China and Denmark are far away from each other. But at the Nano-Science Centre, a part of the Faculty of Science at the University of Copenhagen, the two countries meet in a close research collaboration.
The centre has three PhD students and two post docs from China working in Denmark and one Danish PhD student and post. doc, working in Beijing. Founded in 2009, the centre was originally only to have a lifespan of three years. But with a new DKK 10 million grant, this period has been extended until 2015.
Technically speaking, the centre works scientifically to design and synthesize organic molecules that are programmed to self-assemble in a correct order in predetermined structures with a desired electronic function. However, another big challenge for the center is integrating Chinese and Danish cultures.
To meet this challenge a specialist in China Studies, Mai Corlin Bagger-Petersen, is helping out with the cultural aspects of the project.
It is popular both in China and Denmark. The project is supported both by the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC).
We caught up with Mai Corlin Bagger-Petersen to ask what the new millions will be used for.
Meetings twice a year
How will you use this grant money?
The largest portion of the money is used on salary for post docs and PhDs, but since the collaboration is based on cooperation with Chinese institutions we also spend a fair amount on travels and exchange visits for PhD students and senior researchers between Denmark and China. We have bi-annual meetings with our partners to ensure close contact and good relationships within the collaboration.
Our project really has two sets of goals, one set concerning research aspects and one set related to cultural exchange, hopefully enabling us to collaborate even better with Chinese knowledge institutions in the future.
The centre has existed since 2009. What have you learned with your collaboration with Chinese scientists and scientific community?
We know that Chinese scientists are as highly skilled as researchers from other elite institutions and their equipment is equally excellent. But we have learned that because of the cultural differences between Denmark and China it is all the more necessary to spend face time together, which means that there are often many social events planned in connection with our biannual meetings, such as river rafting, climbing the Great Wall and last but not least: dinners. Dinners are a very important part Chinese social culture.
It has been, and still is, a very time-consuming collaboration, but also extremely rewarding both scientifically and culturally. Many of our young PhD students spend half a year or more in China and become really close with Chinese PhD students, and in addition they get the opportunity to discover and explore a developing China.
Do you feel there is a difference between the Danish 'scientist tradition' and the Chinese 'scientist tradition'? How has this been visible in your work?
From experience we know that there are more similarities than there are differences. Basically they are researchers just like us. But we have to spend more time to get to know them before we reach a successful research collaboration. Another aspect relates to the life as a PhD student. In China, PhD students often have a more authoritarian relationship with their supervisor, and are therefore less likely to question their supervisor than we are here in Denmark. But obviously these things all very individual and vary with the person.
Why did you choose a scientific collaboration with China?
The collaboration started even before the centre was established. Two Chinese post docs were affiliated with the Nano-Science Centre for quite a while and through them the collaboration grew bigger and bigger.
Chinese researchers are skilled and professional. Our partners are excellent matches scientifically, they complement us technically in many different and important ways. To add to this, China is a growing economy. It was important to establish good collaborations with Chinese scientists and the Danish National Research Foundation gave us the funding opportunity.
Have you been successful in attracting Danish and Chinese students and researchers to participate in your project?
Yes. Initially there was a barrier for the Danish students and researchers to go to China for a longer period, but through shorter visits in connection with the bi-annual meetings we have been able to remove some of the pre-conceptions of China or at least made the PhD student or researcher more familiar with the foreign environment and culture, and more confident on going for longer research stays in the labs of our Chinese partners.
It has been a bit easier to attract qualified Chinese researchers. The Chinese researchers we have employed now are very valuable and important additions to the work in the centre.
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