china frontiers

Between 27th and 30th May 2013 the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing played host to the UK-China Frontiers of Science Symposium organised by the Royal Society and The Chinese Academy of Sciences. More than 40 early career scientists from both the UK and China made the journey to Beijing for what promised to be a highly diverse and exciting symposium exploring topics ranging from cosmic microwaves and galaxy formation through life in extreme environments and applications of ‘omics technologies to nanomaterials and water chemistry.

The Frontiers of Science series of meetings are aimed at forging new collaborative links between UK scientists at the cutting edge of research within their field and their international counterparts, providing a unique opportunity for cross-disciplinary and international collaboration. Having previously been held in many regions of the world, this time it was the turn of China to play host.

Upon arrival in Beijing, following the obligatory hotel check-in and meeting registration, Liane Benning courageously led a contingent of eager, if a little weary and indecisive, UK scientists through the metro system and into central Beijing to take in some of the main touristic delights to be found within the city. Upon arrival at Tiananmen Square we made our way towards the Forbidden City. Alas, access to this cultural highlight was – as the name might suggest – forbidden on this occasion; however the glimpses we could catch over the walls were pretty incredible. We followed this up with a visit to Tiananmen Square itself where the sheer scale was awe-inspiring. Dancing fountains were perhaps a little unexpected…

dancing fountains



Following a short shopping session where live scorpions and starfish on sticks seemed to be the must-eat delicacy of the day, we made our way back to the Beijing Friendship Palace Hotel and the welcome banquet comprising of, by this stage, much-needed carbs and beer!

The meeting was held a little way into Beijing at the Institute of Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Day one included sessions on geo-science, astronomy and physics. Massive thanks and bravo to all of the talented speakers and organisers of these sessions, even a plant physiologist such as myself was able to understand and appreciate the talks covering complex research topics and take part in the in-depth discussions afterwards. Martyn Poliakoff treated us to one of his infamous brain teasers – We know ordinary ice floats on water, but what would happen to a cube of ice made from heavy water (deuterium) placed into a cup of ordinary liquid water? (Answer to follow)

Day one also brought with it our first experience of Chinese-style coffee.

The official banquet was held that evening and included many traditional culinary delights although, sadly, there were no live scorpions this time. Alongside the scientific discussions and collaboration building that continued well into the early hours, I learnt a few Chinese phrases thanks to our hosts and am now fully confident I could order prawns, egg, cooked rice and beer in any Mandarin-speaking country. I could probably also describe “having egg in One’s hair”.


Day two brought the chemistry and biology sessions to the floor with nanomaterials for environmental protection and the ‘omics forming the main topics for discussion. Again, the speakers in these sessions did a wonderful job in catering for the non-specialist audience and the ensuing discussions were stimulating and challenging. The policy session was very animated with lots of discussion from all delegates on the topic entitled “Reducing the impact of human-environment interactions”. Many ideas about scarcity of global resources, measures of equality, and where we as scientists should be focussing our research to ensure security of our resources into the future were discussed. The Robin Hood conundrum was raised: how do we give to the poor without robbing the rich? This resulted in an illuminating and thought-provoking discussion for all. Another Martyn Poliakoff brain teaser was posed: If steam and ice were enclosed together within the same closed system would you end up with A) hot water and steam B) cold water and ice or C) water at 50°C? (Answer to follow)

The poster sessions gave opportunity for those who did not have a speaking role to communicate their science with the rest of the group and these sessions were perhaps even more varied and far-reaching than the main sessions! I certainly gained some ideas and insights on my work that I would not have got at another more specialised meeting.

All too soon the meeting was over and it was time for us all to pack our bags and wave farewell to the land of the sleeping dragon, having learned some incredible things, eaten some very peculiar things and having met some amazing people, formed collaborative links (already collaborative meetings are being held between physiologists and cosmologists, geoscientists and biologists and there’s even whisperings of a cross-disciplinary consortium!) and friendships that will last for a long time to come.

干杯, Gānbēi!




(Answers to MP brain teasers: 1) it sinks and 2) A – hot water and steam)