Overseas Internship Diary | Zhang Kaifan: Enjoy the Charm of Working with Nature


Zhang Kaifan in the lab

Name: Zhang Kaifan

Intake: 2019/09

Programme: Marine Biotechnology

Internship Period: April to July 2022

Internship Place: College of the Environment & Ecology, Xiamen University, China

Q1: Can you describe your tasks as a research intern?

A: My internship tasks was quite varied, mainly focusing on sample distribution and grinding, data recording and measurement, and image processing and analysis. There were also some novel experiences, such as collecting mangrove samples in the field, working on a natural growth platform to simulate climate change, using high-end instruments to measure greenhouse gases, and participating in science writing.

Q2: What is the biggest insight you gained from the internship?

A: Realizing the importance of practice. Due to the epidemic, I was forced to take online classes and missed many opportunities for hands-on experiments. It was not until I actually went into the lab that I realized my lack of practical experience.

Q3: Any memorable experiences you want to share with us?

A: I encountered many unexpected challenges that tested my problem-solving skills. I remember a time when I was asked to measure the conductivity of soil leachate alongside another student. We had almost 200 samples, each requiring 2-3 measurements. Unfortunately, the reading process took longer than anticipated, and we faced challenges such as incorrect numbering, misplaced samples, spilt bottles, and significant errors in the measurement data.

Initially, we panicked and sought help from our seniors. However, as we progressed with the measurements, we learned to remain calm, think critically, and discuss potential solutions. This experience made me understand that real-world practice might go beyond theoretical knowledge, and not all problems can be solved by seeking help from others.

Q4: How did you develop your interest in mangrove study?

A: When I was young, I read a book about mangroves, and was very curious about the trees that grow in the sea. Later in my sophomore year, I took a course called Typical Marine Ecosystems: Mangrove, Coral Reef and Sea Grasses  and learnt about mangroves in a systematic way, which opened my eye to ecology and urged me to work in ecology-related fields in the future.

Q5: How was your working environment?

A: I was very fortunate to be in a group where my supervisor and seniors were exceptionally kind. My supervisor, Prof. Chen Luzhen, is academically demanding, but easy-going in daily life. Even though I was just an intern, she was willing to give me the opportunity to learn new things. My seniors also taught me patiently and would answer my questions in a very detailed way.

As a result, I benefited a lot during my internship. Taking my science writing as an example - under the guidance of my supervisor, I participated in the writing of a book chapter. The book was already published in October 2022.


The book that Zhang Kaifan participated in writing

Q6: Did this internship change your view of scientific research?

A: Yes. In my opinion, doing research needs people to be calm and patient. It does have boring parts, but it would also hone my mind, making me more patient and focused.

Working with nature is fun, healing and full of magic. I was most impressed when I first walked into the coastal mangrove forest: the soft mud of the wetland sank down to my knees and sucked my calves, making it very hard to take a step forward; the mangrove forest was intertwined with branches, mosquitoes and insects, and the mud smelled rotten and slippery. But there are always pleasures when you are with nature - when you step into the mud, the water squeezed out may wash a small crab from the hole to the ground.


Photo taken during field work

Q7: Do you have any suggestions for fellow students?

A: There are many options for CAMS students, and learning can be a process of knowing oneself. It is important to figure out what you are really interested in. You may try a bit more outside the classroom, using your professional knowledge and strengths while exploring different possibilities.

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