Exploring the margins:

A new wave of Chinese in the Middle East.

Remember the time in mainland China when everyone from the pre-school toddler to the aged matriarch wanted to come to the United States to live the American dream?  While America is still a magnet for the college student and the recent graduate looking for work, other countries have become a draw by virtue of their economic and social appeals.  Some of the most popular places have surprisingly been nations of the Middle East.

But who in their right minds, as a traditional Chinese person, would go to the Islamic Middle East?

Mr. Jacky Ng, a student at Hong Kong University, is studying for his masters at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) at Thuwal, which lies just north of Mecca, a holy center of Islamic pilgrimages at the core of Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia is a place full of opportunities,” said Ng.  “It has a lot of development projects [for which] engineers and technicians are highly in need.”

Part of a new wave of Middle Eastern investment in education, KAUST is a unique graduate university that has been a leader in energy, biotechnology, and computing research.  All classes are taught in English, and it attracts some of the best talents from around the world.

“The school provides very generous amount of scholoarship covering tuition fees, books, laptops, and living stipends,” said Ng.  “[It] also provides strong support in research funding.”

The emergence of top notch research universities in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East has caused an influx of talent into the area, spearheaded by the top students in China.  Many of Ng’s friends, such as graduate students Desmond Lee and Eric Shiu, are already deep into their graduate research careers in KAUST.

Although KAUST provides economic and intellectual advantages for students from China, it can be a challenge to live in a part of the world so wholly different from Asia.  Those who enroll in KAUST have between three and four years of life in the hot desert area of Saudi Arabia to look forward to, but this does not concern Ng as much.

“It’s [a way] to enrich personal experiences,” said Ng.  “Living in another country and experiencing another culture can promote personal growth.”

What a completely different culture it is too.  For example, people of Saudi Arabia are required to pray five times a day while facing the holy Kaaba in Mecca.  This ritual, called the salat, follows a specific set of rules referenced in the Quran, such as a sequence of bowings (rakas) repeated up to four times during each salat.

Another example involves the wearing of the hijab, a black veil, by women of Islamic faith in order to prevent unwanted advances, a practice that made Chinese women in the Middle East stand out among the crowd.

One of the rare women who walks around the streets of Dubai without a hijab is Ms. Yao Wen, a recent graduate of the Xian University of Technology who now works in Dubai, a city facing the Persian Gulf to the West that serves as the commercial center of the United Arab Emirates.

“I miss staying with family, connecting with old friends, and the comfortable life,” said Wen.  “But there are more and more people going to the Middle East, because we have a lot of competition and pressure in China, so working [in Dubai] provides more opportunities.”

When Wen graduated with a degree in power electronic engineering in 2007, her first job was working for the China State Construction Engineering Corporation as quantity surveyor.  She signed a contract that ended up shipping her to work in Dubai for 2-3 years.

“I just wanted to go abroad,” said Wen.  “[So I can] see some different cultures, … and earn more than three or four times I would make if I stayed in Beijing.”

Dubai is undergoing a construction craze that includes the underwater hotel Hydropolis, the conspicuous resort called Palm Islands, the three billion square feet theme park Dubailand, the so-called seven star fish-scale-shaped hotel Burj Al Arab, and of course, the world’s tallest building the Burj Dubai.  The craze has spurred companies like China State Construction, which has over 300 employees in Dubai.

Dubai is not short on culture either.  It hosts the Dubai International Film Festival, UAE league football, an annual shopping festival good for buying luxury goods, as well as numerous clubs and bars.  Still Wen finds it hard to adapt to life in the Middle East.

“The [hardest] thing is not having good public transport; it’s not easy to go anywhere,” said Wen.  “But our company arranges everything for us, including food– Chinese chef in mess hall, and accommodation.”

Despite the economic advantages, living in Dubai can be frustrating, and Wen would not recommend it to all of her friends.

“We rarely have conversation with local people, because may be they have too much money and [don’t need] to work anymore, and we have a language barrier,” said Wen.  “When they see some Asians and Europeans, they will stare at [them] without pretending.”

And of course, there’s Ramadan, the month every year when eating and drinking are prohibited in the Islamic world.

Thus the short term advantages of economic welfare and cultural adventure may be overwhelmed by the Chinese sense of “belonging to home” in the long run.  Recently, Wen attended the wedding of two of her friends who met in Dubai.  Her friends intend to eventual go back to China because it is hard to raise a child in the Middle East, and the weather is so hot.

“For the Chinese, they always think [about] going back,” said Wen.  “They come for the money, and Chinese culture is ‘luo ye gui gen.’”

Wen’s proverb, literally translated as falling leaf–return to the root, means “in one’s old age, one wants to return home.”  For the adventurous Chinese population seeking fortune and enlightenment in the margins of the Middle East, the road back home will be savored after such rewards and challenges.

Brain Awareness Week brings students from low-income schools to UCLA.

The dream of becoming a neurosurgeon will begin for some underprivileged kids at the UCLA campus.

The annual Brain Awareness Week is bringing over 450 students from title I schools like Crenshaw high school and Cochran middle school to UCLA to learn about neuroscience, experience brain specimens, tour scientific laboratories, and explore a career in research and medicine.

The effort is a part of an international campaign to raise public awareness about brain research led by the Society for Neuroscience.  It is spearheaded at UCLA by Project Brainstorm, a graduate student group that works with other campus organizations to educate K-12 students about neuroscience.

“The kids who are coming here are really in need of connecting with students, and seeing their faces, and asking questions, and seeing students like them who make it through the process to go to college in science fields, and putting a face with that career,” says Nanthia Suthana, a graduate student in neuroscience and one of the main organizers of Brain Awareness Week at UCLA.

The number of volunteers at UCLA has doubled from last year to over 100, partly because they recognize the need to enhance diversity in the sciences and in graduate education, said Suthana.

This year’s program includes live demos using real human and animal brains preserved by UCLA, as well as interactive activities on modules such as brain injury, learning and memory, neuronal firing, and brain lateralization.  The focus, however, will be on drug abuse and addiction, which is especially relevant to title I schools.  The demo on substance abuse will use an interactive computer program called Mouse Party that guides the students through scenarios in which an animated mouse is subject to different drugs of abuse.  The demos are staffed by Project Brainstorm and its collaborators, which include the undergraduate group Interaxon, the graduate diversity group STEM-PLEDGE, the Peer Advisory Community for Teens, and the Neuroscience Undergraduate Society.

Project Brainstorm operates under the auspices of the UCLA Brain Research Institute, which is exploring ways to bring low-income high school students in Los Angeles to research labs during the summer.

“I think it starts with the students,” said Dr. Joseph Watson, a professor in the Neuropsychiatric Institute who serves as the Brain Research Institute’s outreach program director.  “Students respond to students in a much different way than a faculty member coming in, (because) they’re all looking for a model, someone who used to be where they were, and have gone on to … go to a major university.”

Watson believes that seeing those with the same socioeconomic, ethnic, or language background go on to become scientists, engineers, and doctors is especially important for encouraging kids who grow up in poor neighborhoods with little access to quality science education.

“Students presenting (to high schoolers) always worry if they know enough about the brain, but the most important thing is not the substance; it’s the affect, it’s the enthusiasm, to see these kids’ eyes light up,” Watson said.  “It gives them a chance to speak in a less threatening situation.”

Watson recalls how neuroscience graduate students Libby O’Hare and Rafael Romero first began teaching high schoolers about the brain in 2004, an initiative that goes back to legendary UCLA educator Dr. Arnold Scheibel.  Romero and O’Hare enjoyed it so much they decided to push for the establishment of the field course Neuroscience 192, which teaches undergrads how to teach K-12 students about neuroscience.  One of those students, neuroscience major Shanna Fang, loved the course, and decided to form an undergraduate group for K-12 educational outreach called Interaxon.

Watson also remembers when Brain Awareness Week at UCLA was merely a volunteer-driven initiative led by O’Hare and Linda Maninger, and involved just a few schools over a couple of days.  Little did he know that it would turn into a week-long event involving seven underprivileged schools with $12,000 of funding from the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology, Society for Neuroscience, and the UCLA Campus Program fund.  Watson attributes this expansion to the efforts of neuroscience grad students like Suthana, along with Marina Ziehn and Angela Rizk-Jackson, who began formalizing the effort to bring in specifically underrepresented title I schools.

One person who discovered the joy of teaching in Neuroscience 192 is third year neuroscience major Sharon Carmona.   Being herself from a low-income high school, Carmona can relate to kids who never had a scientific education.

“I really wished I could have partaken in a program like this,” said Carmona.  “Many (of the kids) came from families that had never gone to college, and they don’t even know it’s a possible path for them.”

During the demos, Carmona showed high schoolers a real human spinal cord as well as a model of the human vertebrae.  Because the preserved specimen is so short, Carmona had to convince the kids that it was a spinal cord from an adult, not a baby.  This was one of the myths Carmona had to dispel, along with ideas like the size of one’s brain is the size of a person’s fist, brought up by one kid.

The educational component of Brain Awareness Week is being handled by Interaxon, an undergraduate student group specializing in teaching K-12 students about the brain.  One innovative teaching strategy presented by Interaxon involves passing stickers labeled sodium, potassium, and calcium in demonstrating the ions that flow during the action potential, an event that occurs when nerve cells fire.  Another lesson involves letting students use only one hand to build a structure using marshmellows and toothpicks in order to demonstrate the way different functions are localized to each hemisphere of the brain.

“We bring a lot of enthusiasm to this program,” said Wendy Fujioka, a third year neuroscience major and the president of Interaxon.  “A lot of our members are first and second years, so they’re still trying to decide what to do; being able to work with grad students and faculty … helps them get a better feel for the university.”

One of the major themes of this year’s Brain Awareness Week is on substance abuse.  Addiction research is central to the work of Angie Morales, a neuroscience graduate student who uses functional MRI to image the brains of substance abusers.  In the demo, Morales uses the software Mouse Party to let kids interactively play around with an animated mouse that undergoes various types of drug treatment.  She also presented a poster on chemical messengers involved in substance abuse.

“This gives us an opportunity to give (high schoolers) the facts about drugs of abuse,” said Morales.  “A lot of times kids respond better this way than to lectures on the facts (alone).”

Morales hopes that the curiosity sparked in these underprivileged kids will spurt them on to further study, even if it means a hard road to success.

“It may be more difficult coming from the background they’re coming from, (unlike) private schools with lots of funding,” said Morales.  “They need to fight against the odds stacked against them.”

In turn, UCLA students learn to explain difficult scientific topics to the general community, because they are forced to make it accessible to school children, suggests Morales.