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A Coffee Break - Good Idea


Young Chinese researchers on a tour of Germany - between laboratories, beer gardens and eminences.

A coffee break - good idea© Huchen Lu - iStockphoto.comColleagues converse during a shared coffee break
"Klose", says Xiang Tingting. "I like Klose best." The biologist - shoulder-length black hair and fashionable horn-rimmed glasses - is sitting in a beer garden in Steingaden in Upper Bavaria. Public viewing. The doctoral candidate has seen the Bavarian striker many times, back home in Peking, on the television in the common room of her student residence. Now the German players are twinkling from a screen in the alpine foothills. For half a day, the village of 2,700 inhabitants has become an object of study for young Chinese researchers. So that's what Germany looks like. When someone scores a goal, Chinese and Bavarians alike leap up off the benches; a tall physicist pats a man in a chequered shirt on his broad shoulders, a biologist in a pink dress poses for a photograph with children sporting the black, red and gold of the German flag. And Xiang smiles contentedly.

The young scientists are touring Germany's research landscape, visiting institutes and higher education institutions across the country. And in between: Schloss Neuschwanstein, Deutsches Museum, Hofbräuhaus and, of course, football. 9000 doctoral candidates applied, 30 were selected by the Sino-German Centre for Research Promotion in Peking. Its Vice Director, Zhao Miaogen, says: "They were as thrilled as Nobel Prize winners." After all, the trip promises contacts for the time after their Ph.D., insights into a country with exotic traditions - and not least the aura of gathered research eminence. Since 2004, almost 200 Chinese students have attended the conference in Lindau where young researchers rub shoulders with Nobel Prize winners. 15 percent returned later, with grants from German research organisations. The annual Nobel Laureate Meeting on the shores of Lake Constance was the starting point of the tour. Xian Tingting attended the lecture by Jack Szostak (Nobel Prize for Medicine 2009); at the end she pushed past researchers from around the world to the stage. During the discussion she had already contributed comments on artificial cells, membrane proteins and signalling pathways. Afterwards, there was one more thing the 27-year-old really wanted to know: "What's important for young researchers?" - "Freedom", answered Szostak. "Follow your interests!"

Xiang still blushes when she talks about it. "I really wanted to speak with Szostak, one of my professors studied under him." There is a degree of pride in her voice, and pleasure at somehow being part of this exalted scene. 59 laureates were present in Lindau, most of them far older than the meeting itself, which took place for the 60th time.

More even than many others, Chinese people are fascinated by Nobel Prize winners. "Of course we would love to have one of our own", says Xiang as she queues at the lakeside food counter with guests from the USA, Brazil, and India. Researchers with Chinese roots have been honoured a few times. "That proves that we're clever", says the doctoral candidate and grins. However, so far the award has only gone to exiles such as last year physician Charles Kao, who has long been a British and American citizen.

When Xiang has loaded her plate and found a place at a bar table, she ponders: "In the West, particularly in the USA, top-class research has been taking place for a long time; science has accumulated there, so to speak." China can't just catch up at a moment's notice, she continues. "It's not enough to be a genius, you need the right environment." It will take another 50 to 100 years until a Nobel Prize goes to China, says Xiang. One of her colleagues is more optimistic: "20 years." Perhaps it might even be one of them who one day wins the coveted award. "You are looking at some truly excellent people here", says Yue Rui, gesturing towards the group. Yue introduces himself as the CEO, the Chief Executive Officer. It's his job to allocate hotel rooms, remind people to be on time, and apparently also to present everything in a favourable light. "This guy has already had one publication in Science and one in Nature", says Yue. This despite the fact, he adds, that the structural biologist he's pointing out is only in the third year of his doctoral thesis. "And the one back there in the striped t-shirt has written 40 papers in the past five years, 200 impact points!" These points are the international yardstick for the reputation of scientific journals. "I'm not that bad myself", says Yue. "I have a paper in Cell."

Most German doctoral candidates can only dream of such successes, but for young Chinese researchers they are quite simply vital to their further career: "We just have to publish a lot, the competition is huge", says chemist He Lei of the renowned Tsinghua University, and follows it with the typical heavy sigh of his compatriots: "There are too many Chinese people." Publish or perish - this pressure is even greater in China than in the West. It makes it difficult to creatively conduct research, he explains. However, the government has issued precisely that as a motto: zizhu chuangxin - independent innovation rather than imitation. That would probably also be a prerequisite for a Chinese Nobel Prize.

Xiang wants to stay in basic research, she says as the tour bus rolls on to the Zentrum für Pharmaforschung (Centre for Pharmacological Research) at Munich's Ludwig Maximilians University. She wants to find out how exactly plant cells process information. "Of course I'm only making tiny discoveries. But I'm still pretty excited every time." Many others from the group want to go into applied research, or even start their own companies. "Do you work with the industry?", asks one. "What sort of careers do your students have later on?" Also: "Do you have your own company?" Angelika Vollmar laughs and shakes her head. The professor was involved in selecting the group. "They are extremely motivated", she says. "The German students will have to see that they keep up." One chemist from Wuhan would love to just stay: "You're doing research into naturally occurring chemical compounds, you must need somebody to synthesise them in the laboratory. Wouldn't you have use for me there?"

Conducting research in Germany for a couple of years - others can see themselves doing this too. But for most of them, the destination of their dreams is the USA; one is already starting his job in Texas this week. Despite huge numbers of graduates, China's elite students are in demand, not just on this tour.

Strolling through the Munich laboratory, the visitors discover little that appears new to them. Most of them work at top-class institutes in Peking or Shanghai that are equipped very similarly. "That flow cytometer there, we have the big version of that!", says one to the laboratory assistant. He looks a little pained: "Ye-es, well, we have two small ones." Xiang's institute has also just been newly equipped. "Our machines are even a little more modern than these", she says. "But not as well maintained. We have far more people working in one laboratory, so things get broken more quickly. And here the researchers put everything very, very neatly back in its place."

But outside the reading room she finally does discover something extraordinary: researchers sitting together drinking coffee and chatting! "Wow, that's a good idea", says Xiang Tingting. "A shared coffee break, we don't have that sort of thing." Exchanges with colleagues only happen incidentally. "Meetings like that, we should do that too." Finally, there is something that she urgently wants to get off her chest. "In your lecture just now, you showed this signalling pathway, the one with the cytochrome c", she says. Vollmar nods. "That was discovered by a professor at the institute where I completed my Diplom, Wang Xiaodong! Do you know him?" The German professor looks first confused, then embarrassed. "I'm sorry, I always have trouble remembering Chinese names."

From DIE ZEIT :: 15.07.2010