Spotlight

The International Language of Science---Four Oxford PhD Students of Physical Chemistry Visit SCU


From left to right: Luo, Buckton, Dejean, Player at Sichuan University

CHENGDU. Following the invitation of SCU’s Zhang Sijie, professor of physics and director of the International Office, four research students of physical chemistry from the University of Oxford came to Sichuan University for a week-long visit this January. They gave talks on their research, toured facilities at Huaxi, Jiang’an, and Wangjiang, and got to see Sichuan’s famous giant pandas up close. Apart from enjoying the brilliant sights and tastes of Chengdu and catching a small glimpse of the daily life of student researchers at a Chinese university, Katherine Buckton, Victoire Dejean, Luo Jiate, and Thomas Player also had the opportunity to discuss their area of research in physical chemistry with Chinese faculty and students at SCU. Their talks were well-received and met with thoughtful feedback; all four students came away with positive impressions of their visit.

Currently working under the supervision of Professor P. J. Hore, director of the research group on Magnetic Field Effects on Chemical Reactions; Christiane Timmel, director of the research group on Spin Chemistry, Magnetic Field Effects, and Electron Spin Resonance; and Stuart Mackenzie, head of the Physical and Theoretical Chemistry Laboratory and director of the Cluster Dynamics and Laser Spectroscopy group, Buckton (DPhil 2015-), Dejean (DPhil 2016-), Luo (DPhil 2017-), and Player (DPhil 2017-) are passionate about the work they do---located at the intersection of chemistry, physics and biology---and agree that scientific experimenting and achievement rely no less on international collaboration than they do on individual perseverance or smaller-scale team work and competition.

Luo Jiate, who is an SCU alumni, was able to supply the others with first-hand knowledge of the ins and outs of university life in China.

SCU’s International Office met with the four young researchers for a brief chat about their work and first impressions of China, Chengdu and Sichuan University.

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For three of you, this is your first visit to China – is it what you’d expected?


Katie: I thought it would be very busy and very big, although the university campus itself is even bigger than I’d expected. I didn’t think it would be a campus university –it’s a very nice one. It doesn’t feel like you’re in the middle of a city of 14 million.


Victoire: I didn’t know what to expect, but I was very surprised by the clash of traditional and very modern aspects. When we went to the city center yesterday, we thought, wow, this is no different from what we know. It was quite fun.


I expected the campus to be smaller than at Oxford, where pretty much the whole city is the campus, and larger than where I studied in Paris, which was tiny. The campus here is actually quite big, and it has everything you might need. It’s also very well situated.


Can you tell me about your project?


Jiate: We are all reading for a DPhil in physical chemistry. Katie and Victoire are working on experiments while Thomas and I do the calculations, the theoretical side of the research.


Thomas: We work on an area called magnetoreception, which looks at how birds and other animals use the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate, the chemistry behind how this compass works in these animals’ brains. 


Victoire: It’s an entirely interdisciplinary field.


Katie: It’s on the interface of chemistry, physics, and biology. I gave a talk on our research at Huaxi yesterday. It was lovely, and it was nice meeting everyone. I found it very helpful to talk about our work to a group of people who might have knowledge in the general area but not necessarily in the specifics of what we do, which newly combines two areas of research that haven’t been combined in this way before.


Victoire: Thomas and I gave a talk at the College of Physical Science and Technology. For me, it was the first time ever to give a research talk to a group of people from an entirely different field. I’m a chemist, so my background is very different. We had to explain things we don’t normally explain, and this helped us to see our research in a new light. The audience asked very interesting questions that were more about the general mechanisms of our experiments. They asked me about aerobars and how we measure our signals and other things that we usually just skim over: but here I had to explain it in more detail, which made me think about things that I would perhaps like to change or improve about my experiments. That was quite nice.

So how did your connection with SCU come about?


Katie: Professor Zhang Sijie, “CJ,” came to Oxford for a year to work with our lab over there, so we have a link to this university. A couple of years ago, a couple of our colleagues from Oxford came to SCU to see the university, and then we’ve had other researchers from CJ’s lab here come to Oxford as well. There’s been a nice exchange going on back and forth.


Victoire: Jiate is actually the perfect example of someone who came to Oxford from SCU.


Jiate: And in fact, my coming here has another purpose, which is to interest science students at SCU in doing their further studies at Oxford, in our field of magnetoreception. I was similarly recruited to Oxford myself after attending an academic lecture here last year by Peter Hore, who is now our supervisor. I went to talk to him, and he was impressed by my knowledge of quantum mechanics and statistical mechanics. After that I applied for the PhD program at Oxford, was accepted, and joined Peter’s research group.


I often feel homesick in Oxford, so I am very happy to come back on this occasion and see my old classmates and teachers.


What do you miss most?


Jiate: Everything: the food, of course, my family, and also the climate.


Thomas, Victoire and Katie, what are your impressions of Sichuan University?


Thomas: I was curious to know what life here would be like for a typical student, particularly an undergraduate student. The accommodations seem to be in high-rise buildings, which is very different from Oxford. Another difference here, as Jiate was saying, is that students take exams in the evenings, which would never be tolerated in Britain. Our talk at SCU was also scheduled for the evening and was surprisingly well-attended. I couldn't believe it – at home you’d have to bribe students with beer to get them to attend an evening lecture.


Katie: So there’s a really good work ethic here among Chinese students – which is nice.


Jiate: In Britain, undergraduate students have six months of vacation…


Katie: Technically, students are supposed to do self-study during the semester breaks, but the breaks do tend to be very long. At Oxford, there are three 8-week sessions, while most universities in Britain have two twelve-week academic semesters.


So there’s a strong work and study ethic you’ve encountered here... Victoire, you said that people who attended your talk were very interested in the experiments you’re running.


Victoire: Yes… one of the main questions that we are trying to answer at the moment is how the birds can use the direction of the magnetic field to navigate. So far we’ve only been able to show that the cryptochromes are sensitive to the intensity of the magnetic field, but that is not enough to have a compass. So what we want to show is that they are also sensitive to the direction of the field. The problem when we worked in solution was that the molecules were always moving and rotating. So we couldn’t successfully conduct the experiment in solution. We had to immobilize those proteins in a solid matrix. I spent a lot of time trying to find an appropriate matrix and designing the experiment that would allow us to look at the impact of the direction of the field because none of the previous experiments had been built for that. I’m actually ready to start measuring that now after a year of preparing the experiment…  Experimenting is a process of lots of trying-and-not-succeeding, which hopefully leads to results in the end.


Thomas: Sometimes you might spend six months working on something really hard, and it doesn’t work for a long time. But then if it does work in the end, you might be able to use that for a year and get lots of really good results, and you might discover something new and exciting – but you have to go through that error and trial before knowing if you’ll get there in the end. What Jiate and I do is the theory. We do computational studies looking more at the physical side of it than at the chemistry or biology. It’s a lot of quantum mechanics, a lot of theoretical physics. We work with code. Just as with the experiments, there’s also lots of trial and error.

All of you are quite passionate about the field you’re working in.


Thomas: You’d have to be.


Jiate: I went to Oxford last year and stayed there from March to June to do my final-year project. I found that I was really interested in this field, which is why I went on to join the same research group as a PhD student.


And what do you think about the importance of international cooperation in your field?


Victoire: In the last two weeks, all the papers I’ve read were written by Chinese scientists, a group based in China, because they were the only research group talking about this particular topic. I personally think it is important that China is able to produce good papers; however, the main question in collaboration in the sciences is, ‘Are they producing good science?’ And if they are, we just collaborate. If there is a group working on a particular topic that is relevant to your science, of course you need to collaborate.


Katie: Science is quite universal, which is nice – it’s a universal language. There are far fewer language barriers than in the arts, for example.


Thomas: It’s nice that science doesn’t have the language barrier you might have in other fields – it’s very international. The main thing is the quality of the science. Collaboration between any two groups is a good thing and will happen as long as one thinks that the other is doing science that they respect. There are currently groups in China that are working on the same field that we are doing research on at Oxford. It’s always good to see different perspectives, and you get a healthy debate going.

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With 15 top-ranking disciplines – including chemistry, biology and biochemistry, and physics – Sichuan University is increasingly generating cutting-edge research relevant across a wide spectrum of scientific fields. In fostering its collaborative partnerships and academic exchanges with the world’s leading research institutions, such as Oxford University, SCU contributes to the critical global exchanges of knowledge and new perspectives fueling contemporary scientific discovery.