Intern name: Brian Kohen
Internship Position: Neuroscience Research at Peking University
School: Duke University
Major: Neuroscience with a minor in Chemistry
Posted on June 24, 2011
My name is Brian Kohen and I am a rising Junior at Duke University. I’m majoring in Neuroscience with a minor in Chemistry.
I was recently accepted to do research on the social behavior of Drosophila flies at the prestigious Peking University in Beijing, China. I will be in Beijing for 5 weeks doing my own project on Drosophila aggression towards each other and try to track down biologically what is responsible for aggression in the flies. Aside from research, I also plan to travel as much as I can and visit historic and famous sites such as the Forbidden City and of course, the Great Wall of China. I travel a lot and have seen much of the world, having been to countries such as Belize, Panama, the Galapagos Islands, Brazil, Turkey, Israel, Germany, the list goes on. But I have never been to East Asia or a country like China. I am told that it is extremely different from any of the other countries that I have visited. Overall, I am extremely excited for my trip. I am excited to soak in yet another world culture, one that is rich with thousands and thousands of years of history, one that I have never seen before. I know it will be an amazing, once in a lifetime experience. I look forward to continuing this blog throughout my five weeks in Beijing and share my experience here with the readers.
Posted on June 30, 2011
Over the weekend, being in a foreign country that I’ve never visited before kind of began to kick in. It was hard not knowing to navigate and order food not knowing any Chinese. I usually relied on pointing to things or a friendly Chinese person who can speak English to help me because he sees me struggle to communicate. It’s not too bad though, hopefully in my time here I will be able to pick up some Chinese words that could help me out in simple communication. After I finished working at the lab, I joined a game of pickup soccer on campus with about 20 students. It was really fun except for the fact that they were pretty bad. Nevertheless, it was indeed fun. Huge Beijing buildings surround the court so you feel really small playing in it, but it’s really cool. On Friday night I explored the popular Hou Hai with some American students I met at Shao Yuan. It seemed pretty empty but it was nice to go out at night and get an initial feel for Beijing nightlife while hanging out with some friends. On Saturday evening I met up with another friend and we ate pizza at a very good restaurant in the Sanlitun area called “The Tree.” I definitely recommend it! After that we explored the shockingly western shopping area, including the world’s biggest Adidas store, to kill some time before the bars started to populate. We settled at a bar called “BarBlu.” It was on the fourth-seventh floors of a building right in the middle of all the bars. My friend and I went to the top floor, chatted, and soaked up the beautiful skyline and view.
Posted on July 1, 2011
On Sunday I woke up early and walked south towards the Zhongguancun shopping mall. I went up to the 7th floor of the building to a very professional Canon store. After much pointing and charade play, I bought myself a nice Canon digital SLR. With my newly bought camera, I got on Line 4 of the subway and headed towards the Beijing Zoo. It was a hot day. When I first entered the zoo I was a bit flustered and confused where to go. Eventually I just decided to walk in one direction and find my way. It worked. There were very nicely marked signs at pretty much every intersection telling you which direction to go to see which animal and how far they were. The zoo was extremely crowded but very nice. They had little parks throughout the zoo in between each exhibit. After seeing elephants, giraffes, monkeys, hawks, kangaroos, pandas and more over the course of the day, I called it a day. Before leaving however, I decided to stop at one of the green areas and lay down under the shade of a tree. There was a really excellent breeze that kept me lying down for a while. I decided to read Harry Potter (#5) while lying down. This was the best part of my trip so far. It was so relaxing. At 6:30, I met up with Max Klein, founder of NorCap, as well as a couple other students, at the Chengdu Municipal Government Restaurant for the Intern Welcome Dinner. It was very nice to finally meet Max, Bailey, and more students my age doing internships in Beijing. We chatted for a while and the students exchanged numbers, agreeing to travel and explore Beijing tourist sites and nightlife together. This was my best day on my trip…so far.
Posted on July 4, 2011
I woke up very excited to really begin my project in the lab. I am going to be researching male aggression in flies and analyzing its causes, effects, etc. Throughout the week, a graduate student named Yu Tenghui taught me each step of the process. Yu Tenghui taught me how to first extract genomic DNA from Drosophila flies and then to identify male and female flies using a microscope. This was pretty cool. I practiced for a while until I felt comfortable enough to identify each without a microscope. There are a couple ways to discriminate between males and females. Females are usually larger than comparably aged males; females have alternating black and white strips on their abdomen whereas males just have a very dark lower abdomen. The female genitalia region (lower abdomen) is pointy whereas male genitalia region is blunt. There are many other ways to identify but these definitely get the job done. I received my jar of flies, some in the larva stage some already grown adults, and waited a couple hours for more to mature. To transfer the flies from the jar to a small board where you can isolate the males you need to use CO2 that temporarily anesthetizes them for a short period. After I successfully isolated about 50 males, I placed them each in individual small Eppendorf 2ml tubes with .5ml of food in them in order to increase aggressive behavior. The next step was to place them in a culture medium to mature for a couple days before being able to perform the aggression tests. Later in the week, once my flies had matured, I practiced placing two isolated flies into the fighting chamber together. The fighting chamber is a very small cylindrical plastic chamber with food in the center of it. It was very difficult to transfer two very small flies into one very small chamber without having them fly away and escape! Luckily the lab has literally thousands of these flies! This coming week I will begin to perform the aggression tests in which I film the behavior of the two flies in the chamber and look for aggressive actions such as what is known as boxing/tussling, lunging, defensive cues, etc.
Posted on July 5, 2011
I’m very intrigued by this research and I really feel welcomed by everyone in the lab. Everyday a couple of us take a break and eat lunch together and compare American and Chinese culture. I thought it would be interesting to explain pledging and the whole idea of fraternities and sororities to them. I described the whole process, about how people do crazy things to get into them, etc. and they were laughing so much. They were really interested but couldn’t believe so many people in America do it and no one (aka the government, from what I understood) does anything to prevent it. They were telling me about the 90th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and talking about all the different dynasties and which temples in Beijing belong to which dynasty. I can’t wait to see all the beautiful palaces and temples soon! There is so much to see.
Throughout the week the interns and some other American students in the area that we met explored the Beijing nightlife. We went to Sanlitun and Hou Hai a couple times over the course of the week. It was really enjoyable to grab a bite to eat at a cool restaurant with friends and get to know everyone a little better each night.
On Friday night, a couple of friends and me decided to go to Chabad in downtown Beijing for Friday night Sabbath dinner. Chabad is an orthodox Jewish movement. They have houses all over the world for wandering (and resident) Jews to enjoy some kosher meals, sing Jewish tunes, and feel at home. We arrived at the house without knowing anyone and we were immediately welcome in with open arms. There were about 30 people there, all with different backgrounds and reasons for being in Beijing. There were a lot of many different languages being spoken. It was so incredibly soothing to forget the language barrier and come together singing the same songs and doing the same blessings as my Jewish community back in New York, halfway across the world. After a while things got a little rowdy, nevertheless fun, due to the fact that the Russians kept asking us to pass the “water” or “petrol” making countless toasts to Israel, life, and peace with the Rabbi. It was quite the experience and it was definitely one of the nicest feelings I’ve had on my trip. I truly felt at home. I loved being able to speak Hebrew to so many people—in Beijing. I can’t wait to go back there next Friday night!
Posted on July 8, 2011
I visited Jingshan Park recently with a couple of nice American students I met over the course of my time here. One was a medical student at the University of Tennessee at Memphis working at a local hospital, one was an Israeli traveling after her army service, and another was a student at the University of Virginia doing an internship related to film. Pretty diverse group of people! The park was beautiful. It had a view of the Forbidden City, Tian’anmen square, and a lot of Beijing. The only problem was that it was a typical Beijing day. Which meant there was an abnormal amount of smog in the air that made visibility terrible and we couldn’t see too far to fully enjoy the view. I can only imagine how much more beautiful it’d be on a clear sunny day… I guess I’ll have to go back when it’s nice outside.
After Jingshan Park, we walked to the food market near the Wangfujing subway station. I have never seen anything like it. First, the street the market was on was so crowded that you couldn’t see the ground and had to hold your hands close to your body and push your way through. Second, the food they were serving was so…incredible, I guess? To name a few foods: sea horses, starfish, little scorpions, bigger scorpions (size of my hand—looked very dangerous!), donkey penis, different kinds of lizards, sea urchin, snake, cicada, silk worm, baby chicken, snail, curry shark, turtle, octopus and squid tentacles, centipedes, and other really weird animals and insects I couldn’t recognize. And all of these foods were on a stick, skewered like a corn dog at a baseball game in America. It was a bit of a shock to see all of these foods served so regularly, but it was also quite the experience.
On my way back to the subway to my dorm at Peking University, I stopped at a huge bookstore just to check it out. They had a floor dedicated to English books. They had everything from Harry Potter to Huckleberry Finn to the da Vinci Code. It really felt like a Barnes & Noble. On a separate floor, they had all of these English books in Chinese. It was really interesting to see. All in all it was a really unique day.
Posted on July 11, 2011
My research in the lab has gotten more and more interesting as I got more familiar with the equipment and my project. One of the graduate students in the lab, Li Bingfeng sat down with me and explained the project I was to work on in depth. I am studying aggression in Drosophila melanogaster flies. There are 5 octopamine receptors in Drosophila flies. Octopamine is an endogenous (naturally occurring within the flies) amine that has effects on the adrenergic and dopaminergic systems, which are neurotransmitter pathways involved in adrenaline (epinephrine) and wanting/liking/reward (dopamine). Only 1 of these 5 receptors is responsible for aggression in the flies. The flies I am using are mutant 18896 flies that have an insertion in their genomic DNA intended to affect aggression levels. Using RNA interference (RNAi) we were able to determine which of these receptors is responsible for aggressive behavior. RNAi is a system within living cells that can control which genes are active and their level of activity. Using this, we were able to see that aggression levels in mutant 18896 flies dropped (in comparison to regular wild type flies) in 1 receptor and therefore it can be assumed that that receptor is responsible for aggression. However, RNAi lacks specificity and is sometimes inefficient. Therefore, in order to prove that this specific receptor (and not any of the other 4) is responsible for aggression, the genomic DNA insertion was removed from the flies’ DNA.
What I am doing is extracting the DNA of the flies, after the insertion was removed, and using PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) to amplify the DNA and make sure that the entire insertion was indeed removed. Once I verify that the insertion was removed, I will carry out aggression tests with these rescued flies (ones that had the mutant insertion affecting aggression, but then had it removed) and regular wild type flies. If the identified octopamine receptor is really responsible for aggression then the wild type flies and rescued flies will have the same aggression levels since the rescued flies are now technically wild type flies.
If you are not a science major, I probably lost you after the first couple sentences. If you are, or are simply interested in this, hopefully you think what I’m doing is cool because I sure do.
Posted on July 19, 2011
Now that I’ve explained all the science research I’m doing at Peking University, I can talk about all the exciting stuff I’ve done outside the lab in the past couple days. One morning during the week I woke up and saw that it was a beautiful clear day. I went to work in the lab that morning but I really couldn’t stand being indoors on a rare beautiful day like that. I asked the graduate student I’m working with if I can take off after lunch and head to the Summer Palace. He said of course. I texted a couple friends who excitedly said they would meet me there. On the way there I ran into an Irish girl my age who was lost. I told her to come along and tour the Summer Palace with the rest of us. Once inside we all climbed very steep stairs to the top of a mountain overlooking the manmade lake and main temple. It was really scenic. You could see far beyond the Summer Palace grounds and into the rest of Beijing. That’s why going to the Summer Palace on a summer day, not a weird hazy foggy day like most days, was essential because if it weren’t clear I wouldn’t be able to see past the temple 30 meters from me. Pretty glad I got lucky with the weather. We walked down towards the temple and I noticed that the courtyard walls around the temple had very intricate illustrations. Inside the temple was a big golden Buddha statue. After exploring the temple and observing the nice view from the top of the steps, we made our way down so that we were level with the lake. We rented a paddleboat and paddled into the lake past the 17-arch bridge extending out to a small island in the lake. It was really relaxing to just stop paddling and let the boat float in the lake while talking to my friends and looking around seeing nice temples and scenery. After our 1 hour for the paddleboat was up, we decided that we were craving American food. We went to a famous restaurant called “Grandma’s Kitchen” near Tian’anmen Square and Jingshan Park. It was delicious and relieving to know that if I get tired of Chinese food I can get pretty legitimate American food in Beijing!
Posted on July 22, 2011
A friend that I met told me that she was going on a tour of the Great Wall of China arranged by her program at Tsinghua University. I asked her if she could ask if I can join their tour because I thought it would be nice to see the Great Wall with some friends rather than on a random tour I found online. She told me soon after that I was welcome to join them.
I drove my electric bike from Beida to one of the parking lots at Tsinghua University where there were 4 tour buses full of students. I made it just in time and got on the bus. When we arrived at the bottom of the Great Wall’s mountain after a 2.5-hour bus ride, I was already amazed. From the bottom I could see parts of the Wall that were not blocked by more mountains or dazzling greenery. We began to make our way up the mountain by stairs, passing street vendors selling Great Wall related merchandise. The stairs were extremely steep and people were getting tired even after five minutes. I was too excited to get to the top to rest on the way up, so I decided to go at a faster pace up the entirety of the steps. Taking two steps at a time and occasionally bursting for a run, it took me a good 20 minutes before I reached the Wall. I got to the top and did a 360° turn to observe the magnificent view. It was a hot, nevertheless, clear, sunny day. There were mountains as far as my eye could see and the Wall stretched sinuously along them. I caught up with some friends who were huffing and puffing out of breath. At times we were walking on parts of the Wall that were flat, but most of the parts were steep uphill/downhill steps or surfaces. We strode across the ups and downs of the Wall for about 2km, stopping at a couple watchtowers to take in the view, enjoy the breeze entering, and take a rest. I remember thinking to myself why there really needed to be a Wall in the first place. How would a whole army of tired soldiers try to even get over the huge mountain that we climbed? Why did the Chinese need to build and additional wall on the top of the mountain? Then I thought, how did the Chinese even build this Wall? How did they get all these stones that I’m stepping on to the tops of these mountains? There were thousands of stones, the smallest of them weighing at least over one hundred pounds! It must’ve been a huge feat. I understand now why the Great Wall of China is listed as one of the more modern wonders of the world and is such a unique sight to see. This was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in all the traveling I’ve done across the world.
Posted on July 26, 2011
My roommate from Duke is Filipino and he is spending the summer with his family in a province called Bulacan, one hour outside Manila. I thought it would be an excellent idea, being so close to the Philippines, for me to visit him there, meet his extended family and explore the country. I purchased a surprisingly cheap nonstop flight ticket to make my 5-day trip official. The timing was perfect: I arrived in Manila on his 20th birthday. He is a huge Harry Potter fan so we celebrated by going to dinner and watching the movie (at least 12 hours before everyone in America due to the time difference—this excited him!). It was actually an excellent movie. It doesn’t come out in Beijing until August 4th, for some reason…
That night his uncle drove us to his aunt’s house in Bulacan where I met his entire family. They were all very eager to meet me. My roommate, Jervis, had a very large family and he was one of the oldest of his cousins. The next morning we traveled the countryside with his family, touring his aunt’s vast rice fields and coming within feet of their enormous water buffalo. After exploring Bulacan we drove to Manila in time for Sabbath dinner at Chabad, a Jewish community house that I mentioned in an earlier blog. It was much smaller than the Chabad in Beijing—only about 10 of us, whereas in Beijing there were well over 150 people. Nevertheless, it was still nice, and Jervis enjoyed it very much. After dinner we walked around the city and experienced some of Manila’s nightlife with two of Jervis’ relatives around our age. The next morning we visited the SM Mall of Asia, which is the largest mall in Asia and the 4th largest mall in the world. Needless to say, it is huge. There was even an indoor Olympic sized ice skating rink! The mall is located right on the Manila bay so it has an outdoor walkway with a beautiful view of the Oceanside.
The next morning we met up with his family. We were on our way to a river with naturally formed rocks and waterfalls. We traveled there by a vehicle unique to the Philippines and used for public transportation called a “Jeepni” (pronounced Jeep-knee). It managed to fit his whole family, tons of food for lunch, 3 dogs, and still there was more available space. When we arrived, we set up lunch. I saw pots and trays ready with food, but I didn’t see anyone with utensils or plates. How were we going to eat? My question was answered when I saw one of his uncles carrying one huge tree leaf and putting it on the table in front of us. Then his aunt placed rice and a noodle mix right on the leaf in front of each person. Everyone washed their hands with soap and sat down behind the section of the leaf with their food. They explained that it is Filipino culture to eat with your hands and that there is actually a technique to it. After trying it and dropping my food quite a bit, I finally got the hang of it and it was really cool. But this definitely wouldn’t fly in America. Not that it wasn’t sanitary because everyone washed their hands with soap before, but it just doesn’t seem like a thing Americans would or could do. If introduced to Americans now, they would think it’s primitive. To Filipinos however, who have been doing this for who knows how many years, its nothing more than a tradition that makes their culture unique. We let the food settle in our stomachs before jumping in the water and walking across the hanging bridge over the river. The water was so clear, clean, and refreshing. Before we left back for Bulacan I enjoyed some amazing Filipino desserts that I would not be able to describe if my life depended on it.
My flight back to Beijing was early the next morning. One thing that really struck me about the Philippines was the amount of English spoken. I found it really weird nevertheless interesting to see that people of all ages in a third world country like the Philippines speak significantly more English than people in Beijing, China’s capital. I mean, it’s just as hard to find someone in the Philippines who doesn’t speak English, as it is to find someone who does speak English around Beijing. It’s probably because English is not at all similar to Chinese so it’s hard for Chinese people to learn English, just like it’s hard for English speakers to learn Chinese (as opposed to Spanish, for example). It’s also because the Philippines were colonized for a while by English speaking nations so that definitely had a lasting effect on the country’s inhabitants. Anyways, my trip to the Philippines was excellent and I really enjoyed getting a taste of another country’s culture that is very different from America!
Posted on July 27, 2011
Being back in Beijing, I had a couple things I needed to see before I left the country. I still had to see the 798 Art District, Lama Temple, Olympic Grounds (Bird’s Nest Stadium and Water Cube), and the Forbidden City/Tian’anmen Square. I planned the rest of my time accordingly and the schedule I made up just fit with how many days I have left.
During my last weekend I knocked out visiting the 798 Art District and the Lama Temple. On Saturday, I went to 798 with a friend from the University of Chicago who works in the Rao Lab with me. The Art District was incredible, in my opinion. There were numerous different exhibitions: oil paintings, ceramics, statues, contemporary art, and much more. I don’t know why it’s not such a known place for tourists to visit. It was awesome. There was a life-sized BMW Z4 made of cement and bricks, a weird but cool exhibition with cows shaped as big blueberries (like in Willy Wonka) wearing converse sneakers (I know…), an art gallery in a tour bus, mythical creatures and figures, and a lot more. Definitely a worthwhile place to visit.
On Sunday, Norcap sponsored a trip to the Lama Temple. It was a very interesting place. As we walked along, the temples and the Buddhas inside seemed to get slightly bigger and bigger. Finally, inside the last temple stood a massive Buddha that reached the top of the tall temple. Unfortunately, photographs weren’t allowed inside, so all I have of this transformer sized Buddha is my memory!
On Monday I visited the National Stadium (known as the Bird’s Nest because of its appearance) and National Aquatics Center (known as the Water Cube, also because of its appearance). Again, definitely two places I’d highly recommend visiting. I visited at dusk so I could see the Bird’s Nest during the daylight/sunset and catch the Water Cube light up at night. The plaza right off the subway (line eight) leading to the two structures is huge and there were a lot of people. I walked up to the Bird’s Nest and took some pictures. Unfortunately it closed right as I got there so I couldn’t go inside and see the grounds. Supposedly you can go inside. I crossed the plaza and entered the Water Cube. Inside there was a full sized water park with attractions like huge slides, lazy rivers, and a wave pool. I saw the very Olympic Swimming pool where Michael Phelps broke several records including the record for gold medals won (8). It was really amazing to actually be in the exact place where all this magic happened two summers ago. I distinctly remember where I was when I was watching the games. Who would’ve figured that two years after that point I’d be standing in the same stadium? As I left, night fell. It was a beautiful sight to see: On one side of me was the Water Cube lit up luminously in blue, red, and purple and the other was the Bird’s Nest, now lit up with red. Both of these structures are truly architectural masterpieces.
The last touristy thing I did in Beijing was visit Tian’anmen Square and the Forbidden City. My first impression as I got off the subway was “WOW this is big.” My friend and I walked in and were overwhelmed. We really didn’t know what to expect to see or where to go. We walked around the entrance plaza for a while, lost as to where to buy tickets to enter the actual museum. I noticed that the inside wasn’t really preserved too well. The paint was falling off the wall and the traditional Chinese rooftops looked worn down. However, when we entered the real exhibition (which you have to pay for), the buildings looked new. The rooftops dazzled in the sun and the artwork on the palaces/walls looked fresh. Although I really enjoyed the Forbidden City, I didn’t think it lived up to the hype and found that I enjoyed places like the Great Wall better. Still, the Forbidden City is a sight to see.