This fall marks 11 years that I have been living in China and working at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). I discovered Paleontology in 2002 as a freshman in college. At the same time, I learned about the amazing fossils coming out of northern China like the feathered dinosaurs that once and for all linked birds and dinosaurs (the idea that birds are living dinosaurs was debated until undeniable evidence was unearthed in China in the late 1990’s).
I have always loved China, being half Chinese and growing up fascinated with the culture of my mother and grandparents. I decided to pursue paleontology and specifically my goal was to study Chinese fossils, so I could combine these two interests.
In 2009, after graduating with my PhD, I moved to Beijing. Originally, a postdoc in China with the support of a CAS grant for young foreign scientists (former PIFI project), and then several more in different parts of the world to satiate my wanderlust, but in the end I never left Beijing and 11 years later I’m still here and still loving it. The incredible resources provided by the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the amazing fossils unearthed in China provided me with the tools needed to succeed in a field that is highly competitive — last fall I was awarded the Paleontological Society’s Schuchert Award for outstanding scientists under 40.
I know that my success is in a very large part due to the fact that I moved to China (working hard is also a requirement — but this is much easier to do if you have a supportive work environment), and I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities afforded me here — and I am eager to share my story with other intrepid young scientists who are willing to leave their comfort zone and take advantage of the many things this nation has to offer.
I am a vertebrate paleontologist studying the dinosaurian origin of birds. Originally from America, as I mentioned, I am also half Chinese. I was always fascinated by what my mother taught me about Chinese culture — particularly about the respect for scholars, something very different from the more capitalist ideals of the West. My mother is a geologist and I followed her into academia. However, my mother didn’t stay long in academia — unfortunately it is a very difficult and unrewarding environment in America.
In contrast, as a scientist you could not dream of a better place to work than as part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (I’m not exaggerating). Few people outside China know the beauty of conducting scientific research nearly completely unfettered. Back home science is constantly under attack by general society and research is underfunded, whereas in China if you work hard there is no resource that is unavailable to you. If your research is productive, there is no equipment that you cannot justify to purchase or research trip that you cannot go on. In my institute I am part of a lab working on the same research topic but from different angles, providing an amazing collaborative environment that doesn’t exist in most foreign institutions that can only hire one person per research topic (or sometimes even only one per field).
In the work environment I have not experienced any of the prejudice that also unfortunately plagues society where I am from. I have always found colleagues to be friendly and super helpful when it comes to navigating life in China and institutional bureaucracy (which exists everywhere). More recently, as CAS has moved ever increasingly into the spotlight of the scientific community, our institution is becoming more and more international as it attracts foreign scholars at every level, from student, to postdoc, to professor, reflecting the acknowledged importance of international collaboration.
Of course, life is not all work — what about living in China? I will admit, when I first moved to Beijing I experienced a bit of culture shock — I’ve never lived in such an intense city with so much going on. But once I got used to it, I loved it — and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I love the long and colorful history that is reflected in the hutongs and temples, the incredibly colorful culture reflected in the flavorful food and colorful way people dress, and the friendly smiles you will get from most people in your neighborhood. I lived in the hutongs (the ancient part of Beijing City) for eight years, an experience I would recommend to anyone who comes to live and work in Beijing.
In addition to the rich cultural surroundings, in many ways life in Beijing is more convenient than life where I grew up. The public transportation system is second best in the world (Shanghai being the best) and technology has made it possible to get anything you want with just a smart phone in hand. There are concerts by local and foreign artists, music festivals, several amazing art districts, free lectures on numerous topics, and many clubs and organizations focused on sports or different interests so that it is impossible to be bored or lonely. Life is not perfect anywhere, but with a positive attitude and hard work, anyone can have a fulfilling life and successful scientific career in the myriad of institutions, universities, and companies providing all sorts of career opportunities throughout China.
(Jingmai Kathleen O’Connor from Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, CAS)
52 Sanlihe Rd., Xicheng District,
Beijing, China (100864)