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In Shanghai, Life Sciences Students Find Core Similarities and Broader Goals

Students and faculty in the Harvard Summer School Program in Shanghai attend a biotechnology conference sponsored by Novartis this part summer.
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Students and faculty in the Harvard Summer School Program in Shanghai attend a biotechnology conference sponsored by Novartis this part summer. .
By Laura G. Mirviss, Crimson Staff Writer

While working in a bioinformatics lab in Shanghai this summer, Andrew Chen ’12 learned to sterilize his own pipettes and prepare his own agarose gels—a needless practice in most American laboratories, where scientists have room in their budgets to buy fresh pipettes and industry-produced gels.

As Chen learned, Chinese scientists are more strapped for funding than their American counterparts—and reusing in-house equipment was a clear cost-saving measure.

“We are spoiled in American labs,” said Chen, who researched at Fudan University as part of Harvard’s life sciences summer school program in Shanghai. “In China, you have to autoclave pipette tips yourself, rather than getting them sterilized from a company.”

Working alongside other Chinese undergraduates, Chen spent weeks researching the mechanisms by which mice detect carbon dioxide—a function humans do not have.

Apart from funding disparities, Chen, and other Harvard students researching at the University, found that incongruities with American research practices largely ended there: the Chinese researchers they encountered had the same core considerations when it came to sound scientific practice and experimental design.

“Resources are limited, you see it every day in the lab,” said Yannis K. Valtis ’12, who made a habit of recycling pipette tips while conducting epigenetics research in Shanghai. “Yet the intellectual aspect of it, the scientific aspect of it, was very rigorous, totally comparable to the United States.”

Indeed, both American students were struck by the expertise of their Chinese peers—Valtis said when his lab had journal club or scientific discussions, the students were well acquainted with the material.

“The amount of information the average Fudan student has memorized is incredible,” he said. In the Chinese education system, students specialize much sooner and attend medical school directly after high school.

The proficiency of the Chinese students was critical in Chen’s case, when he and two Chinese students were charged with designing an experiment from scratch—uncommon in the United States, where undergraduates usually assist with or build off of existing projects.

“The experience as a whole was really good because a lot of American students don’t get to struggle through the design of an experiment,” Chen said.

After a lot of trial and error, Chen and the Chinese students used computer modeling software to virtually alter various structural aspects of a protein integral to carbon dioxide detection.

They then analyzed the impact of those structural manipulations on the protein’s function in carbon dioxide detection.

Such table-top collaboration spilled into the classroom, where the Harvard summer school students worked side by side with their Chinese peers to address questions about the relationship of medicine, statistics, and the social sciences.

Eric Lin ’12, one of the 12 Harvard students in the Shanghai program, took courses in biostatistics and the life sciences, working on projects about the effectiveness of Chinese lung cancer screening policies, the social consequences of the scientific “brain drain” in China, and the medical implications of an aging population.

These large social questions hit home in the classroom: when the Chinese students in Lin’s course were polled, eight out of nine said they wanted to come to the United States for a Ph.D.—the same percentage of American students said they wanted to pursue a graduate degree on home turf.

“The class showed me the widespread effects of life science research outside the purely scientific realm, which isn’t something you always realize when you are working in lab,” Lin said. “It does have effects on society, it is not an isolated pursuit.”

—Staff writer Laura G. Mirviss can be reached at lmirviss@fas.harvard.edu.

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