The Travelling Postdoc: Staff Outward Mobility Fund31 October 2017
“The world is not in your books and maps, it’s out there” – I repeated this Gandalf quote to myself while I was stuck on a plane for 11 hours, travelling to a country I had never been to before, where I didn’t speak the language and meeting someone I had only had email correspondence with. To say I was nervous is an understatement.
When I received an email congratulating me on my successful application for the Staff Outward Mobility Fund, I was surprised. It was the first application I had made on that scale, and I was just pleased with myself that I had the courage to apply. I decided to apply for the fund because an objective on my personal development review was independently apply for some money. I had also never been to visit a lab abroad, so I realised that it would be a fantastic opportunity to learn new skills; make a connection with another university; and to travel to a country that I had never been to before.
The application was relatively simple; the most difficult part was finding a laboratory in Xiamen University that did similar work to myself and who were willing to have me visit them. Applicants were first told to contact Xiamen University staff members individually to set up a collaboration, but after some time most of us had not heard back. Cardiff University made a list of interested staff in Xiamen and tried to pair us up by our similar interests. Through this, I was eventually paired with Prof. Gaoliang Ouyang, who’s lab investigates an extracellular matrix protein which is in the same protein family as one that we were investigating in resistance to breast cancer therapy. Prof. Ouyang was very enthusiastic about me coming to work with him and together we came up with a collaborative project idea, using the trip as a chance for me to visit the lab and learn about the research they were doing.
I spent a couple of months researching flight prices, visa applications, hotels and costs of living. The lab manager in Prof. Gaoliang Ouyang’s lab, Dan, was really helpful throughout the process, even helping me to avoid an awkward situation regarding accommodation. I researched the location of the university online and found a hotel just down the road that had good reviews. Luckily, I emailed Dan before I booked, as she informed me that the hotel I had picked was 2 hours away from the Life Sciences building. There was only one hotel near the correct campus, which you cannot book online, so Dan very kindly booked the hotel for me, saving me a four-hour daily commute. I also found it difficult to find information on what visa I needed for my 3 week stay; however, the staff at the application centre in London were very helpful and I eventually got my visa sorted with no problems.
After arriving in Xiamen airport, I was met by Dan and one of the PhD students and they drove me to the campus – which is huge! I discovered that it was not only the students that live on campus but all the staff and their families as well. Most of the staff use a car to drive around the campus, so I was given a bike from one of the students, which I was very thankful for as it would have taken around an hour to walk from the outskirts of the campus to the Life Sciences building. Everyone in the lab was very hospitable; not only did they organize an automated payment card to pay for meals on campus, but they were also very friendly and adamant that I should always have someone with me to act as a guide and gave up their free time on the weekends to show me the city. I quickly discovered that I had majorly overestimated the cost of living in Xiamen; I mostly eat my meals on campus, which were extremely cheap (around £3 for a buffet style dinner). The dining staff did not speak English so most of the time I had no idea what I was eating, but it was interesting to eat the local cuisine.
My daily routine started by cycling to the campus where I would get some breakfast from the canteen. I would then cycle to the lab, where I would observe the students perform experiments and attend presentations. At lunchtime the students would take me to the canteen and take the opportunity to practice their English. After lunch the staff would go back to their apartments for a couple of hours and the students would take a quick nap at their desks. Around 6pm the staff would finish for the day and I would then go for dinner in the staff canteen, which overlooked the lake, making it a lovely place to sit and relax at the end of the day.
In my first week I was introduced to the lab members. The majority were PhD students, with only one postdoc and a lab manager. They told me that there is a lack of Postdocs because most PhD students go to America once they have graduated. The students are placed into pairs to work together on projects. They stated that this strategy is to publish on a quicker timescale than giving the students individual projects. This is important to the students as they do not graduate until they have published as least one paper – I met one student who was in their 8th year! Over the three weeks each student gave me a presentation of their work and I was surprised by the variety of projects that they had and the amount of work they had accomplished in a short space of time. I found out that part of it can be explained by the students rarely leaving the lab before 10pm each day. I was also able to attend some of the internal seminars in the lab, though only those that were in English!
The three weeks flew by and before I knew it I was on the plane back to Cardiff. Since then I have kept in contact with members from the lab and we are in talks to begin our collaborative project. The Mobility fund has given me experience in applying for grants, allowed me to establish a new collaboration and the opportunity to visit a country I had never been to before. All the people I met were extremely friendly and really interested to hear about Cardiff University and the work we do here. Xiamen is also a lovely city with plenty to see and do. If I had any advice it would be to make sure you research the requirements for the visa well in advance so that the staff in Xiamen are clear on what is required from them (I had to ask for three revisions of the Letter of Invitation due to lack of clarity) and ask the staff members for recommendations about accommodation and costs of living, Dan’s advice and guidance to me was priceless. I would highly recommend the Staff Outward Mobility Fund to anyone who is thinking of applying, and if you have any specific questions I would be more than happy to talk to you about my experience and answer any questions that you have.