Careers in China

Interview with Axel Mosig

May 13, 2014

China is one of the fastest growing economies worldwide. Is science and research also in the fast lane? An interview with Axel Mosig, Professor at the Ruhr University in Bochum, who experienced Chinese work and lifestyle first hand.

The German Axel Mosig has spent more than five years at the CAS-MPG Partner Institute for Computational Biology (PICB), a joint effort of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the German Max Planck Society. He studied Computer Science at the University of Bonn, where he also received his PhD in 2004. In 2005, he became one of the first scientists at the newly established PICB in Shanghai. Two years ago, he returned to Germany and was appointed Professor at the Ruhr University Bochum. The current focus of his research is on computational bioimaging and RNomics.

How did you become aware of PICB?

When I heard rumours about plans for a new institute in Shanghai spread through the hallways, I was quite curious about the idea of bringing together German meticulousness with the dynamics of emerging China. So, I was very glad to see when things materialised in the course of 2005 and even had the chance to be among the group of five founding members from Germany, headed by Andreas Dress as the founding Director of PICB. 

What was the initial goal of the joint effort and how has PICB evolved over time?

Beyond the scientific goals, PICB’s mission was of course to amalgamate the structures of the Max Planck Society with a campus of the Chinese Academy of Sciences into a new research institute, which obviously was not a straightforward endeavour. Now, eight years later, this merging of research cultures is still a very prominent part of PICB, which certainly makes it a very unique place.

Scientifically, the original directions of the institute were set up by Andreas Dress and Jin Li as the two founding directors. Jin Li brought in the topic of population genetics, Andreas Dress combinatorial phylogenetics as well as computational topics around multi-label fluorescence microscopy. The latter topic evolved into something different over time, as plans to establish certain imaging technology at PICB did not work out. For me as a relatively young postdoc, this on the other hand created quite some freedom to fill the gap. In the end, things worked out rather well, as there was plenty of space for interesting and fruitful collaborations on quantitative image analysis.

What were your expectations in the beginning?

In terms of research, there was a big pool of topics and ideas, and with the founding directors it was clear that PICB would be an excellent place to do science. In terms of the surrounding setting, I had never been to China before I joined PICB and there were far fewer foreign scientists working in China than there are today. So expectations in that respect were rather to expect the unexpected. From today’s point of view I can only say I was not disappointed in any respect. I remember well that reactions and advice from different people about moving to China were mixed at that time. So, there was a sense of adventure from my perspective – which may have helped to create the right mind-set for doing research. Considering how research conditions in China have developed since 2005, young scientists moving to China nowadays have much clearer expectations and there are now attractive programmes for international researchers by different institutions.

Do you remember your first days in Shanghai?

Very intense, in a very positive sense. There was limited time between arriving in Shanghai and the inauguration ceremony of the institute. So the first weeks were not just busy but there was also a very new environment to explore and get used to, like the everyday and omnipresent competition for every inch of space on the street or the subway, or, even more challenging, catching a taxi on a rainy day with half-a-dozen competitors stamping on each other’s feet. Actually, when you leave Shanghai, after a while you can miss such things.

What were your tasks in the beginning?

In the first months, there were a number of organisational matters around getting the institute running and it took some time to get fully into research. In terms of administrative tasks, it is of course challenging if you are reliant on someone’s help to even read the title of a form. PICB’s administrative office was always very motivated and helpful in solving such issues. In the end, thanks to the hard work of the administration office, there was always enough time to stay focused on research.

What have been the major differences in work culture?

In research, of course, work culture is also different. Although it may take a book to describe the differences, let me try to summarise as follows: The Chinese system is fabulous in filtering out talent from all corners of the country but only recently has it started to create the structures to develop this talent into creative scientists. Working with the students we recruited from universities in China in their first months was very different from working with students in Europe or the US. Trying to coin it in a single sentence, I would say that Chinese students first want the feeling that they got some work done and then they feel comfortable to discuss. Western students, rather, first want to discuss before they feel comfortable about getting work done. I should stress, I don’t think any of these two approaches are better or worse - they are just different. And if you have different approaches, you bring forth different kinds of ideas and results, so for the diversity of science it’s a good thing to have something from each side.

Have you been involved in teaching or applying for external grants?

Doing research in China obviously doesn’t mean being able to escape the duties of teaching and grant writing. For teaching, PICB’s curriculum for training PhD students initially was a blank sheet of paper and, naturally, it took some time to find the right format that reached our students. In the end, this again gave the freedom to create something that was quite productive for my work – teaching a small, talented and eager crowd of PhD students, some of whom I could recruit to join my group. Competing for grants is also an essential corner stone of research in China in general. The danger of the grant business is, of course, that one may end up doing research only to acquire grants, rather than the other way around. At PICB, there was a good sense to keep in mind that the ultimate goals are scientific results and that grants are the means by which to get to them.

How was life outside the PICB?

Experiencing a different culture was (and still is) a very valuable experience to me. Understanding how people with a very different life experience think, eat and behave helps you understand both the benefits and also the shortcomings of your own culture much better. You can see this from the perception of traffic and eating between Western and Chinese people – when you arrive in Shanghai for the first time, you will realise that traffic often is a mess because drivers are always in a hurry and squeeze their way in through every little gap they can catch. Conversely, when Chinese people arrive in a Western country, they will realise that Western food often is a mess because cooks are always in a hurry and don’t take the time necessary to prepare proper food. Luckily, I’m seeing trends towards improvement both on Chinese traffic and Western cooking. Besides, I am convinced, experiencing a different culture is a very valuable experience for interdisciplinary research as well. It is something very exciting if the other side shares the same sense of curiosity. 

What about your former co-operations with Chinese scientists?

I keep up a number of collaborations and plan to do so in the long run. As I mentioned before, having a diversity of backgrounds and approaches is one source of inspiration.

How do younger researchers from China see their future?

The question whether to stay in academics or to join a company is on their mind as well. The development in both academia and the commercial world has been at quite an impressive pace over the past years, so overall there may be more of a sense of opportunity than elsewhere these days.

Do you follow up on the latest efforts of China to become a major scientific power?

Obviously, there is quite some coverage in both the scientific and the popular press on this, which of course I am following curiously. My personal take is that different cultures of doing research bring up different kinds of ideas and scientific innovation is generally not a limited resource. So, it should be perceived as good news for science that China invests so heavily in research.

Interview: Ralf Schreck

The interview first appeared on Nov. 26th, 2013, at Lab Times online.

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