Saturday, November 18, 2017

Grand tour

Before we left on our trip, Ji referred to Qingdao as "the Woods Hole of China." Woods Hole, Massachusetts has a number of private and federal research institutions, so it's a destination for ocean sciences. The village population is also disproportionately dominated by researchers. Qingdao is very much the same. Of course, the comparison meant I was picturing a small town and was surprised to find a city of 9 million people when I arrived in Qingdao, but the analogy stands. Qingdao has five large research institutions and plenty of researchers to go around.

We took advantage of our time in Qingdao by touching base with each of the research institutions in the city. And let me tell you, we got quite the grand tour.

We spent one afternoon at the First Institute of Oceanography, where I got to tour the institute's deep-sea geological collection. Rocks and mineral deposits from all over the deep sea, particularly hydrothermal vents, were housed in cases and displayed on shelves in a precisely temperature-controlled room.

The FIO ship at the dock
We were also shown one of FIO's ships that was about to leave on a cruise the very next day. The ship had a red banner with gold text hanging from an upper deck on the starboard side. When I asked what it meant, the others said it's a Chinese tradition to hang red banners, and the text translated to "Wish us luck!"

On the dock next to the ship was a buoy about to be deployed in the Indian Ocean. We met with a technician and a scientist in charge of FIO's oceanographic buoys, and I had a good conversation with them. As many of you know, I'm interested in studying island-like habitats. Well, buoys anchored to the seafloor in the middle of nowhere are essentially man-made island-like habitats, so I was eager to learn if anything grew on them. The technician said barnacles were common at the surface, but there wasn't much growing deeper. My cognitive wheels started turning, and I asked if it would be possible to deploy fouling panels at various depths on the buoy line to get more quantitative data on the growth. We traded e-mails, and I'll follow up with the FIO scientists later - it would be certainly interesting to get samples from the Indian Ocean!

We were also shown around Qingdao's brand-new National Laboratory for Marine Science and Technology. Ji recalled that the lab was just one building during his last visit a few years ago, but now, the national lab occupies an entire campus north of Qingdao. There are laboratories and offices and living facilities for visitors. When I marveled at how quickly the campus had been erected, the others all shrugged and said "Chinese speed." I still didn't get it, so I pressed for an explanation. One of the Chinese scientists shrugged again and said that when the Chinese government wants something done, it gets done. Fast.

Our time in Qingdao is winding down, but it has been a very productive trip. We've had meetings and tours from morning until evening every day. I have a notebook full of ideas and a list of people to follow up with. I'm glad for the time I've had in China and look forward to seeing relationships between WHOI and the institutions in Qingdao develop!

Friday, November 17, 2017

Parallel universe

Leaning forward in my black leather chair, I grabbed my mug and took a sip of my green tea. The tea leaves were floating loose in the water, unencumbered by a mesh strainer. The hot water felt good on my throat. It was early morning, and I was in yet another conference room, this time back at OUC. Another WHOI scientist who was unable to travel with us video-conferenced into the meeting, and I listened to his voice rining out from Ji's laptop. One by one, his slides changed on the projector screen. I hugged my tea mug with my hands and leaned back onto the chair. I was relaxed.

The meeting was for another WHOI-OUC project, and a large part of the discussion actually focused on similarities between Chinese and American oceanography. Think about this: both China and the U.S. have long eastern coasts that span sub-tropical and temperate latitudes. The east coast of China and the east coast of the U.S. both have a broad continental shelf and a strong current system - the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, the Kuroshio Current in the Pacific. Both currents bring warm tropical water north and control the regional climate. Both countries have lucrative fisheries, especially for cod, along their eastern coasts.

As the meeting went on, I scribbled notes to myself. The similarities between American and Chinese oceanography allow for some really interesting comparisons. It's like there's a parallel universe on the other side of the globe where we can test our scientific theories. Actually the most interesting part might be the few key differences between the western Atlantic and the western Pacific. Chinese waters are trawled much more extensively than U.S. waters, leaving fish populations low and the benthos highly disturbed. The Gulf Stream is well-renowned for meandering and pinching off warm-core eddies that deliver tropical water to the coast, while the Kuroshio does not. In science, you want all factors to be controlled except the one you're testing, so the similarities between American and Chinese seas provide an opportunity to test for ecosystem-level effects of the few differences that exist.

It was a productive meeting, and I look forward to seeing how the comparative project develops in the future!

Benthic brotherhood

I was full from a delicious and adventurous lunch, and once again, I found myself following Ji into a conference room. This meeting used the same general format - researchers briefly presenting their work, followed by an open discussion - except this time, everyone spoke my language. Not Mandarin (I can still only say "hello" and "thank you") - they spoke Benthos. There's a benthic research group at the Institute of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Qingdao, and I felt right at home with them. We spent a whole afternoon discussing our work. 

I deeply enjoyed speaking with the IOCAS group because we have so many research interests in common. They specialize in macrobenthos - animals that live in the seafloor and are big enough to see with the naked eye - just like me. They work on ecology (ooh) and taxonomy (aah) of animals in the Chinese marginal seas. They have this amazing collection of samples from all over the Yellow Sea shelf and even the continental slope (yes!), and they're using it to figure out how environmental factors (my tribe!) control the benthic communities (oh, sing to me the song of my people!). 

I was fascinated by one woman's work on deep-glass sponges and succession on coral reefs. I advised a crustacean biologist to consider the larval biology of his species when studying how their populations are connected. I was deeply impressed by the harpacticoid copepod taxonomist. (For those of you who don't know, harpacticoid copepods are small shrimp-like creatures that live on the seafloor. They're difficult to find and almost impossible to tell apart - and this woman identifies them for a living.) It was a wonderful, invigorating afternoon.

As the conversation wound down, the leader of the group and I exchanged e-mail addresses and agreed to keep in touch. There are funding opportunities coming up in the next few months, so we'll have to choose a scientific question and design a plan to answer it. The possibilities are almost endless, and I can't wait to put together a proposal with the IOCAS group. 

We had a bit of time before dinner, so two of the men gave me a tour of the IOCAS taxonomic collection. There were three rooms organized by region: samples from Chinese seas, polar seas, and the deep sea. Each room had large, attractive specimens out for public display and then shelf after shelf of dead things in jars. I spent my undergraduate years describing species of freshwater crabs from the collections in European and American museums, and the smell of alcohol-preserved animals still makes me feel like I'm 18 (yes, I'm a nerd). Some jars had red ribbons tied around the neck, and when I asked one of the men what the ribbons meant, he said they designated holotypes - the specimen was a new species that someone at IOCAS had described.

I came away from our afternoon at IOCAS enthralled and optimistic. I'm glad to have found such a like-minded group of Chinese benthic ecologists.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Qingdao in pictures

Downtown waterfront

This hilltop Buddhist temple is in Qingdao's "Old Town."

This beach is directly across the street from the Institute
of Oceanology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Small motorcycles are common, and riders use custom-cut
blankets to shield themselves from road spray.

The coastal mountain range, seen from the First Institute
of Oceanography campus

Translation fail. I think they're trying to say
"Don't overfill your plate and then end up wasting food."

Seen from the First Institute of Oceanography pier

Try everything: part 2

Friends, I hope you'll excuse me, but I just have to spend another post talking about Chinese food. I don't know what in the world we buy from Chinese restaurants in the U.S., but it is certainly not Chinese food.

Steamed mantis shrimp
For dinner Monday, we went to a restaurant in downtown Qingdao. The interior decoration was much more modern than at lunch, but the entryway to the restaurant was the same: aquaria and display tables, full of sea creatures about to become food. It was a smaller crowd (just four of us), but there were the same toasts, the same excessive number of dishes, and the same musical chatter in Mandarin.

Two dishes stuck out to me at dinner. The first was steamed mantis shrimp - yes, mantis shrimp. Not the famous rainbow species, but a member of the Stomatopoda nonetheless. They have super long, meaty abdomens and taste just like crab. You have to peel the shell off like you would for a normal shrimp, but the meat doesn't come out quite as easily (normal shrimp tails don't have any shell on the bottom, but mantis shrimp do), so you have to bite it out. It's a little messy, but not to worry - table etiquette in China is not nearly as strict as in the U.S.

Eggplant paste with ground peanuts and dried krill
Another dish that stuck out to me was an eggplant paste. Eggplant is surprisingly common in China. Our host for dinner showed me how to scoop up the paste with my chopsticks and put it onto a soft, flexible flatbread. You then wrap the flatbread around the paste to make a pouch - almost like a square burrito. After so many diverse meats, I was actually excited for a simple vegetable paste, but I should have known better. The paste was topped with ground peanuts and what looked from afar like flakes of parmesan cheese - except that it wasn't parmesan cheese; it was dried krill. The tiny crustaceans caught me off-guard, but they really just added a crunch to the eggplant.

Of course there were plenty of other dishes to go around. Tofu and octopus soup in a purple broth (yes, purple). Lotus root. Breaded fried taro. Pickled celery sticks. Hard-boiled eggs soaked in brine for a week. And jellyfish. Yes, jellyfish. I expected jellyfish to be floppy, watery, and non-substantive, but the thin, clear strips were actually crunchy. Well, maybe crunchy is the wrong word. They were dense. It felt crunchy to chew just because the jellyfish bits were so compact. They had been thoroughly dried, leaving behind only the organic part of the jellyfish's body. It was definitely not the texture I expected.

Steaming seafood
If I haven't already worn out your patience, I want to tell you about one more dinner, because we went to a restaurant that used a different cooking style. We sat at a round table in a private dining room, but this table had a metallic pit in the middle. A waiter poured hot mushroom broth into the pit and then heated it from underneath. The broth was covered with a metallic grate, and an array of seafood was placed on top. I remember there were clams, mussels, scallops, mantis shrimp, oysters, and large clams on the half shell with giant scoops of garlic. The whole collection was then covered with a wooden lid so the seafood could steam. When it was done cooking, we helped ourselves to the shellfish and dipped the meat in a mix of garlic and vinegar.

I'm an adventurous eater, and China has offered plenty of opportunities to stretch my limits. I'm grateful for the new experiences!

Try everything

"I won't give up, no I won't give in
Until I reach the end
And then I'll start again
No I won't leave
I wanna try everything
I wanna try even though I could fail" 
- "Try everything" by Shakira

Whenever I travel, I adhere to my personal Foreign Food Policy. The policy is simple: I will eat absolutely anything, but I have to know what it is before I put it into my mouth. Well, friends, China is the perfect place to stretch the limits of an adventurous eater. It is going to take an entire blog post just to tell you what I ate today. 

Breakfast was actually pretty tame. Rice soup, steamed dumplings filled with bean paste, fried bread dipped in soy milk. All very bland flavors and familiar textures. Easy enough. 

Then there was lunch. We carpooled from the university to a building that I never would have guessed was a high-class restaurant. We were ushered into a private dining room with an 8-person round table. Centered on top of the table, a glass circle rotated freely. Two of the walls were white stucco; one had floor-to-ceiling windows covered with thin off-white curtains, and the fourth was semi-transparent and covered with a carved wooden screen. Woven red ropes with gold charms and tassels hung from some of the panels. The surroundings were exactly what I would expect for a traditional Chinese room. 

Which fish?
As I set down my bag, one of the professors told me to follow the host and order food. I hestitated at first because nobody else was accompanying the host, and I didn't know what I wanted to eat anyway. I followed him back out to the restaurant entrance, though, where there was a display of seafood. All sorts of animals - lobsters, shrimps, clams, whole fish - were arranged in tanks or on the table. A restaurant employee followed the host around with an electronic keypad and pushed buttons every time the host pointed to something (recording the order, I presume). The host turned to me and asked me what I wanted to eat. I like fish, I told him. Then he lead me up to the display table and asked "Which fish?" I had no idea I would have to select the actual individual I wanted to consume, but I pointed to a safe-looking species. The host muttered something to the restaurant employee, who pushed more buttons on the keypad. 

Back in the dining room, the host made a show of assigning seats. I was placed between an OUC professor and his graduate student, who claimed to have learned English by watching Friends. As we waited for the food to show up, we sipped hot water (just hot water, not tea) from ceramic mugs without handles. One by one, waiters started bringing dishes to our table, placing them on the rotating glass tray. We served ourselves from the common plates with chopsticks, and the host even placed some food on the plates of the two people beside him. The master student did the same to me. Nobody jumped to eat or take large portions of the first few dishes, which surprised me, but it made much more sense as the meal went on. Dishes kept coming, and the dishes kept getting better. The fish I had chosen eventually showed up on a platter, cooked whole with its head still on, surrounded by a sweet brown sauce. 

There's no way I can possibly remember all of the dishes, but I'll try to describe a few. There were fermented hard-boiled eggs called "thousand-year eggs" (they're really only fermented for a few months), which tasted exactly how I would expect the green eggs in Green Eggs and Ham to taste. There was a stir fry with green bell peppers and strips of pig intestine. There were whole boiled shrimp. There was a vegetable dish topped with dried krill (yes, whole-body dried krill; apparently they're called "sea rice" in China). There were bite-sizes pieces of fried pork in a sticky brown sauce. The meat was actually pretty fatty (and some pieces were all fat), but it wasn't gross - the Chinese know how to fry animal fat to make it crunchy. There was egg drop soup with small clams in it. There was another soup with spicier broth and deep-fried pastries for dipping. There were dumplings filled with whitefish and parsely. Boiled peanuts. Chinese yams. And corn on the cob. (Not kidding; it's weirdly common here.)

As we ate, the conversation rattled along in Mandarin. Every once in a while (probably 7 or 8 times during the 2-hour lunch), the host would raise his glass and propose a toast. I never understood what it was for, of course, but I followed suit by clinking glasses with the other guests and then holding my glass awkwardly in front of my mouth, waiting for the host to stop talking so we could drink. Usually, the host would just propose the toast, make everyone raise their glasses, and then keep on talking without ever taking a drink himself. 

An hour and a half into lunch, new dishes were still being brought to the table. Only about half of what had been ordered ever got eaten, but just as I was beginning to lament the waste of food, a group of waiters showed up and started putting the leftovers into containers for the host to take home. At two hours on the dot, the host and the other scientists announced we had better get back to the university, and the lunch came to an abrupt close. 

Meals are very important in China, especially for building partnerships, so I was glad for the lunch we attended. There's a very distinct culture surrounding meals. It was great to experience!

WHOI-OUC

I followed Ji through the dark wooden double doors and into the conference room. There was a long oak table in the middle, surrounded by ergonomic black leather chairs. There was a projector on the table and a large screen at the far end of the room. There was an outer ring of chairs surrounding the table, pressed tightly against the walls. Every chair at the table and around the walls was filled with a student or a professor. As we walked in, fifty eyes turned to take in the foreign guests. I was the only caucasian and the only non-Chinese speaker in the room. 

One by one, the professors got up to explain their research, using the projector to show visual aids. Ji and I each made short presentations, and then a freeform discussion began to flow. WHOI has a cooperative research initiative with the Ocean University of China, so we were discussing ways to work together in the future. 

It was actually really interesting to me to observe the dynamic among Chinese scientists. Academia in China is much more hierarchical than in the U.S., and everyone is referred to by their title, either Doctor or Professor. The students only spoke at the beginning of the meeting to introduce themselves, and even experienced researchers seemed hesitant to share their thoughts. I think the language barrier was a big factor, but even when the conversation switched to Mandarin, it didn't flow as naturally as it might have in the U.S. or Europe. I think researchers in China are taught to be very humble and respectful, but it seems this culture may also cause some scientists to not trust their own ideas.

A few hours in, the conversation started to pick up, and we actually ended the meeting in a very good place. We all agreed to review the minutes and continue discussing ideas over the coming days and weeks. WHOI and OUC scientists have many complementary research interests, so I'm excited to see how the collaboration will develop.