Interview with Chinese student Yuan Luo

"You have to be open-minded"

May 15, 2014

Chinese student Yuan Luo, 27 years old, is studying towards her PhD in material sciences at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids in Dresden, Germany. She is currently spending her fourth year in Germany as part of an exchange program between the Institute of Coal Chemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanxi, and the Max Planck Society. We talked with Yuan Luo about her research, the major differences in work culture between China and Germany, and her future plans.

Yuan Luo from Shanxi, China, is currently studying towards her PhD in material sciences at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids.

How did you become interested in the exchange program?

When I studied in Shanxi, the institute pointed out to us that there was an opportunity for CAS students to take part in a joint doctoral program at the Max Planck Society. The idea immediately appealed to me. We were able to select an Institute, a research field, as well as a supervisor who we wanted to work with.  After doing some research on the internet, I filled out the application form. At that time, there were more than 15 other applicants.

What were your expectations in the beginning?

Actually, I had no clear expectations at first. But I knew that the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids would be a good place for my scientific research. I contacted the scientist in Dresden who was my first choice of supervisor, Marc Armbrüster, and we initially discussed a lot of issues via email. On the basis of our correspondence, he invited me for an interview. At this point, I clearly knew what research I wanted to carry out during my PhD and that I wanted to stay in Germany for the entire three years of the program.

What is the topic of your work?

My research focuses on nanoparticles and their role in catalysis.

So far, a knowledge-based approach to improve catalysts and understand the processes involved is only possible in the rarest of cases. The reason for this is the use of very complex systems, which are hard to characterize and consist of many potentially active components.

Catalysts can be simplified by using well characterized intermetallic compounds such as ZnPd. In my work, I have tested several intermetallic compounds for their catalytic properties. Materials showing good catalytic properties will be synthesized as nanoparticles, by which the catalytic reactivity of the compounds can be substantially increased.

Do you remember your first day in Germany?

Yes, I do! I arrived in Dresden at the beginning of June 2010. I remember being astonished that everything seemed to be so automatized: for example, we bought train tickets at a vending machine and then just got onto the train. Nobody checked the tickets - as would have been the case in China. Also, everything was clean, very quiet and well organized! When I arrived in Dresden, Mark Armbrüster met me at the train station and showed me around.

Please compare your home with your current host institution.

In China, a supervisor has a lot of PhD and master students. As a result, supervisors in China have a very packed schedule and don't have much time for each individual student. This means you have to learn a lot of things through your colleagues and the people you share an office with. Sometimes, there isn't even any time for discussions. Here in Dresden, one supervisor has roughly two to three students - so he or she has much more time to discuss your work with you in detail. And if you have a question, you can meet your supervisor or contact him or her via email, so any problems tend to get solved quite quickly.

On the whole, I think there's an impressively high level of efficiency here. In fact, I work fewer hours now than I did in China. At home, it wasn't unusual for me to work the whole day as well as the weekends. But often, despite the long hours, I didn't get that much out of it.

I thought that in the level of efficiency China was even higher than in Germany?

No, I wouldn't say that this is the case.

In Germany, you have to learn a lot of things by yourself; you have to be quite disciplined. You have to learn how to structure your research which has taught me to become more independent.

Are there any major differences in the work culture of the two countries?

[laughs] Well, I think the most important difference is that here in Germany you have to plan everything!

Did you find it easy to make friends with German or other international students?

The work environment is very international. There are students from Canada, Sweden, Korea as well as from China. It is a genuinely multicultural environment. And we socialize quite a lot. Every Thursday, we go out for a drink or play snooker. In the summer, we spent a lot of time in the Grand Garden in Dresden, which is a truly beautiful location. For Christmas this year, our supervisor rented a kitchen in a pub and we cooked international food – which was great fun!

 By the way, I should probably mention that although we speak English at work for most of the time, I also took some German language courses. I enjoy speaking German, and thankfully my German has improved considerably over the years. My German colleagues and I now even sometimes talk German outside of work.

Is German a very complicated language?

It’s a challenge! What I find most difficult is German grammar, for example, the correct use of the definite articles der, die, das, and also the right gender of German nouns. German syntax is not that complicated.

Is there any advice you would give to Chinese students wanting to do their PhD in Germany?

I would say that initially you have to be very open-minded because the two cultures are so different. And I would probably advise them to develop stronger communication skills. In China, we usually do not communicate that much. But communication is a very important aspect of German culture. For someone with an open personality, it will probably be no great difficulty to become integrated quite quickly by joining working groups or taking part in social activities. 

You are going back to the Institute of Coal Chemistry in Shanxi to defend your thesis in May 2014. Do you also have an advisor at your Institute in China?

Yes, I do. Last May, we arranged a meeting between my German and Chinese supervisors. My German supervisor visited the Institute of Coal Chemistry in Shanxi. He also wanted find out if there was an opportunity for collaboration. We spent a week at the Coal Chemistry Institute and the Shanghai Advanced Research Institute of my supervisor in Shanghai.

Do you plan to come back to Germany?

Absolutely! In fact, I am already looking for a job here. I would really like to work in Germany.

Are you looking for a postdoc position?

Well, this is actually quite interesting: I have discovered that it might be better for me to work in the chemical industry than in academia. At the Max Planck Institute, the priority is of course on fundamental research. During my studies, I have come to realize that while I am a creative person, I may not be quite so deeply analytical than some of my colleagues. So I will to try to move away from research and do something different now.

Good luck for defending for your thesis and your future career!

The questions were asked by Barbara Abrell

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