Yousef Faraj, now working with the Membrane Science and Functional Materials Group at SCU’s College of Chemical Engineering, came to Chengdu in the summer of 2017; he has hardly been at Sichuan University half a year and has already made headway in a new field within chemical engineering, designed and begun work on two research projects – with two further research projects under construction, which will soon be submitted to the NSFC, the National Natural Science Foundation of China – held lectures, supervised graduate students, and made many new friends among his Chinese colleagues and neighbours on the banks of the Jin River, not far from where he works as associate professor on SCU’s over 100-year-old Wangjiang Campus.
Before moving to Sichuan, Professor Faraj was based at the University of Leeds in West Yorkshire; he relocated to China for a number of different reasons; for one, he hoped to learn more about research environments and teaching practices in a country that has long fascinated him. He has been coming to China every six months for several years, collaborating with fellow researchers at universities in Beijing, Tianjin and other Chinese cities.
Following is an excerpt from my conversation with Professor Faraj on a typically cloudy, Sichuanese November afternoon.
I have always been fascinated by Chinese culture – I love Chinese food, for one. Since 2012, I’ve been coming to China twice a year and have made a lot of friends at different Chinese academic institutions. At one point, one of them suggested, “Why not come here to work?” My response was, “Of course, why not?” In fact, it was a big decision to make, especially as I ended up coming to China without my family. Apart from missing my wife and children every day, I love being here. I feel lucky to be surrounded by such extremely kind and supportive people – without them I wouldn’t be able to make it. They are so welcoming.
“My boss listens to what I have to say. I’m invited to make suggestions and offer advice.”
Based on what I’d learned in the past, I expected Chinese society, even within the university, to be extremely hierarchical. So I didn’t expect that an expat, someone coming from a western country, would be invited to straightforwardly suggest or initiate. But the senior professors and group leaders here actually listen: they are very nice, very welcoming, and very understanding. If there is anything that can be beneficial to the students, the school, or the university as a whole, I make suggestions, and I am heard.
Sichuan University provides a great working environment; it’s a great place to be. The city itself is extremely vibrant and very international. Although I haven’t yet explored all that Chengdu has to offer, I’ve enjoyed what I have experienced so far: the energy and progressiveness are evident in its dynamic pace; at the same time, the city still retains a connection with its traditional roots.
Professor Faraj has noticed that while Chengdu offers all the modern amenities one would expect in a western mega-city, its residents also cherish the tradition, customs and historical distinction of their ancient city. This is seen, for example, in the many traditional-style tea houses along the banks of Chengdu’s rivers, where residents gather at small tables outdoors during every season of the year to drink tea, play mahjong, smoke, gossip and sometimes trade in tea for beer or hard liquor later in the day.
People come to Sichuan to live, they say here, but with over 260 Fortune 500’s established in Chengdu, the economy booming, and a population of just over 14 million, many do in fact come to this city to work – from all over China and from around the world. For Professor Faraj, coming here was one way to realize some of his long-held ambitions as a researcher:
An important reason I came to China and to SCU was the booming national economy, which provides excellent opportunities for academics who want to realize their research-related dreams and need funding. I had so many ambitions, so many dreams related to my research that I wasn’t able to realize before coming here. Now is an optimal time to apply for support from government funding bodies in China. It is also thanks to my colleagues that I can do this because they and my students help translate my project proposals.
“I would recommend coming to China to my colleagues abroad.”
I asked Professor Faraj about his first impressions of Sichuan University and how SCU’s School of Chemical Engineering compared to his department at the University of Leeds.
It differs drastically. One striking difference is the sense of community you have here, it is very tight-knit. It’s not like a relationship between colleagues in the UK. It’s more like friendship, particularly on our team: we all get along. I was asked when I first came if I wanted to be in another office on my own, and I declined because I’m happy here. My colleagues help me a lot – I’d be quite lost without them. When an email comes in, for instance, I ask Professor Wang Wei or Professor Liu Zhuang what it says, and they translate it for me.
In terms of research facilities, Professor Faraj stressed that the group he works in is well set:
We have all the facilities needed to support our research. The research laboratories at SCU’s School of Chemical Engineering are equipped with extensive state-of-the-art facilities for a variety of research in chemical, environmental and bimolecular engineering. Particularly in this group (Membrane Science and Functional Materials Group), we have top-of-the-range facilities across several labs.
I wondered whether Professor Faraj would recommend coming here to his colleagues abroad.
I would say it’s a great place to be and to explore, whether you want to come for personal reasons or in order to build up your academic career – if its academia. I have actually arranged for two colleagues, two previous ex-colleagues from Leeds, to come work in China.
Working at the School of Chemical Engineering here has not been a walk in the park though. Apart from his own research and supervising graduate students, Professor Faraj also teaches a substantial course load and will be taking on administrative departmental duties in the coming semester. Another challenge, initially, was that he had to change his specialization:
My area of research is in microfluidics, functional materials and detection and sensing– although this is not the area I specialized in before. At the University of Leeds I was working in a completely different field: I was working on the macro-scale (multi-phase flow measurement and visualisation); now I’m working on the micro-scale. One of the conditions for my taking the position here was actually that I change my research direction. So after I was given the offer, I had to think about what to do. Although I knew it was a risk, I eagerly accepted the offer. Working 12 hours a day for the past few months, I’ve made it through, and my first two project proposals are currently being carried out by two students, with two further projects underway and soon to be submitted to the NSFC (National Natural Science Foundation of China). I have also recently been approached by a number of undergraduate students who expressed their interest in joining the research group, so I am currently drafting five research proposals for them. I have no doubt that I will be successful in this area.
Professor Faraj is also a committed teacher, responsible for 112 undergraduate lecture hours a year, as well as teaching one post-graduate course for PhD students.
“I wouldn’t leave the lecture theatre without knowing that everyone had understood me.”
I face some slight problems with students due to the language barrier, but we can generally get around it. It’s important for me to know that my students can follow my lectures. I wouldn’t leave the lecture theatre without knowing that everyone had understood the lecture in full. I sometimes consult with the students and make sure they have understood everything because this is the job I’m committed to.
As many dedicated academics in the modern university, Professor Faraj wants to figure out how best to strike a balance between his own research and teaching responsibilities.
My ideal combination of teaching and research would be “sixty/forty,” that is 60 percent research and 40 percent teaching. I’d like to dedicate more time to research, perhaps even more than 60 percent. But even if the amount of teaching should increase, I’d take the time from my own personal time rather than spend less time doing research.
“It’s a mixture of everything that is needed…this is another reason I came here, to glean the best of both worlds…”
Another reason Professor Faraj came to China was to “fully experience a different approach in the educational and academic system.”
As you may imagine, the two systems are totally different, and I see it now. Each side has its advantages and drawbacks. It’s a mixture of everything that is needed, I think. Andthis is another reason I came here, to glean the best of both worlds, to gain new experiences and hone my skills set. One important point in my own philosophy of teaching actually relates to the teacher-student relationship of mutual respect. Unfortunately, that is not easily found in the UK. It can’t be taken for granted. Conversely, in a Chinese university, there is such a respect for teachers. And of course, this can have a positive impact on students’ learning and your teaching.
In general, I think the Chinese system, particularly in terms of the teacher-student relationships, is excellent. Of course, there are also drawbacks to this culture of respect, when it is a fundamental expectation. Students cannot say “no,” for example. But I would like them to feel free and say “no” when they genuinely disagree with something. I believe that an ability to express disagreement helps students to explore their own intellectual capabilities: it encourages their independent thinking and analytical reasoning.
I also asked the professor what his thoughts were on the “dual world-class university” project.
I strongly believe that Sichuan University deserves the distinction of “world-class university.” If we look at the exclusive group of elite universities such as Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge), Harvard, Yale and so on, we can see that these world-class universities are recognised in part for their superior output: they produce highly-qualified graduates, who are in high demand on the labour market; they conduct leading-edge research published in top scientific journals; they contribute to technical innovations through patents and licenses etc. We can see all of this in SCU’s current output: highly qualified faculty, excellence in research, quality teaching, high levels of government and non-government sources of funding, international and highly talented students, well equipped facilities for teaching, research and administration etc. There are so many high-quality publications, just coming out of the School of Chemical Engineering: it’s impressive. It is therefore that SCU deserves to be placed among the top-ranking universities, particularly the School of Chemical Engineering, which, I think is one of the Schools that has been chosen for fast-track development. The university has 13 key national laboratories and engineering centres, four state-level international scientific and technological cooperation bases, eleven key laboratories and six engineering research centres under the supervision of Ministry of Education, and three key laboratories under the supervision of the Ministry of Health.
SCU’s School of Chemical Engineering is really an excellent place to be, and I hope for the day when I can bring my family as well because that would encourage my stay here. I cannot compromise of course, but I would hope to stay here as long as possible and be a role model, in research and teaching, someone who cultivates in the students the knowledge and ability to look at the world critically and the belief in one’s capacity to make positive contributions to society.
Finally, Professor Faraj shared from his daily experience in a typical Chengdu neighbourhood.
“It’s amazing how just a smile and body language can create friendship.”
I live a 20-minute walk from the campus. It’s a lovely, safe area, quite beautiful. I live in a nice community as well. I’ve never had any problems living there. People are very friendly although we don’t speak because of the language barrier… I have so many friends in the neighbourhood, from 20 to 80 years old. I don’t speak Chinese, they don’t speak English, but we are still friends, and we exchange WeChat messages and everything, so we are still in contact. And if I have any problems, they help me out. We don’t speak at all, but it’s amazing how just a smile and body language can create friendship.