Teaching ecology in China

As part of my teaching, I offer so-called ‘projects’ to students that are interested in the work I do. Projects are basically semester-long student projects that can be part of longer-term research, or can be something tailor-made for the students. The idea is that students get to think about a subject, formulate hypotheses or research questions, and then would collect data – or perform small experiments and then collect data – to test them.

This semester, I thought it would be fun to offer some projects on artificial light at night. This has become a small line of work of mine that I really enjoy working on. A lot is known about how plants use light to fine-tune many of their daily (and longer-term) processes. However, comparatively little is known about how plants and their interactors respond to such stressors as street lighting, even though it is an ever-growing problem. Given that street lights are all over the place, I thought it would be cool to have students collect their own data in the field. Easy right?

My idea initially was to have students collect plants from under street lights and then find local plants of the same species in the same area, but in unlit conditions. I quickly ran into the problem of a lack of a real local control, as, well, finding a dark place that has the same local soil conditions is pretty difficult in most cases. So now we have decided to go for an alternative; collecting plant material at different distances away from street lights, so we can investigate if distance from light would effect plant growth, plant traits and maybe plant fitness.

Only two students signed up this semester. Both students are Chinese and I thought it would be good if they would collaborate together in one work group. I hoped that that would be convenient for them, as they already have to struggle to be taught in German (by the system) and in English (by this horrible Dutch guy). (I still don’t get why anyone would ever learn German to obtain an academic degree – but I have tremendous respect for those who do) At some point during our first Zoom meeting, I found out that one of the students is in China, while the other one is here in Germany. I don’t like refusing students because they could not make it to the country in time because of a shitty pandemic, so I decided to go rogue and offered to her that she could do similar measurements for the effects of artificial light at night on a local plant and under local streetlights. Over the past week, I sent them outside and let them observe some potential areas for investigation in Freising, Germany and of course also in Wuhan, China. It turns out that the parks in many Chinese cities are completely overgrown by what seems to be Trifolium repens, or simply white clover – which are already in full bloom. Perfect, a species that I have worked with before and understand. The fact that several effects of light at night in Fabaceae have reported doesn’t hurt either. The student came up with some great suggestions on what to measure. It seems that this student project, that I was not so sure about, might work after all.

So now I find myself doing long-distance ecological teaching in my beloved China, crossing several time zones and thousands of kilometres while sitting in my home office. Somehow fate has it that the long-distance teaching that only exists because of Covid-19, brought me to the Chinese city where the disease that still holds the world in a firm grip was first encountered. I guess it is a small world.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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