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The traveling biochemist: Science in the far east

Clay Clark

Clay Clark – @biochemprof I'm on ScienceSeeker-Microscope

When I’m lucky enough to be invited to a conference outside the United States, I jump at the chance to visit faculty and students at other institutes. Recently, I was invited by the Biochemical Journal to attend the yearly editorial meeting in Beijing, China. I’ve been a member of the editorial board for several years, and the editors usually meet in London each spring to discuss issues pertaining to the journal. Two years ago BJ opened an office in Beijing in anticipation of the tremendous growth in scientific research occurring in Asian countries. In order to highlight research of the editorial board members, BJ held a one-day research symposium (Cellular Processes: the Life and Death Decisions of a Cell) at Tsinghua University prior to the board meeting. The talks focused on new imaging techniques, nanotubes and intercellular communications, membrane dynamics and tumor suppression, and molecular switches between apoptosis, autophagy, and programmed necrosis.

I traveled to Beijing several days before the meeting in order to visit tourist sites around Beijing as well as to visit Dr. Yigong Shi and his students at Tsinghua University. I’ve crossed paths with Yigong on several occasions since we are both interested in cell death mechanisms and we both served on NIH study section, so he invited me to give a seminar on my research. The room was packed with faculty and students who were quite engaging. Yigong then treated me to a lunch of Peking Duck and other delicious dishes before he returned to his duties as a delegate to the National People’s Congress, which was in session at the time.

I also caught up with my long-time colleague, Dr. Brian Baker, in Beijing. Brian and I have known each other since he was a graduate student and I was a post-doc. He joined the BJ board a few years ago, so we decided to travel together while in Beijing. We took tours to the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, and Wangfujing street market. We enjoyed the Great Wall so much that we took two tours, one to the Jiangjunguan Pass. The second tour began in Badaling and included an approximately five mile hike along the wall. All sites were spectacular, but the hike along the Great Wall, which included sections that were off the beaten path, and the Wanfujing market were the highlights for me. You can see a slide show of the tourist sites here, and I’ve also posted a video at the Wangfujing market, where I ate fried scorpions.

Following a week in Beijing I traveled to Taipei, Taiwan. My first graduate student, Dr. Ruby Chen, is a faculty member at the Genomics Research Center at Academia Sinica. Since Taipei is a short three hour flight from Beijing, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit Ruby. My first impression of Taipei is that it is a very livable city – excellent public transportation, great universities, and fantastic weather. I spent the day with Ruby, her husband, Jeff, and daughter, Ashley, where they showed me the Jianguo flower market, an enormous flower market assembled every Friday in a highway underpass, and disassembled every Sunday evening. We had delicious dumplings at the world-famous Din Tai Fung dumpling restaurant and toured Taipei 101, which at one time was the tallest building in the world.

I spent a day at the Genomics Research Center visiting with faculty and students and presenting my own research. I’m constantly amazed at how small the scientific community is, as I met several scientists at Academia Sinica who knew or collaborate with scientists I know, or who previously worked at institutes where I had worked or studied. The facilities at the GRC are phenomenal (as are the facilities at Tsinghua), and I was quite envious as I toured the labs. The granting system encourages innovation and risk, and although the grants are much smaller than awarded in the US system, the funding levels are much higher. Overall, many of the innovative, high risk projects develop into high impact research projects. This is reflected in publications from Tsinghua and the GRC and is a major reason behind BJ opening an office in Beijing. There are many excellent researchers in this area, and I would encourage all scientists to spend time getting to know them.