In this series we share the experiences of ‘globetrotters’ in ecological sciences, who have traveled all over the world during their research career. Dr. Yingying Wang, the current Haldane prize winner, writes about her academic journey from China for her M.S., to the Netherlands for her Ph.D., and finally to Finland for her postdoctoral research.

Where are you from originally, and where have you moved to during your academic career?

Yingying Wang
Yingying Wang

My name is Yingying Wang, and I come from China. I started my PhD at Wageningen University (the Netherlands) in 2015 after finishing my MS at Nanjing University (China). I completed my PhD thesis, which is entitled “Some species are more equal than others: Phylogenetic relatedness predicts disease pressure,” in October 2019. Currently, I am working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Jyväskylä (Finland).

What do you study?

My study mainly focuses on the infectious disease of mammals. Given that there are many infectious diseases that originate from wildlife, especially mammals, disease risk of mammals can thus provide first-order predictions for public health. I have great interest in studying the disease risk of wildlife, especially in the context of biodiversity loss. During my PhD, I studied the factors that shaped the pattern of infectious disease with the goal of identifying potential infectious disease hotspots. A key finding is that host species relatedness and composition of mammal assemblages (i.e. which species are present and at what abundances) also plays an important role in determining disease risk. After my PhD, I was thrilled to have the chance to continue my interest in disease ecology as a postdoc under the supervision of Dr Eva R. Kallio. We are focusing on the drivers of zoonotic tick-borne pathogens (i.e., pathogens that can be maintained and transmitted by ticks) in natural populations. We aim to predict and reduce future risks of tick-borne pathogens.

Why did you decide to move to another country? And were there unexpected differences in language or communication?

I always believe that studying abroad is an excellent opportunity to open one´s mind and get to know other lifestyle choices of people around the world. My opportunity to study abroad – in the Netherlands – came through the Chinese Government Scholarship. The programme supports Chinese students who want to study for a PhD in other countries like me. I also appreciated the acceptance of Wageningen University (the Netherlands).

Although I did not struggle with the language barrier, I did come across a “communication” barrier in the beginning.

When I first arrived in the Netherland in 2015, I was surprised to find that English is everywhere even in a non-native English speaking country. This made my life quite easy, especially in the beginning.

Although I did not struggle with the language barrier, I did come across a “communication” barrier in the beginning. From my experiences in China, students would not call the supervisor by the given name. In the Netherlands, you are encouraged to talk with the supervisor more casually and become friends with your supervisors like I did. My two daily supervisors, Fred and Kevin, and I have had many great times; I still remember the time when we celebrated Christmas, made cookies and watched Star Wars together. Things are very similar in Finland from my perspective. Supervisors and students are more like friends.

How do research practices differ between countries you’ve lived in?

The difference in research practices mostly relates to method of supervision, I would say. When I was doing my MSc in China, I had only one supervisor, and the supervisor has a timetable for what to do. In the Netherlands, as a PhD student, I had a supervisor team comprised of four people. More importantly, I had to take responsibility to make the plan about when and what to do.

My two daily supervisors, Fred and Kevin, and I have had many great times; I still remember the time when we celebrated Christmas, made cookies and watched Star Wars together.

Dr Claudius van de Vijvers (from the graduate school for Production Ecology & Resource Conservation at Wageningen University, the Netherlands) explained to me the attitude towards a PhD education similar to the process of “driving a car”. I would like to use this analogy here too.

I have a feeling that when I was “driving” my MSc car, my supervisor was sitting next to me and reminded me the direction from time to time, whereas for my PhD, supervisors were sitting behind and gave suggestions when I got lost. I am not clear whether this is a difference more like between different education stages (i.e., MSc and PhD) or between countries or even between groups within a university. This is a big difference from my experience.

What did you not “realize” would be different where you moved to?

I did not expect to have differences coursework before I moved to the Netherlands. When I was studying in China, professors gave lectures in a more traditional way (i.e., professors give lectures and students do homework alone). In the Netherlands, group work is encouraged for all course that I joined.  At first, I did not appreciate group work because it often took more time than I did alone. But I soon found that it was a nice way to get ideas from different angles and insights and having group work is also a good way to make friends.

Are there any differences regarding attitude towards science or research from the general public?

I did not see many differences in attitude towards science from general public. From my experiences, people in China, the Netherlands and Finland think science is important and have great interest in it. Whenever I am doing field work, people are curious about what you are doing, what is your research question and would like to know the results of the study.

What do you love about living abroad, either in research or otherwise?

Rabbit in the forests of Finland (photo by Ilze Brila).
Rabbit in the forests of Finland (photo by Ilze Brila).

There are many things worth mentioning what I love about living abroad. I would say “coffee break” to be the first. In the Netherlands, we usually have coffee breaks at 10:30; people talk lots about ideas and problems with their research. I must admit that I learnt more from coffee break than group meetings.  “Coffee break” increased my knowledge not only about disease ecology, but also for wildlife conservation, bird migration and evolution as my group at Wageningen University was very diverse in research topics. This is also true when I joined the vole group in Finland, and I learned some exciting ideas about microbes in voles.

Hare in the forests of Finland (photo by Ilze Brila).

Another thing that amazed me in Finland is that they have thousands of lakes and many beautiful forests. It is very nice to see rabbits and squirrels living next to your home. I also like cycling culture in the Netherlands very much. It is so enjoyable to bike around, although it is very hard to keep the same speed as my Dutch friends.

What do you miss about your ‘home’ country?

There are also many things that I miss about my home country. I miss my family and friends, for sure.  Chinese FOOD, of course, because there are so many different types of food in China.  You will never experience all of it. Online shopping is cheap and fast, and you can get your packages with one or two days, sometimes the same day (i.e., same-day shipping). How nice!

I have to mention high-speed train here. It is very convenient and super fast (about 250–350 km/h). I don’t have to spend much time getting to my destination with the help of high-speed train in China.

Do you have any advice for other researchers who are considering moving abroad for their career?

My advice for anyone going to study abroad is that don’t be shy, and people are accepting. It is important to express your ideas. Second, open your mind. Studying abroad is not only a way to enrich your scientific knowledge, but also a journey to meet people with different backgrounds and cultures. Open your mind, and you will soon make new groups of friends.

Where do you hope to be in 5 years’ time?

I plan to move back after finishing my postdoc. I hope I can continue my career in Nanjing, China. I have many families and friends there, and Nanjing is a lovely city with many forests.

Read more posts from this series here. For more international perspectives, read our series on Getting Your PhD Around the World.