Careers in China II

(February 7th, 2014) Canadian-born Monica Sleumer has been living and working in China since 2010. We asked her about her experience in the East and the differences between Vancouver and Beijing.



The Canadian Monica Sleumer just finished her postdoc at Tsinghua University in Beijing, which over the years has been consistently ranked among the top two Chinese mainland universities. Monica received Bachelor degrees in biochemistry as well as in computer science from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. After spending two years in the biotech industry she pursued her PhD studies in the lab of Steven Jones at the Michael Smith Genome Sciences Center (GSC) in Vancouver, where she was introduced to comparative genomics and gene regulation in nematodes. In 2010, she moved to Beijing to join the lab of Michael Q. Zhang at the Center for Synthetic and Systems Biology at the Tsinghua National Laboratory for Information Science and Technology. A couple of months ago, Monica completed her postdoc and, not wanting to leave Beijing, took up a job at the Beijng R&D centre of an international pharmaceutical company.

LT: How did you become interested in Chinese language and culture?

During my first undergraduate degree I was an exchange student in Singapore for a year, which is where I learned my first Chinese characters. Later, I lived near Chinatown in Vancouver, and my neighbourhood had a lot of Chinese store signs and bookstores, and I decided I wanted to learn how to read Chinese. I participated in a language exchange for several years, with a woman who had recently immigrated to Canada from China, but I didn’t make very much progress. I concluded that I should move to China if I wanted to learn the language properly. In China I have taken a formal course in Mandarin at Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU), then I had private lessons twice a week for the first two years of my postdoc, and after that I participated in language exchanges with students at Tsinghua several nights per week. I can now carry on a conversation in Chinese, and read maps, street signs, menus, etc. I’m still working on improving my technical vocabulary and I hope to improve my reading skills to the point where I can read Chinese subtitles in real time (right now I have to pause Chinese TV shows every few seconds to read them).

LT: What has been your motivation to attend a three-month course in Mandarin after receiving your PhD?

I needed time to adjust to life in Beijing, and I needed to get a head start on learning the language before my postdoc began.

LT: Did you actively search for an opportunity to do a postdoc at this time in China?

No, the postdoc had already been arranged long before that. I applied for the postdoc at Tsinghua a full 12 months before it officially began.

LT: How did you get involved with the Zhang lab?

There is some overlap between the field of study of my PhD supervisor, Steven Jones, and that of Michael Q. Zhang. During my PhD, I cited several of Michael Q. Zhang's papers; he is very well known and accomplished in the field. Towards the end of my PhD, Steve asked me what I wanted to do next, and I told him that I wanted to move to Beijing. Steve said that he knew that Michael had a lab in Beijing, and that he was looking for postdocs, and that he would recommend me to Michael. So that worked out very well.

LT: How swift was your move to China? Did you receive any help by the administration of Tsinghua University?

I wouldn't describe my move to China as swift, I really did the move in stages. A week after I completed my PhD, I went to Beijing for two weeks to get to know the city, get a cell phone, and rent a room for 6 months. I then returned to Vancouver, packed up more of my stuff, and went to Beijing for the 3-month Mandarin course at BLCU. Meantime, my partner sold all of our remaining belongings in Vancouver and then flew out to Beijing to get to know the city as well. Then I returned to my parents' home for a month while I waited for my work visa paperwork to be completed. Finally I moved to Beijing permanently, and my partner joined me a few months later. Tsinghua provided me with a standard postdoc's apartment, and they also hired movers to move my stuff over from my rented room. They didn't help me with the first few stages of the move because I wasn't yet affiliated with the University, and I didn't really need help anyways.

LT: Are there any special measures for the integration of international scientists at Tsinghua University?

The main special measure for me was that I was paid a little more than the standard postdoc salary to cover my higher cost of living (e.g. plane tickets and Chinese lessons).

LT: How international is Tsinghua University?

The Tsinghua postdoc office is not very international - all paperwork is done in Chinese and no concessions are made for non-Chinese postdocs. I only met a few other foreign postdocs over the years. Some faculties of Tsinghua have a higher proportion of foreigners, such as the School of Economics and Management. It’s difficult to compare to Canada because Canada is a country of immigrants and China is not.

LT: How have you been funded and how was the group organised?

My funding was provided by my supervisor Michael Q. Zhang. I also applied for and received the Research Fellowship for International Young Scientists from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) for one year. The group was organised just like any other lab, with an assortment of postdocs, PhD students, Master's students, and 4th-year undergrads working on an assortment of research projects. During my years there the lab was well-funded, and Michael expanded the capabilities of his lab tremendously.

LT: What have been major differences in “work culture”?

At Tsinghua, there was a strong emphasis on being at the lab 7 days a week. I was routinely expected to attend meetings on evenings and weekends, which never happened at the GSC where I did my PhD. Other than that, the academic culture was very similar: a group of people working on their research projects, and occasionally giving talks and writing papers.

LT: Have you been involved in teaching or have to write for external grants?

No, I wasn't involved in teaching. Teaching is not expected of postdocs at Tsinghua, and my background was not a good match with the courses that were being taught, anyways. I was involved in mentoring the grad students, especially with respect to their oral presentations and writing. I did not have to write for any major grants, just one individual postdoc's grant that I mentioned above.

LT: How was life outside the lab? What are major differences between Vancouver and Beijing?

I really enjoy living in Beijing. The campus of Tsinghua University is like a small town, with grocery stores, schools, seniors’ centers, parks, etc., so it's a great place to live. Then outside the gate of Tsinghua is a lively students' district (there are a lot of other universities in this part of Beijing), with restaurants, bars, and a few stores that sell imported goods. I also enjoy visiting interesting areas in Beijing, and travelling around China on long weekends and national holidays. There is always something fun to do.
Geographically, Vancouver and Beijing couldn't be more different. Vancouver has the seaside, the forests and the mountains, while Beijing is flat and dry. Culturally, Beijing is much more interesting, with a never-ending list of historical sights to see, and it develops and changes before your eyes. Vancouver is already fully developed and you don't get that feeling of new opportunities around every corner like you do in Beijing.

LT: What did you miss most during your first years in Beijing? What did you like most?

Given that I had just finished my PhD and was ready for something new, adjusting to life in Beijing wasn't too difficult. Of course it took some time to develop a new social circle. The lifestyle of a non-tenure track academic is very transient, so people come and go a lot, and you have to put some effort into maintaining a social life. The thing that I like most, in addition to travelling around China and studying the language as already mentioned, is the food. It took me a few months to get used to Tsinghua University's cafeteria food and ordinary Chinese restaurant food. Over the years I have learned to enjoy many kinds of mushrooms, tofu, fish, and vegetables and spices I had never seen or tasted before coming here. I have learned to enjoy spicy food, which I used to be unable to tolerate, and I have almost completely lost interest in former staples such as cheese.

LT: What are you doing right now?

My postdoc at Tsinghua ended a few months ago, and I recently started a new job as a Research Scientist at a large international pharmaceutical company. My new office is quite international, the primary language is English and Chinese is only used for casual chat. There are scientists from Europe and North America, and all of the Chinese scientists speak fluent English. Many of them lived abroad for several years before returning to China.

LT: How do younger researchers from China see their career prospects?

Researchers here struggle with similar issues as researchers in Canada. For grad students, there are difficult choices to make between staying in academia and going into industry. On the whole, the economy is growing, funding levels are increasing, and both universities and companies are hiring, but there are also so many students graduating every year that the competition is very fierce. Additionally, students' career prospects will be better if they have international experience, so everyone is looking for an opportunity to study or work outside of China for at least a year. Academic researchers might have an easier time getting funding at first, but they face the same pressure to publish high-impact papers as they do everywhere else.

Interview: Ralf Schreck

Photo: M. Sleumer

Last Changes: 03.23.2014

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