Vilma Kangasaho: “Learning about another culture and getting international experience were among my main motives to study in China”

I met Vilma, a 22-year-old MSc student in Meteorology at the University of Helsinki some time later after she had come from her two-week study course in Nanjing. Scientifically oriented and constantly curious about atmospheric phenomena and how they affect the Earth and our life on it, she is planning to pursue a doctoral degree in her field, and become a scientist in the near future. I interviewed Vilma to find out more about the course and life-abroad routine, the importance of getting a study experience in another country as well as its benefits for a career in science. And here is what she told me about her trip.   

How did you go to study in China?

Late last summer, I applied to Autumn school - Analysis of atmosphere-surface interactions and feedbacks taking place in October 2017 in Nanjing, China. The Autumn school was a jointly organized two-week intensive course by the University of Helsinki, Division of Atmospheric Sciences; Nanjing University, School of Atmospheric Sciences, and Joint International Research Laboratory of Atmospheric and Earth System Sciences (JirLATEST). The partnership between the universities in the field of atmospheric sciences is very good and strong, and during the autumn school, we got a chance to meet and enjoy the company of one of the leading aerosol scientists in Finland, Academy Professor Markku Kulmala.

The University of Helsinki has one of the world’s most famous research stations in atmospheric sciences in Hyytiälä surrounded by coniferous forest while Nanjing University has a similar kind of measurement station located on the university campus surrounded by a city of millions. Therefore, for me, studying close components of the atmosphere in different locations was very valuable as it opens new doors in terms of science. One of the important aims to apply for the course was to deepen my knowledge in regards to science and learn to do better data analysis and visualization. Also, learning about another culture and getting international experience were among my main motives to study in China.

Describe your feelings when you found out that you had got a study placement in the course

The day I got the email saying I was accepted for the course, I was very excited and happy. I was looking forward to meeting other people attending the course both from Helsinki and Nanjing and getting to do project work with the data from the measurement station.

                                                                                   The Nanjing Measurement Station, China

Have you done any preparation (e.g., academic, cultural etc.) before going to China?

Before my trip, I have done some academic preparation like reading a couple of scientific articles and performing pre-exercises. Apart from that, I looked up key cultural peculiarities such as communication styles and food culture as well as checked the top must-visit attractions. Also, I got to know some Chinese social media sites: Weibo, Baidu, and Youku as their western counterparts are banned in China, so I uploaded them beforehand and spent some time figuring out the way they work. The most practical one was Baidu, the Chinese Google, which we used for checking directions, weather, sights, various info, and a lot more. That was really helpful during the whole journey.

How did your typical day look like?

Typically our days used to start off with lectures and project work in groups. All the groups had a little bit different focus on the topic of air quality climate interactions. Each group consisted of students from the University of Helsinki and Nanjing University making intercultural communication the basis for achieving common goals set for the course.

During the course, we accommodated in the university hotel on the campus. The breakfast in the hotel was a combination of Chinese and Western breakfast so everybody could find something to their taste and get familiarized with the Chinese cuisine. Then we had lunch and dinner at the university restaurants. On the campus, there were many canteens and each of them had smaller restaurants, so the variety of food was enormous with more than 100 options! The only way to pay at the canteens was with a prepaid card where you could load money. The concept was very different from the Finnish one. You could choose whatever you wanted from any of the restaurants and then go and sit with your friends. Before choosing the food you had to take a tray and chopsticks. One confusing thing was that you had to order rice separately because normally you eat only rice if you are still hungry. It is normal to order more than one “main course” and eat it without rice.

When not attending the course, we used to have some free time to spend in the city and see attractions. Local students were our guides and took us to see nice places among which City Wall of Nanjing and Mochou Park were my favorite ones.

How different are the two educational systems ( Finnish and Chinese)?

The main visible thing is that all students live on the campus. The campus is like a small village with high buildings, supermarkets, restaurants, hair salons, police, and sports facilities such as a swimming pool.  The Chinese students also tend to have more school and shorter vacation than we have in Finland. The subject they study and skills they learn are very similar in China and in Finland but the working atmosphere and a management style are a lot more different. Hierarchy is a very big thing in China where subordinates be it students, workers etc, show respect to their teachers, bosses not only by adding titles Mr or Mrs/Ms, but also in approaches used for expressing their thoughts, ideas, and criticism, which are quite often indirect, soft and do not disrupt harmony of the environment they work in.   

What did you personally learn from the trip?

Academic-wise I have gained many useful skills I can apply in utilizing and visualizing data. I also learned a lot from the air quality and Chinese culture. The autumn school has taught me better collaborative and project management techniques within the international environment, skills absolutely of the utmost importance in all spheres of today’s work life, especially if you are heading towards a scientific career. I love the idea of becoming a global researcher and work along with prominent researchers, so I believe the skill to work in different environments and ability to make connections are vital and can bring various opportunities for funding, research partnering, and collaborations.  

What advice can you give to those who are planning to travel or study in China?

Go, explore and preferably learn some basic Chinese beforehand! Inside the university students speak pretty good English, but outside the campus, the language situation gets tougher, so it is very hard to find people who can actually speak it and help you in case you have problems. Also, I recommend learning to eat with chopsticks as that is usually the only option available unless you bring your own fork. There is so much to see but be prepared that there are also a lot of people and rush hour really means rush.

Photo credit: Vilma Kangasaho