Things that are different: Life and Science in the city of Harbin


(I didn’t actually see this sign, which I got via Shelley, but I put it up because my talk later today will actually break rule number 3.)

Well, I’ve been in China for the better part of three days now, having spent a few hours in Shanghai, and the remainder of my time in Harbin (North China). It’s been lovely so far, and my hosts are pretty much all kinds of awesome.

The visit has been interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the opportunity to go to Shanghai for a few hours, and to try and get a feel for the place. Basically, Shanghai struck me like any other major, high rolling, cosmopolitan city, with its dominant aura of commercial life complete with the 35 Yuan (about $5) Cappuccino. Would be nice to come back and explore it proper one of these days.

Secondly and most importantly, it’s kind of nice to be in Harbin – a locale I imagine that is not high on many visitor’s itineraries. After all, the purpose of my visit is to interact with the scientific community in Harbin, where a number of Universities have a specialty in agricultural or forestry disciplines.

Harbin, just to bring everyone up to speed, is a major city in the North East part of China. It’s very close to Russia, and in fact has many Russian influences in how folks live their day to day. Harbin, apparently, is most famous for its ice festival which happens around Late Jan, February of each year.

Harbin is very different from Shanghai – a lot more industrial looking, and truth be told not a very pretty looking city (at least what I’ve seen so far). My first impression of the place actually has more to do with all the smoking that goes on here, which is pretty much a turn about from Vancouver. Still, the place does grow on you, especially when the sun comes out, and the hugeness that mark most of the buildings around here has a chance to stand out even more.

As mentioned before, my hosts have been great, although I’ve come to realize that their English is not as strong as I had assumed. Of course, this assumption was based on my telling them that I knew zero Mandarin, and would only be able to give my talks in English. Basically, I kind of figured that either their English was quite strong, or that translators would be on hand.


Here’s the main courtyard of the NorthEast Forestry University. It’s lunch time, so most of the students are just hanging out and stuff. It has an enrollment of about 20,000 or so students, and has a pretty strong research agenda in the forestry sector

Turns out, neither case has emerged, which means that my educational efforts have been an interesting mix of slowing down my talks, pictionary imagery, and the occasional acts of charades. It’s also interesting to work with translators (some appear quite good, but many not so much). Still, it’s all in good fun, and judging from everyone’s faces, I am still able to connect and get the job done.

I’ve also had a chance to tour some of the facilities and meet several scientists in both the forestry and agricultural sector. There are some similarities to my experience in Nigeria, in that the buildings themselves seem to be quite old looking, but the individual labs range enormously. Some appear quite high tech, whereas others look quite primitive. Overall the level of scientific expertise in all things molecular seems respectable.

For instance, one lab I visited was an Electro – Antennogram Lab. Basically, here a graduate student showed me his research, which involved taking a particular insect, isolating its antenna, and then subjecting that antenna to various (electrical) currents. All of this set-up was within the context of Gas Chromatography apparatus. This way, at certain currents, the antenna were shown to release certain volatile metabolites (this is what the Gas Chromatography instrument can pick up). Overall, it was a fairly high-end system with the goal of identifying and characterizing antenna base signaling systems in insects, more specifically insect pests that affect agricultural and/or forestry practices (for those more interested, these compounds were further identified using mass spec techniques).


Now, where is that antenna exactly?

Another lab I visited, worked on agrobacterium transformed poplar trees – primarily to see what effect certain genes would have on factors such as disease resistance. I’m hoping to find out a little more about China’s policies on GM technologies – whether they are pretty stringent, or not stringent enough. All in all, it was pretty impressive, although obviously not quite at the level that we have in North America (although maybe I would’ve seen that in the more scientific hubs of Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong).


Transgenic Poplar – GM nation? Hopefully, will find out more on this later

Anyway, it’s always a pleasure and an interesting experience to see how research is done in other parts of the world.

As far as touristy things are concerned, I haven’t really had a chance to explore – mostly because I’ve been stuck with a head cold since arriving (I’m taking a regimen of tylenol and some traditional chinese medicine as we speak!). Hopefully, I’ll be fully mended by tomorrow, which means I’d be more inclined to explore and go out.

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at