP is produced, allowing it to be visualized. More details might be forthcoming.
I was feeling very stressed by the lab situation as I felt isolated and ignored by my labmates (since I wasn’t really working with anyone and it’s not the most comfortable thing in the world for them to speak Chinese), but after explaining that I want to be involved with this project and told what’s going on each day I’ve gotten to be fairly involved this Monday and Tuesday. We’ve just been growing competent cells (able to be transformed with the plasmid) and today we transformed them and are waiting until tomorrow while they grow, so we haven’t had a lot of work to do. I feel better about the whole situation.
Notable events this weekend included going ice skating, buying a shirt (guys clothes are much much harder to find than girl’s clothes…), having dinner to celebrate Yun’s birthday, Watching the movie Moon (which has my recommendation) on Saturday. Sunday I went with Lily and Ray and a family friend of Ray’s to a day of exploring a small shopping street of Beijing followed by returning to the family friend’s house for family dinner followed by some games.
On Monday I played pingpong with Veronica for a while after a full day of blog reading and otherwise entertaining myself on the computer. I had some good conversations and wrote a couple of emails that have led me in a happier direction in terms of lab work, and thus life (because I no longer feel guilty for not working in lab or disappointed by being totally isolated). I also began looking seriously into study abroad possibilities for the future. I’ve found this experience to be valuable in a variety of ways and would like to do something similar again. I’ve read fairly thoroughly about The University of Leiden in the Netherlands; The University of Granada, in Spain; and Uppsala University, in Sweden. I have many many other tabs open and many many people to talk to and many many things to consider before I make any decisions but at least conceptually and emotionally I am excited by the prospect of more time spent in interesting new cultural and linguistic settings. (Hint: If you have any information about study abroad things or advice relating to such send it over my way.)
Yesterday I played pingpong with Linxuan, one of the undergrads I’m working with, and a number of my American friends in the Life sciences building. It was a good time playing round robin (running around the ping pong table) while occasionally people would walk by carrying stuff for experiments and looking a little confused by our crazy game.
Today I slept in a bit then went in to lab and transformed our bacteria. After that I was free to go since the bacteria needed to grow so I met up with Chanan and helped him get some videos of PKU’s campus. He is borrowing a video camera from a lab-mate which we rigged up in the basket of his bike, peeking out of a hole cut in a carboard box while packed in with towels for security. The videos definitely need editing but there’s some good stuff in there, and it made for a fun afternoon. After dinner I hung out with Sarah, Yun, Taylor, Matt, and Megan (at various times) and we played some Mahjongg, which I’m getting more familiar with and thus feeling more in control of the strategy of what you choose to keep and discard.
And now it’s time to go to sleep.
I came to lab today to find that all of my C. elegans plates are contaminated again. Woo. To give you a sense of what that means I took some pictures.
C. elegans is a small roundworm. It’s adult size is about 1 millimeter so it is treated in most respects as a microorganism. This lab raises the worms on Nematode Growth Medium plates which are an agar plate with certain salt concentrations that make it an ideal place for worms to live. These NGM plates also happen to be great places for other things to live. Things like fungus and bacteria. Unfortunately when you want to do controlled studies on worms you can’t have these other things living with the worms because they could be secreting toxins or otherwise making the worms not the same as the worms on the next plate over. This means that when your plates get contaminated you need to toss them or isolate clean worms from them.
In short, it’s hard to keep junk from growing on your plates where you want nematodes and only nematodes. I go to great lengths to keep them clean, wearing a mask and gloves, working in the clean hood (sterilized with UV light), spraying everything with ethanol before using it, and minimizing the amount of time the plates spend with their lids off. I must be doing something wrong, though because this keeps happening.
Each day I try to keep a fairly reasonable account of what happened so I’ll be able to remember this whole experience pretty well. I often find myself writing in details and generally making these journal entries into blog-style posts. So here are the journal/blog entries for the past several days, made more presentable than they would otherwise be.
- Woke up at 5 am (couldn’t sleep any more probably due to all the napping the past 2 days).
- Went for a long run and ate breakfast at 7 am.
- Dropped off laundry and went to lab.
- Read stuff online for a while and determined that the internet in lab is really fast.
- Planned out tests to do with cellulose and whatnot.
- Picked up laundry and went to our group lunch.
- After lunch I went to lab and carried out my tests.
- Met/chatted with a couple of the undergrads in my lab.
I went back to the hotel and met up with Taylor. We hung out In her room and watched V TV (it’s MTV in China and features both Chinese pop music as well as some American stuff) for a bit, played some apple-scrabble. I was going to go bike around with Yun to take pictures but it was hot and I was getting tired (I woke up at 5, remember?). So I hung out with Taylor. We waited for Yun to come back before we ate dinner. Anya showed up and eventually ate with us as well. Nick and Matt came to dinner also. We went to the blue place (bao zi) (so good). After this we tried wrangling people together for soccer but more or less failed. We did kick a soccer ball around a bit but not that much, we may have been yelled at to leave the field again. We left the field thinking that this was the case, in any case. I then played some basketball with matt and Sarah, which was fun. By this point my legs were/are really tired. Now it’s bedtime. I also managed to read a few pages of blue mars today.
7-3-2010: Woke up at 8:25 or so, ate breakfast, then went out shopping with Taylor, Sarah, Lily, Susan, and Veronica. We went to a clothing area (visited 2 separate market buildings) near the zoo. It was fun to give my commentary on clothes, provide my expert opinion as a male, and look at some guys clothes when it could be found. Then we went to a more general market and got some trinket things. We then headed back to the hotel and took a rest for an hour and a half. I finished blue mars, took a short nap, got a blizzard from DQ and then had dinner at 5:30 at a restaurant near the courtyard. I didn’t like it. They made you pay for opening your chopsticks, but that was the only option (which isn’t a big deal, but it’s annoying). They didn’t give us bowls for our soup except for when we asked and we had to ask a couple times to get spoons. The chicken dish we got was weird. We think it was chicken hearts?? Not sure…
So after that we went to wangfujing street. We first went to the bookstore. They had a big selection of dvds so I got Moon, Anya got Avatar. Yun asked us to get her Fahrenheit 451 so I grabbed that for her, too. We then headed to the snack street. I ended up eating lots of sugary fruit and some grasshoppers. The grasshoppers tasted like any little meat that was deliciously greasy due to being fried in grease. I also got a satchel of candy from a candy store there. I’ve liked what I’ve had pretty well so far. We then headed back and watched the end of the world cup game. Now sleep.
7-4-2010: In the morning Lily and some people went on a trip within Beijing with Lily’s lab. I chose to take it easy and hang around. I ended up hanging out with Veronica and blogging until I was recruited to go to Yuanmingyuan park (a ruined place where the emperor used to party (surprisingly enough)) which is supposed to be pretty nice (though it’s ruinous instead of being in good repair). We actually went on a tour of the pretty Tsinghua campus (led by Lily and Ray). It was Hot. The campus was pretty. We returned home to get ready to go our dinner reservations at Bellagio’s (which is a Chinese restaurant… for some reason with an Italian name)
The meal ended up being 7-9 dollars (USD) today, depending on what sort of snazzy drink you got for yourself. We should really try to relax about the price of meals, especially when going out to dinners like this. We’re constantly fretting about the cost since it’s a fancy place, and it sort of poisons the time spent ordering and we might order one fewer dish since it might become “too expensive” but in reality it just slightly lessens the meal because you’re not quite satisfied. I liked the food quite well, but I wasn’t really in the greatest of moods so it wasn’t my favorite dinner ever. After dinner we went over to CarreFour and got some groceries. I was looking to get some cereal and milk and cookies. I decided against the cereal but I did get a bag of German oatmeal/rice puff stuff which I intend to eat with some of the yoghurt that I got (Have I mentioned that yoghurt is EVERYWHERE in china?). I also got some peanut butter Oreos (delicious), and some chips ahoy cookies. I was surprised to find that the chips ahoy weren’t nearly as crumbly and not as jagged as US chips ahoy. They were more flat, smooth, and firm.
At night as people were getting to bed I got started talking to Sarah and Ray about my lab stuff and it became apparent that I was really frustrated by the whole situation. I feel like the whole lab ignores me and doesn’t make an effort to talk to me. Nobody in the lab introduced themselves to me, excepting a couple of undergrads, the grad student I was originally working with (Anasha) and the grad student I’m now working with (Yan Tang). I need supplies and don’t know how to get them and don’t really feel comfortable talking to people to ask. Sarah and Ray were full of good advice and I was glad I talked with them about it. [Update: I feel much better about the lab situation now, post-lab meeting.]
7-5-2010: In the morning I worked on my powerpoint to show to the lab what I’m working on this summer (automating/speeding up the worm processing stuff) until 2. At 2 we had the lab meeting. I feel like my powerpoint went over well and that people in my lab were impressed by how thorough it was. Last night I was feeling really discouraged and felt like my lab didn’t care about me at all. They didn’t talk to me and mainly ignored me and I didn’t know how to get the materials I wanted to do things that I wanted to do (wire, basic tools). I think by talking at the lab meeting they learned that I do sort of exist and have something to say. I spread some bacteria on some plates and generally did a little worm wrangling and called it a day. In the evening we ate at a cafeteria where you put what you want in a basket and they then cook it in a delicious sauce for you. It was really good, but really hot. Really hot was probably not the best choice as this was a record high temperature (106 Fahrenheit) for the day. In the evening we chatted and figured out the transportation situation for going to Hohhot. We resolved that we’d get train tickets tomorrow morning for most people, and a couple people would get plane tickets.
7-6-2010: In the morning I went to get train tickets with Taylor and Frank’s help. You can buy them on campus, which is quite convenient. What was less convenient was that there were no sleeper tickets left for this Friday, when we wanted to leave. There were also no sleeper tickets for Thursday, or Saturday, or next Thursday, or next Friday… We did learn that the tickets for next Saturday go on sale tomorrow morning, so throughout the day we made sure everyone was ok with shifting the trip thusly and planned to get the tickets tomorrow morning. Since I was planning to buy train tickets and didn’t I was walking around with many thousands of RMB, which was an odd feeling.
In lab today an undergrad in our lab, LinXuan, asked me to eat lunch with him, which was nice. I was glad to have someone showing some interest in me AND manifesting that interest by communicating with me, rather than chatting about me in Chinese, which is the usual modus operandum. I learned that he was in the science Olympiad in China and did well enough in it that he didn’t have to take the college entrance tests because he was automatically admitted!
I started my electrotaxis experiments in a rudimentary way as well. I dug around the lab and found some electrodes which I plugged into an electrophoresis machine, I put some worms in a plate of salt water and stuck in the electrodes and turned that bad boy on (rudimentary, remember?). To my dismay, a cloud of precipitate rapidly formed around the cathode. We puzzled at this because the stuff in solution shouldn’t be forming precipitates. As I was about to check whether the water we were using was contaminated Mr. Wang, a graduate student in our lab came over with an old electrophoresis box and pulled the platinum electrodes off of it and tied them around my electrodes. I now had platinum wires to use as electrodes! This solved the precipitate issue which I assume was the steel reacting with stuff in solution. I spent the next few hours trying to rig up my electrodes to a plate with worms on it, putting buffer on top of the agar plate, and zapping worms in a buffer suspension. My conclusions from the day were: It seems like the worms sort of move toward the cathode, like they’re supposed to. I have more in the works for the future. In the evening I ate dinner with Sarah, which was nice. Afterward I taught Sarah and Taylor cribbage. We broke for a fruit party and watching Phantom of the Opera online. Watermelon in China continues to be amazing. Asian pears, or “papples” (pear-apples) as Taylor, and all of us, have taken to calling them are plentiful and we like them well enough. Phantom of the Opera is hilarious with commentary from friends about how creepy the whole situation is in a sort of “I have candy, get in the van” sort of creepy.
7-7-2010: This morning I woke up and checked for a line at the train ticket place. It was clear so I went back and ate breakfast and returned to the ticket place with Ray. We had to return at 9 when the tickets we wanted to buy actually went on sale (we’d forgotten what time they did, exactly) . [PRO TIP: Train tickets go on sale 10 days in advance of the departure. Get them when they first go on sale if you want to be confident in having seats you want (read: soft sleepers). This is for you, next year’s UM PKU REU students] Tickets purchased we returned to the hotel to put them somewhere safe. I never really made it back out of the hotel…
I wanted to have a clear plan for what I was going to do before I went back in to lab. I didn’t succeed in making this plan until like, 5, and even now it’s not super-clear, but it’s at least translucent. I spent the day instead reading about awesome things like zombifying parasites , and listening to NPR’s science Friday. I cannot stress enough how much I love hearing about Cool Stuff that is in the world. Lunch was tasty cafeteria food with Veronica, Chanan, and Megan who weren’t working because they were recovering from illness ( 😦 ), letting a reaction run, and the machine she’d be using is broken and her graduate student is working on a paper. I had dinner with Anya and Veronica at the place where you throw stuff in a basket which they then cook (it’s still super delicious). After dinner we went for a walk to a park nearby and talked and saw some crazy Chinese outdoor exercise equipment. THEN, played some docile basketball with Sarah and Taylor and Nick and Yun. THEN, we returned to Taylor, Sarah, and Yun’s room to watch the rest of Phantom of the Opera, which was pretty swell.
Life in China is crazy, not so much because it is in China, but because we are here together and we have become friends and we can constantly have a good time with each other.
I woke up early to skype with me parents who were visiting Kelly. We had a nice chat and I told her about China and what’s been going on lately. After that the UM kids went to the ceremony where the presidents of UM and PKU signed papers to continue the cooperation between the two schools. A whole delegation from each school came in and stood around a big table while the presidents passed these attractive-looking forms back and forth signing things while being photographed extensively. After the signing President Coleman and a string of other people from UM came over and chatted with us UM students who are spending the summer at PKU. We also talked to some of the students from PKU who will be going to UM in a few days. We ate lunch with some of those kids and then went our separate ways. I opted to take a nap since I was feeling a bit tired. My nap went from 1-4 pm. After this I went out to try a new place for fast internet. I tried going to Starbucks which is good because it’s fairly open and you can sit down and not feel pressured to buy things. Unfortunately the internet was still not as fast as I would have liked (and I have since determined that it’s actually slightly slower than the hotel internet typically is… hmmm). I left Starbucks around 5pm because there was a UM alumni reception at 6:30 that we’d been invited to that sounded fun. I met up with Francesca, Andrew, Lester, Dan, Ellen, and Chanan and headed to the Westin Hotel where the shindig was happening. We got there eventually… after some bumbling and some asking. When we did finally get there we were not disappointed. Wang Wen, our contact at the joint institute was there so she could vouch that we were allowed to be there. The first thing we found was the drinks. They had real orange juice and apple juice (The fact that it was real/pure is note-worthy as most juices here are diluted or from concentrate, or excessively sweetened, and good straight-up juice is just generally difficult to find, and expensive to boot) as well as wine and beer. The Westin is a swanky hotel, and the real orange juice was only the tip of the swank. We arrived a bit late so a talk by President Coleman was already underway when we got there, and we didn’t really want to barge in and start looking for seats so we explored the public areas of the hotel. There was a nice lounge area down below where the UM event was being held that was complete with a bar, an ice cream table (both not covered by the UM event, regretfully), soft music, a guy painting traditional Chinese landscapes, and a lady demonstrating TaiChi in the walkway near the seats. Eventually the talk was over and the hors d’oeuvres room opened, to everyone’s delight. The whole crowed set in on an array of delicious gourmet snacks, an array that would be my entire dinner that night. There were chocolates, pieces of cake, sushi, spring rolls, salmon cakes (it was like sushi in cake form), coffee cakes, tiny steamed buns full of shrimp… There was a lot, and it was delicious. My favorites were the little fruit custards and the candied chestnut chocolates. We met some people sort of randomly. One girl going to UM in the fall for law school, a few people who were also in China for summer programs that were grad students in UM. Unfortunately, we made no big business deals and were not invited to go on any yachts to talk further about said business deals. Maybe next time. We did run into Han Li’s co-workers here in Beijing who first let us know this whole thing was happening. One of them is a med student at UM, the other is in public health at UM with a neuroscience undergraduate degree, the third one is an undergraduate studying History with a chemistry minor and an intention to go to med school. We had a really good time chatting with people and by the end of the night I was fit to burst I was so full of snacks. Once we were back to the hotel we had a fruit party and chatted for a while. It was an excellent day.
龙庆峡 (Long Qing Xia in pinyin), Great Dragon Gorge in English, was our destination this past Sunday (6-27-10). Long Qing Xia is located approximately 60 miles away from Beijing and is, as we learned, accessible via the bus system. Throughout the week we researched the place and determined that it was a single day destination and then in a combination of my conversations with the front desk lady about taxis there and the existence of a van in Beijing that could take more than 4 of us at a time (this is a bizarre idea, apparently), Taylor, Sarah and Yun’s wrangling with the official site and other online information, and Yun’s Mandarin skillz we figured out how best to get there.
It was a series of three buses. From PKU’s west gate we took bus 118 to xi1 san1 qi2 where we got on bus 919 to yan2 qing4 nan2 cai4 yuan2 where we boarded bus 920 which finally arrived at long2 qing4 xia2 (that detail was for you, future UMPKU iREU students, as well as any other visitors to Beijing). The buses went smoothly except for having to literally run to catch the 919 bus (if we’d missed it we just would have had to wait a few extra minutes), then nearly getting on the wrong version of the 919 bus. It was pretty funny. As our group of westerns ran to the bus everyone started shouting “bu2 yao4 na ge” (you don’t want that one) and “no, not that one!” because they could tell we didn’t totally know what was going on. Yun came to the rescue and figured out that one of the two was the express bus, which we wanted. So it was fine. We managed to get seats and everything was alright. The buses were even a pleasant temperature.
2 hours and 40 minutes of bussing later we arrived at 龙庆峡 long qing xia. We considered renting some horses and riding those to the entrance of the park which was determined after some talking to be a relatively short walk. This, combined with their general grubbiness and shadiness dissuaded us from the horses. (About 10 of these guys literally came jogging over to us the minute we stepped off the bus and followed us until it was clear that we were not coming back.)
Long qing xia is some sort of government-designated park area. It is a fairly tasteful tourist destination. It is formed by a dammed river that flows down between very abrupt mountains. The first thing you do when entering the park is go to the top of the dam, but this is done in style. The world’s longest series of escalators, housed inside a large dragon-shaped hallway which winds up to the top of the dam is the entrance to the park, and makes for a good introductory photo!
Upon ascending the dragon you can immediately hike up into the hills or take a boat up the river to a dock farther along. We took the boat to get a look at some of the scenery and explore around the next dock where more things were located. The whole area is very picturesque. Steep slopes covered with trees make up the walls of the waterway and valleys between peaks are absolutely lush with greenery. The area is a bit hazy and looks sort of like the smokey mountains in that regard. The pictures will probably describe it better than I can.
Post-boating we set off walking to the “illusion pavilion.” We determined after about 5 minutes that it was much farther than we thought it was. It was an invigorating (By invigorating I mean very hot. Despite being quite a bit cooler than Beijing the walking in direct sunlight up a mountain was quite warm, surprisingly enough) walk up a path made primarily of rough stairs formed from rock and cement that ended at a small pavilion with an impressive view of the gorge:
After our little hike we stopped for popsicles and proceeded on to the zip line and bungee jumping. Most of us ended up going down the zip line and one did the bungee jumping, but most of us decided that that was pushing our trust in the Chinese facilities and the strength of our spines a bit too far. The zip line was cool and watching people bungee jump while waiting for our person was funny. You could see them looking anxious and hesitating before finally asking to be pushed or falling off themselves.
Following the excitement we wound down our stay in Long Qing Xia with some snacks and boating. We rented rowboats and went up a small branch of the waterway. The rowboats were typical wooden boats but the oars provided were clearly homemade. They were relatively straight, relatively round handles attached with U-bolts to what I suspect was once a piece of wooden siding that was approximately the correct size for an oar blade. The boats didn’t really have the leg room to be conducive for me to row, and none of us really had lots of rowing experience so we took the oars and paddled with them. We had a very pleasant and scenic hour in the wonderfully shaded canyon. I was interested to see the continuum of paddling skill that emerges every time I see a random group of people get in boats. Basically it breaks down along the lines of more experience and more strength result in more skill. Just interesting… Anyway, here are some more pictures!
After boating we began our journey back to the city as the park area closes at 5. Conveniently enough it also was starting to rain around 5, but since we were leaving anyway we didn’t feel like we’d gotten rained out. So after a dash to the bus stop (which really wasn’t necessary since it rained very politely) and another long bus ride we got back to Beijing. The trip was a perfect length for a day trip and I highly recommend it to anyone spending some time in that area.
For dinner once we got back we returned to the place with the pineapple rice since we liked it the first time. When we were ordering I decided that what the people near us were eating looked good so I went over and asked politely what they were eating. The guy I asked was really excited and said that my pronunciation was really good (Yun translated that bit) and then started asking me things. At first I was uncertain but then I realized that I was understanding a lot of what he was saying. He was asking what I was doing in China and where I was from, and things like that. So, excited by the revelation in my comprehension I definitely said “American” and possibly said “I’m from America” (depending on how well I said it, haha). I then said “I’m studying at 北大 (PKU)” to which he exclaimed that one of the women he was eating with was an alumnus of 北大. Anyway, I got the name of what he was having, we ordered it and it was delicious though quite spicy. I had a great dinner with the bonus of feeling slightly like I’ve learned a modicum of Chinese so far to wrap up a great day.
I had an excellent weekend. Notable events included lots of talking with friends, playing some Mahjong, a thought for a design for my project, dinner at the fancy vegetarian place, and our Sunday trip to Long qing xia.
More complete blog posts are pending. For now I’m worn out and need to get some sleep. Rest assured that I’m living life to the fullest and all-together having a blast here in China.
I’ve officially decided that I’m going to switch over to working on the automation project. I’m incredibly excited. The grad student (possibly) that I’m working with is very open to creative solutions and loves discussing the problems involved with me and explaining them well. I feel like I know what’s going on somewhat and that I know what to start looking at. I’ll write more not now, but I’m really tired and need to go to bed. On that note my new grad student works at night and sleeps during the day, so I think I’m going to be waking up late and staying up late so I can overlap with him and be able to discuss things.