Lab Life in Shanghai

It has to be said, there are some significant differences between the labs here in Fudan and the ones you find back in the School of Chemistry, Purdie Building, in St Andrews. I mean, sure, the general equipment is much the same: centrifuges, fume hoods, furnaces etc., they all work exactly as you’d expect and, as long as you can decipher which button is which from the different Chinese characters, you’re good to go. My main problem has been the seeming complete lack of organisation.

I can definitely get a bit obsessive when it comes to cleaning and organising (anyone who has lived with me will know that slight twitch I get when the dishwasher has been put on even though it’s not full and the dishes aren’t in their proper places), so the labs here definitely took a bit of getting used to.

My lovely office - an upgrade from back home!

My lovely office – an upgrade from back home!

Firstly, and most importantly, a lot of things weren’t labelled. For example, there are two plastic bottles of clear liquid next to the sink. I know that one is distilled water and the other is acetone but without putting a little bit onto my (gloved) hand and judging the difference, your guess is as good as mine as to which one is which. I’ve now labelled them in Chinese (I know, I was very proud of myself) so that was easily remedied.

Secondly, it took me a long while to work out where different things were kept. Trying to find something in the lab when most drawers aren’t labelled and you’re not yet able to read the labels of those that are, is quite tricky. For the first couple of weeks I would simply open a drawer or cupboard at random and then stand back and marvel at the bizarre combination of items or chemicals I would have found in there. One time when I was on the hunt for some pipettes I opened a cupboard which simply contained 8, unlabelled, round-bottomed flasks of various sizes all containing a small amount of some dubious brown liquid.  I shut the door and have decided to leave that one alone.

Now that I know my way around and have a good idea of where everything I need is, though, synthesising materials, and generally going about my research, is much the same as it was back in the UK. I’ll be having my first session on the SEM (Scanning Electron Microscope) tomorrow and hopefully the materials I’ve synthesised so far will turn out to be what I was hoping for.

The lab attached to my office

The lab attached to my office


Another noticeable difference in the Chemistry department here compared to back home is in the social side of things. I’ve noticed there have been times when I can spend the whole day in the office/lab and the only words I’ve spoken are ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ to the Associate Prof. I share an office with. In the group I work in, most of the students speak English very well and are very polite when I ask them for anything, but they not very chatty. There’s no social gathering space in the department such as the Common Room in the School of Chemistry in St Andrews, so the idea of a quick coffee break with some friends to clear your head is unheard of.

On the flip side, if there’s one thing I envy of the other students, it’s their ability to nap. Every day without fail, the students head out to get lunch around 11.30 am, come back, work for an hour or so and then fall asleep at their desks. They only nap for an hour at most but then get straight back on with work as though nothing unusual happened. I can’t fall asleep anywhere other than in bed at night so I just continue going about my work in the lab (as quietly as possible) bemused by the stifled snoring going on next door.

Possibly, the most entertaining difference between chemistry here in Shanghai and chemistry in St Andrews, though, is my lab coat. I struggled to keep a straight face when I was presented with my new one here and discovered that in moving from the UK to China, I had instantly gone from being a size M to a size XXXL … thanks for that one China.


My very flattering new lab coat

My very flattering new lab coat


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