Being ‘Ready for the World’

The challenges of international collaboration as UT researches pollution in China

By Jesse Weber

The air conditioning can only do so much to combat the 100-degree summer sun charging through the wall-sized window of the conference room, and the glass can only do so much to muffle the screeching of drills as a new subway line is built beneath the street. Inside the room sits a semi-circle of scientists; some happily sip tea while others drink coffee, secretly wishing for something cold. As the presenter shows slides and talks in English, American and Chinese professors attentively nod along, trying to ignore the distractions pervading from outside.

This multi-national team is gathered in Nanjing, China, under the common banner of scientific research. They are investigating toxic algae that grow out of control in water bodies polluted with overabundant nutrient chemicals—focusing on China’s third-largest lake, Taihu. The name means “Great Lake,” but its warm, shallow waters that once teemed with fish and inspired Chinese poetry have come under assault by cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, that thrive on sewage and agricultural runoff. These algae turn the water murky green, disrupt the natural ecosystem, and produce chemicals which are toxic to both humans and animals. Warm summer temperatures allow algae populations to explode in a phenomenon known as algal bloom. Because Taihu provides water to over 10 million people, this problem is of tremendous concern.

These cyanobacteria are not confined to China, however, and can reach dangerous levels in water bodies around the world, fueled by nutrient pollution and increasingly warmer temperatures. Blooms in the United States have attracted the attention of American scientists, and because the causes and effects of freshwater algal blooms are similar—no matter what side of the globe—American and Chinese researchers have joined forces to combat the obtrusive algae.

Research is rarely an easy task, especially when addressing urban water quality in the world’s most populated country. The Taihu team is counting on the skills of many scientists, input from various disciplines, resources from several institutions, and brainpower from around the world to add up to a workable solution for freshwater algal blooms. There are other terms to the equation, however, like subtracting the difference of 12,000 kilometers between research institutions, division by the language barrier, and factoring in variables like weather, personal schedules, and availability of equipment. After accounting for all this, the math becomes much less simple.

The principal Chinese institution studying Taihu is the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NIGLAS), which collaborates with scientists from multiple universities in the United States. All involved in multiple projects in their respective fields, most of the American researchers are not strangers to work abroad, but China seems to offer a unique set of challenges, even for the most seasoned world travelers.

“It’s still a learning curve coming over here [to China],” says Steven Wilhelm, a UT professor of microbiology. Wilhelm currently holds National Science Foundation grants to pursue research in ­­­­­­five different countries. He says he spends fifteen to twenty weeks of the year traveling, and the summer of 2013 marks his fifth trip to China to collaborate with NIGLAS.

Most of the Americans on this project rendezvous in Nanjing only once a year, resulting in months of e-mail correspondence working out details like visa arrangements, flight itineraries, hotel reservations, and so forth. This, of course, all comes after the arduous task of coordinating a week for everyone to drop out of their busy schedules and fly halfway around the world. Then there is the critical issue of determining what instruments the NIGLAS labs already have, who is carrying what additional equipment on the plane, and more. This is where the e-mail communications between America and China tend to come up short.

To the question, “Do you have a centrifuge rotor that will hold 15ml tubes?” the answer is inevitably, “Yes, no problem.” But after arriving at the institute in Nanjing and rooting through all the cabinets and drawers in the lab, reality is not always so accommodating. When a power converter should solve the problem of running a 110-volt vortex mixer from a 220-volt outlet, but doesn’t, the alternative is to plug in the appliance directly and hope for the best. When the result is sparks and smoke, the next alternative is tedious shaking by hand.

Despite the frequent stress and strain, such pressure creates strong camaraderie among colleagues, who anticipate their reunion each year. “We are excited to see each other every time,” Wilhelm says. “Out of the frustration of trying to work together I would say we have become good friends.”

The long months between personal interaction are certainly not wasted. E-mails bounce regularly between the United States and China discussing details of collaborative research and joint publication. In this way, colleagues engage in constant teambuilding in the common pursuit of scientific progress. Every year, the trip back to China is a time to reunite old friends. They are willing to overcome the barriers of distance and culture by stepping out of their comfortable home institutions and into the world of scientific research.

The departure from comfort zones is obviously greater for American scientists than for Chinese scientists who, although they must communicate mostly in a second language, get to work from their home labs in a familiar city. Professor Gao Guang has been with NIGLAS since 1987. He earned a PhD in Austria and has traveled to several countries, including the United States, during his career.

“I don’t think it’s too difficult,” Guang says. “Yes, we have some problems with the language, but for scientists it’s not a big problem. We can find ways to talk to each other.”

Boston University associate professor Ferdi Hellweger, who visited China for the first time in 2013, agrees. “Language and physical distance—I mean the fifteen-hour plane trip—are obstacles,” Hellweger says. “Otherwise, these days it doesn’t matter much where people are because communications via e-mail and Skype are so useful.”

The scientists make special effort to keep up with each other’s research from abroad. According to Gao, “Because now the Chinese are more open than before, a lot of Chinese scientists can go to America and European countries. We learn from newspapers and the Internet…We can find a lot of papers published in English.”

NIGLAS assistant professor Tang Xiangming adds, “We read newsletters like the MicroScope [the newsletter of UT’s microbiology department] annually.”

International collaboration, though difficult and frustrating at times, is crucial to solving the tremendous problem of China’s “Great Lake.” Combining various specialties, the super-group of scientists can study Taihu on a scale not possible by only one institution. Hans Paerl of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who studies algae ecology, originally opened relations with NIGLAS and recruited various American researchers based on their specific skill sets. Wilhelm and others at UT, including Jennifer DeBruyn (biosystems engineering and soil science) and a series of graduate and undergraduate students, focus on genomic and ecological analyses of the cyanobacterial community—figuring out what strains of algae exist in the lake and how they interact with other species. A team from the University of Texas is looking at nutrient cycling in the lake—how essential nutrients move from living cells, into water and sediment, and back. Researchers from the State University of New York analyze the chemical composition of the toxins produced by the algae, along with the implications for environmental and human health. Boston University engineers are working with NIGLAS to incorporate everyone’s data into a workable computer model, predicting how the Taihu aquatic ecosystem will respond to changing conditions like temperature fluctuation or varying levels of nutrients. The NIGLAS team specializes in remediation experiments, finding practical ways to curb algal growth in the lake.

Progress is well under way. Scientists have gained a more complete understanding of algal blooms in Taihu, which translates to better understanding of blooms globally. Every year, the Taihu team continues to produce new data about how the algae persists in the lake and affects the ecosystem. Such findings have led to marginal improvement of water quality in some parts of the lake. The Chinese government, prompted by NIGLAS consultation, has relocated factories and built artificial wetlands on some shores to reduce pollution. According to Gao, “Water quality has been improving in some parts of Taihu, but treating the entire lake is very difficult.”

The number of scientists working on Taihu continues to grow, and the need for international collaboration is now more recognized than ever before. Blooms in Taihu resurge every summer, and similar blooms are becoming more common in water bodies worldwide. The key to solving this global problem is global cooperation.

“We can gain experience from [American scientists],” Gao says. “Of course, we have a lot of experience in our lakes, and they have a lot of experience in theirs. They are not the same, so we can make comparisons between systems and produce ideas from cooperation. It has been very helpful.”

When transcending national boundaries, spatial and cultural barriers are inevitable but are always surmountable by mutual cooperation toward a common goal. Difficulties such as distance, language, and customs may seem like deterrents to progress, but only by intentional exposure to such challenges can they be overcome—and even made the best of—to accomplish more than could ever be done by one country’s scientists and one set of skills. Experience abroad opens possibilities to more places, more people, and more progress.

Jesse Weber is a UT student majoring in environmental studies student and minoring in Mandarin Chinese. He spent the summer of 2013 as a science journalism student supported by the National Science Foundation.