It’s been longer than I’d hoped since I last wrote, but a whole heck of a lot has been going on. Monday last week, the professor in charge of international cooperation at the Chinese Academy in Urumqi came out to the field station with a couple of colleagues to host lunch with us. I knew they were coming, but I didn’t know that they had called ahead to arrange a dumpling-making party for us. So while we waited for their arrival, the cook had prepared all of the fillings and bought the wrappers, and all of the students working at the field station came to join us in making our own lunch. Great fun! After the bigwigs arrived, plates and plates and plates of food hit the table, and the three of us Americans decided that we should eat family style at one long table rather than dispersed among the 5 tables around the room. So we moved furniture around to join up three of the long tables into one feast table. The cool thing about that is that as far as I know those tables are still arranged in that manner. The atmosphere at meal times went from groups of students that work together sitting together and not interacting much to one big happy family laughing and chatting throughout dinner. And I noticed they all started playing pool more and even moved the pingpong table down to where it could be used. I like to think we had a little something to do with that.
Around the celebratory mood, we still had to get a lot of work done, so we’ve been going out to the desert each night for Talia’s data collection. I don’t think I gave a clear description of her work before now, so here it goes. The jerboas are bipedal animals (see previous reference to my motivation for studying this animal here
.) Talia works in a lab that studies biomechanics, and her interest is in the nature of that bipedality. In most animals, there is a rule that is followed where an animal predictably switches gaits as it increases in speed (e.g. horses). In the jerboas, it seems that they can use multiple gaits at any speed and perhaps switch from two feet hitting the ground at once to one foot at a time depending on how maneuverable they need to be. So we’ve been setting up enclosures on different natural substrates and filming the animals at night when they’re most active. Unfortunately this requires the use of headlamps which draws giant moths to our faces and bats encircling our heads. If it’s not one troublesome species, it’s another.
So upon completing this part of the grand adventure, we made it back to Urumqi, survived yet another banquet, said our goodbyes and thank yous, and boarded a 46 hour train to Shanghai. The Hangover Express (see banquet reference above). It was wonderful to be on a train for two days with no one to be held accountable to and no one trying to pour 50% or greater alcohol down our throats to show our happiness! Talia and I slept and slept and slept and read two books each and watched the Chinese countryside whiz past. Our cabin companions were friendly. One was a man who designs jade jewelry and has a fondness for good tea. He shared some tea with us and showed us photos of his work. Talia showed him some of her high speed video of the jerboas which he seemed to find pretty cool. I’m just glad we made it with all of our belongings and the box of embryos was still cool on arrival to the lab in Shanghai. That was the purpose of the two day train – to get the embryos from Xinjiang to Shanghai. Since 2009, it is difficult to do much out there. Shipping or flying with anything remotely questionable is nearly impossible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase “Xinjiang is special.” But we now have 415 jerboa embryos in a freezer in Shanghai, the paperwork has been initiated, and in about 2 months they ought to arrive in my lab in Boston. That’s when the real fun of RNA sequencing and in situ validation starts, and it’s a little terrifying to think that the fate of my career for the next several years sits awaiting the approval of the Chinese government!