And Shanghai has a number of locational advantages. “In Germany, it is difficult to encourage students with good computer skills to join a group like this,” says the Russian. “Here it is much, much easier.” His team does around 70 percent of its work on computers; for his research, however, Khaitovich needs not only excellent computer scientists, but also talented biologists – and he can find both in Shanghai. In his group, he has to bring together experts from both fields and then motivate them in the other discipline.
China’s funding policy also benefits his research, as the country is investing in less well established areas of science: “It supports rather unusual projects that are simultaneously very promising,” explains Khaitovich. “Naturally, I hope that our work will be part of this,” he says with a smile.
Anyone who, like Philipp Khaitovich, is working on research in Shanghai must, however, be able to embrace a different mentality. “Those who think that their own brand of problem- solving is the only right one will have problems in China.” Instead, flexibility and empathy are needed, and people must be prepared to adapt to the different culture. Khaitovich reserves judgment about the subtle rules of etiquette and the fine differences in thinking. “Four years in China is not enough to understand these things.”
Before important discussions, he seeks advice from Chinese friends, asking about the right strategy, the right behavior. However, the cultural differences do not present real problems. “There’s no such thing as an invisible barrier,” Khaitovich emphasizes. And the cliché of collective Asian thinking whereby personal well-being is always subordinate to that of the community is not something the researcher has encountered. “My students all have very strong personalities, sometimes stronger than I would like,” he says and laughs.
What the young team does have in common, despite all the potential cultural and character differences, is the type of work. Research in China is no different than anywhere else in the world. “Science is a universal language,” he says. “You analyze data and obtain results, then interpret them – that is exactly the same here as it is in Europe or America.” Perhaps what also unites the scientists is their research object: mankind itself. Because nothing is more fundamental than this. The riddle of our longevity, the origin of our intellectual capabilities – these are subjects that concern us all.