From Donghua University to the Centro de Química da Madeira

“In Portugal, we have time to see, to experience, to discover which method or technique is best suited to a particular question we are investigating.”

A sixteen-hour train separates Donghua University from Hunan, Xuedan He’s hometown. Despite that, such distance was no obstacle to this Chinese student, the daughter of Biology teachers, to pursue a career in Applied Chemistry. After having completed four years in this scientific area, Xuedan, already used to seeing her parents only twice a year, decides to embark on a new adventure: being one of the first students of the Master in Nanochemistry and Nanomaterials, at the University of Madeira.

CQM: How did you know about this new Master in Nanochemistry and Nanomaterials?

XH: In the last year of my degree, I decided to apply for a master’s abroad. Initially, I saw some American and Canadian universities have English as the main language, but I realized it would be very difficult to get a scholarship to do so. And due to the high price of tuition at these schools, it would be impossible to support my will. Curiously, during this period, I met the director of the Madeira Chemistry Research Centre (CQM), Professor João Rodrigues, who was passing by my university to present the Master in Nanochemistry and Nanotechnology. The problem of excessively high fees was no longer posed, but it was the approach in Nanotechnology that fascinated me the most.

CQM: And this fascination is mainly due to what?

XH: Nanotechnology is an area with so much potential and with so much to explore. I think we can get fantastic results, in a short period of time, for various levels of human need. That was crucial in my decision.

CQM: Have you ever visited Madeira Island or another Portuguese region before?

XH: I know Portugal through the history of its empire, but I never had the opportunity to visit it. Despite coming from a much bigger country than Portugal, Madeira Island was a pleasant surprise. Its size makes me remember my hometown, and adding to it, Madeira has wonderful landscapes and I can live a very quiet life around here.

CQM: So, the adaptation was not difficult.

XH: With all this sea and mountains where you can walk, it’s hard not to succeed in adapting well. One of the things I like the most is the feeling that I have much more oxygen to breathe. The air is very clean and healthy, and it was definitely a surprise to me. On an academic level, the adaptation was also not problematic. The main difference I noticed between China and Portugal was related to the friendliness of the teachers and colleagues. From the moment of my arrival at CQM to this day, I never had a single complaint about the lack of support or collaboration. I think in China, people would like to help each other, but they are too busy and under too much big pressure, even if they want to help, they can hardly find the time.

CQM: There are always some negative or less positive points. What was most difficult for you in your journey through this Master?

XH: Bureaucracy unnerved me a bit. In China, if you need a document, you can usually have it on hand on the day you require it. Here, a signature takes a long time to be achieved. The system tells us that the document is ready tomorrow, but tomorrow the document is not out yet, and this whole process will be dragging for days and days. For those who are not from here, this delay could mean some significant losses. But even with this difficulty, in my case, I can say everything has gone very well.

CQM: As a graduate student, how would you rate the research that is done at the CQM?

XH: This is a very relative question because it depends on many variables. In my opinion, with more equipment, the research could be more diverse. But, given the economic circumstances and the technical availability, I think CQM makes very good research. Above all, there is enough commitment to make significant research based on innovation for the evolution of society.

CQM: In your opinion, what are the major differences when comparing the Portuguese scene with the Chinese scientific reality?

XH: In Portugal, we have time to see, experience, and discover which method or technique is best suited to a particular question we are investigating. My experience says China researchers are more interested in achieving results in the minimum possible time. Therefore, we don’t have so much time for observation and improvement.

CQM: Your research work is related to the use of nanomaterials for biomedical applications, especially in Oncology. How was it to explore this area?

XH: My enthusiasm is very focused on two factors: the opportunity to use the latest technology and its applicability. In my case, I worked with dendrimers, a nanomaterial with a spherical shape and capable of carrying anticancer drugs to cells via integrins, a type of receptor that exists on the cell surface. Now, the main goal is to direct these actions only to cancer cells. I am very happy with my work, although I would like to have done more. There’s a whole world to be discovered in a new area like this one, and I want to participate in it.

CQM: Are you thinking to return to China after finishing your master’s degree?

XH: I would like to apply to a doctoral program in another country. I had the opportunity to visit Hungary and Spain while I was here, and my will is to take maximum advantage of these opportunities. I wish to embrace a new adventure. Now that I’m here, why return to China?

CQM: In your opinion, which aspects of your future career are going to reflect the experience you had in Portugal, a foreign and non-Anglo-Saxon country?

XH: To choose a Mediterranean country made me acquire new habits. I had to adapt to the language barrier that often arose. In Madeira, I had not many problems. The master’s is taught in English and the non-academic people are used to talking in English, given the high Tourism on the island. I had more difficulties in the other countries I visited. Going to a supermarket or buying a bus ticket could be a problem. Anyway, the ways that I use to solve this kind of problem are my new skills. On an academic level, this master’s was very important to increase the level of organization and the planning tools knowledge as a scientist. Working with Professor Xiangyang Shi and Professor Helena Tomás, my scientific advisor and co-advisor was highly gratifying. I learned a lot and I realized the importance of paying attention to details. I take that with me.

CQM: What do you think you will miss when you leave Portugal?

XH: This immense oxygen (laughs), the landscapes, the temperature, but essentially colleagues and friends I have made here.

Xuedan He
Centro de Química da Madeira