"I learn something new every day"

April 16, 2010

Philipp Khaitovich (36) investigates the differences between the brains of humans and apes. Head of a junior research group at the CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology (PICB), he reports on the excitement of working in Shanghai and about the skills that young researchers should bring to such cutting-edge research.

Mr Khaitovich, you have been head of a team of 17 young scientists in Shanghai for three years. Before this, you were a researcher in Leipzig. How does your work in China differ from that in Germany?

Khaitovich: I had the good fortune to work at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig which is one of the best places in the world to study human evolution. The Institute carries out research at the highest level and is extremely well organised. In contrast, the PICB in Shanghai is still a very young, experimental institute and is sometimes a little chaotic. However, I enjoy a lot of freedom here and I have an excellent group of very highly motivated and good students.

Is there great cultural diversity in the team?


: Yes, of course. But most people in the team are very open to other cultures and can see beyond the limits of their own cultural experience. Many friendships exist beyond the work context and families have already been established between group members. Where people come from is irrelevant in research. Our language is English, our contacts with other research groups are international.

Did you find it easy to adapt to life in Shanghai?


: Even after three years here, I still learn something new every day. Every time I think I have understood something, I have to revise my thinking soon after. Shanghai is a very lively big city with a high proportion of foreigners. A lot of things are different in Shanghai to German cities. At the same time, everything is changing here very quickly, everything is in flux and that makes the city fascinating. You get used to the strangeness after a while.

Did you have to learn Chinese before you went to Shanghai?


: That is not necessary for my work but knowledge of the local language makes a lot of things easier. Particularly if you want to have contact with ordinary people. So I have started to learn the language. But I am really only fluent in Russian, my mother tongue, and, of course, English. I do not find German and Chinese easy to learn.

What are you researching at the moment?


: Our research group is trying to understand the molecular mechanisms that underlie human development and ageing. This involves comparative studies of humans and apes. The methods we are using are interdisciplinary and involve the fields of biology, bioinformatics and computer science.

What qualifications should young scientists bring to such work?

Khaitovich: Students who would like to work at this institute must be open to new things. In the case of biologists, for example, this means that they must not be afraid to learn programming. Computer scientists should be interested in biological topics and evolutionary issues. We are not looking for specialists but generalists who delight in benefiting from the knowledge of others.

Herr Khaitovich, thank you very much for the interview and good luck with your work!
Philipp Khaitovich was interviewed by Barbara Abrell

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