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Sadaf and Javad: Two international Ph.D. graduates from the College of Engineering at PKU

NOV . 02 2020
Peking University, November 2, 2020: Navigating the rigorous academic lifestyle of Peking University can be somewhat challenging, especially for international students who are new to the Chinese academic environment. However, with dedication, perseverance and hard work, success can be found.

This is the belief of two Ph.D. graduates from the College of Engineering. They are Sadaf Hameed, a Pakistani in biomedical engineering and Mohammad Javad Pourhosseini Asl, an Iranian in magnetoelectric composite. They both obtained Peking University Excellent International Students Award of the Year 2019-2020 and graduated this summer.

Sadaf Hameed (left) and Mohammad Javad Pourhosseini Asl (right)

Before coming to China, Sadaf and Javad worked as university lecturers in their home countries. Motivated by successful scientists in their respective families as well as the urge to embark on scientific research addressing various compelling challenges, they decided to pursue their doctoral degrees abroad. Javad revealed, “There are well-known professors in my family, so when I was a teenager, I told myself one day, I hope to become such a scientist.” In the same vein, Sadaf said, “Being a passionate chemistry teacher, I always wanted to utilize my skills to investigate ongoing research problems. That’s why I want to delve deeper into the world of science by carrying out substantial and meaningful research."

Back in their home countries, Sadaf and Javad were often frustrated by the shortage of laboratory apparatus. However, at Peking University, they have access to extremely advanced equipment. “In the past, if I needed to do some simple experiments, I had to register online and wait for months. But now at Peking University, I don’t need to wait such a long time for an experiment. Even if the university does not have a certain equipment, Professor Dong Shuxiang, my supervisor, will help me obtain it,” Javad said.

Apart from the well-equipped research facilities, the pair are also fascinated by how diligent their Chinese colleagues are. Sadaf finds that her colleagues always arrive earlier and leave later than her, and Javad is satisfied with the portable beds brought by his colleagues in order to take a nap when working late in the lab. “I must work as hard as them,” Javad said.

Facing inevitable challenges in an unfamiliar place

Upon their arrival to China, Sadaf and Javad faced a series of challenges before settling down at the university. They both said they found it difficult to adapt to Chinese lifestyle and environment, ranging from weather and language to eating habits.

Like many international students, Sadaf was also affected by the language barrier, but she overcame it by taking Chinese language courses and using machine translation. Sadaf also touched upon the difficulty of adapting to Beijing's weather because back in her homeland, the weather is quite mild. She also really struggled with chopsticks at the start!

Javad found it somewhat strange that Chinese people usually share their dishes with others at round tables. In his hometown, people usually enjoy individual servings at square tables. He also revealed how amazed he was by the convenience of ordering food on mobile applications and having it delivered directly to customers. Javad admitted that he was not used to this service at first, but now he orders food in this way on a regular basis.

Empathizing with international students

With more than 10 years of experience studying in Singapore, Japan and the United States, Professor Zou Ruqiang, vice dean of College of Engineering, is adept at managing cultural differences. He said his own experiences living in the East and the West have enabled him to better empathize with international students here at Peking University and have a wealth of experiences mentoring students with various Mandarin proficiency levels. Professor Zou has met students who are fluent in Mandarin as well as those who may be weak in it in the College of Engineering. The courses at undergraduate level are taught in Mandarin while there are classes conducted in both English and Mandarin at postgraduate level in the college. “The college offers an excellent platform for these international students to receive quality education and enjoy memorable life experiences at PKU,” Professor Zou said.

Professor Zou Ruqiang

Professor Zou is confident to mentor international students in both his class and lab. He said he previously supervised foreign doctoral students who could only speak in English and they nonetheless received the prestigious National Award for Outstanding International Students. “Evidently, learning knows no borders and one’s language abilities should not hinder your study here at PKU. It is possible to obtain research achievements and even pick up a new language during your stay here,” Professor Zou added.

Professor Zou said more than 90% of faculty members in the College of Engineering have experience in studying abroad and this should come as a relief to most international students as they can be well-assured that their supervisors are able to empathize with their concerns.

When mentoring international students, Professor Zou would first teach them about Chinese culture so that they are able to fit in to their new environment and to make more fulfilling friendships in the weeks to come. The first lesson for the international students in Professor Zou’s lab would be to make a short presentation on their respective cultures, so students in his group can be acquainted with one another. After doing so, he would encourage them to expand their social circles in their coming doctoral life at PKU. To help them integrate into his group, Professor Zou often organizes meet-ups for his students to mingle and meet Chinese and foreign peers alike. He also thinks dietary restrictions are definitely not an issue. For Muslim students who require Halal meal, the Tong Yuan canteen is just a stone’s throw away from Professor Zou’s office. He is currently mentoring a group of students from Pakistan and he reassured them that their dietary needs are well taken care of.

Now Sadaf and Javad are quite accustomed to Chinese lifestyles. They said they are in love with delicious Chinese food, such as spicy hot pot and spicy numbing stir-fry.

Getting along with professors and colleagues
When they pursued their Ph.D. degrees at PKU, Sadaf and Javad spend much time working in the lab. They both said they have learned a lot from professors and received huge support from their Chinese colleagues.

When Sadaf joined the lab three years ago, she found that all the chemicals were labeled in Chinese and she struggled to identify the ones she needed. So she turned to her supervisor Professor Dai Zhifei for help, who later asked students in the lab to label all the chemicals in English. Sadaf was also faced with this difficulty when using instruments as most of the instructions are written in Chinese. In most cases, her Chinese colleagues would give her a hand. Sadaf is also impressed by Professor Dai's dedication to work and appreciate his guidance. “Professor Dai is a great mentor and a true professional in terms of supervision. He is always kind enough to provide me new directions that actually help me develop my skill set to meet the requirements of my doctorate. He offers me much help and really inspires me,” Sadaf said.

Sadaf (left) and Professor Dai Zhifei (right)

Javad worked on magnetic particles synthesized by chemical methods for his master’s degree but changed to magnetoelectric composite and devices for his doctoral degree. Thus, during his first year, he had to learn how to operate new devices, which took him about six months. During this difficult period of time, Professor Dong and his colleagues helped him a lot. “Professor Dong is the kindest teacher I have ever had. He inspires me and is always ready to help. Apart from offering academic advice and support, Professor Dong often shares delicious homemade food with us and shows his sincere care for students,” Javad said.

Javad (left) and Professor Dong Shuxiang (right)

In return, Sadaf and Javad also contribute a lot to their labs. They also help their Chinese colleagues polish English drafts. In Professor Dai's eyes, a biological research team like this, with Chinese and international students working together, can “complement each other's strengths.”

“The international students can be assured that their stay here will be enjoyable, with mentors empathizing with their concerns and a group of like-minded peers forming a strong support system,” said Zhang Shanshan, director of the Office of International Relations from the College of Engineering.

According to Zhang, the College of Engineering offers a wide range of international programs for international students, for example Globex. This program enables students to participate in a one-month summer school that incorporates technology, innovation as well as a brief introduction to the Chinese society and economy. The interdisciplinary nature of this exciting program also means that participants can meet like-minded peers from all walks of life.

Beyond PhD: The adventure continues

In addition to doing research, Javad revealed his enthusiasm for sports and how he is actively involved in soccer, ping-pong and dancing. He plays ping-pong on a regular basis with Professor Dong and his colleagues. In 2019 they were victorious in the Lab Cup Ping-pong Contest held by the College of Engineering. He has also traveled to several Chinese cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Qingdao, Harbin, among others. Sadaf, on the other hand, visits the gym for exercise but she is yet to explore other cities in China.

Now they are to start a new academic journey after graduation. Sadaf and Javad will return in September as postdoctoral fellows of Peking University. After that, Sadaf plans to return to her homeland to be a scientist in a research institution, while Javad would like to find a job at a university in China. “I would like to stay in China because I love China and I feel I am Chinese by heart,” Javad said.

Written by: Ye Yimeng, Liu Zijing, Lukmon Akintola, Shou Wentian, Ng Joong Hwee, Qiu Tianjie
Edited by: Sam Jones, Huang Weijian