Shana Li

Departure Date:
05/22/2017
Return Date:
07/28/2017
Local Institution:
Oberlin College
Local Advisor:
Dan Stinebring
Foreign Institution:
NAOC (National Astronomical Observatories, CAS)
Foreign Advisor:
Di Li
Student Status:
Undergraduate
  • Q. What country were you staying in?
    • China
  • Q. Where were you doing research?
    • NAOC (Beijing), FAST site (Guizhou)
  • Q. How long were you there?
    • 7 weeks in Beijing, 2 weeks in Guizhou Normal University, 1 week in FAST site
  • Q. What sort of research were you doing?
    • We wrote scripts in Bash to run PRESTO, a program that analyzes radio telescope data to search for pulsars, to look for pulsar signals to confirm existing pulsars and possible new ones. Our final objective was to run our code through a bunch of recent data from the Arecibo telescope, during which we found the confirmed pulsar J0509+08, along with some other probable signals!
  • Q. Did being abroad influence the kind of research you’re doing?
    • Because the FAST radio telescope project in China was only recently built back in 2015, a lot of work has gone into getting the system calibrated to take data normally. Hence, most of the data we worked with are from other telescopes like Parkes and Arecibo, and our project was centered around the preliminary process of finding pulsars, instead of focusing on specific signals.
  • Q. What’s the coolest thing about being abroad?
    • The coolest thing has to be the amount of people from different backgrounds that you meet. Within the institute, we were surrounded by so many people with different scientific backgrounds studying different aspects of astrophysics, and it was the intellectual environment that made me more enthusiastic about the subject. Because I visit China regularly and Beijing is basically my third home, I felt very at ease with the culture and the language, and it was really nice to feel included in Guizhou although I’d never actually been there before.
  • Q. What’s your favorite new phrase from the language?
    • “少放点辣” (shao fang dian la):an imperative Chinese phrase for survival in Guizhou that tells people you don’t want too much chili in your food, although their perception of what is spicy isn’t actually trustworthy.
  • Q. What’s the hardest thing about being abroad?
    • When you’re not in a big city or somewhere you’re comfortable in, you can get bored and lonely, which often leads to a lot of overthinking that impairs your mindset. I felt that way especially at the FAST site, which is basically in the middle of vast mountains with no other civilizations within a 7 kilometer radius, while waiting for code to run and having spotty WiFi all the time. In situations like that, it’s important to get to know the people around you, and socialize with the people you know. When you get homesick, it’s also healthy to regularly talk with your friends and family, even if it’s just through a casual text message.
  • Q. What did you do in your free time?
    • In Beijing, we stayed right next to the Olympic park, and I would take bike rides into the park at night on the city’s bike sharing system. It’s really convenient to scan a QR code on a bike with your phone and pay a marginal amount of money to ride it around a few hours, and it was super cool to see the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube up close whenever I wanted to!
  • Q. What’s the coolest thing you’ve done or seen while abroad?
    • One of the coolest things I’ve probably seen in my life has to be the telescope dish at the FAST site. The dish is huge, 500 meters in diameter, and has the largest aperture of all radio telescopes in the world. We got special access and were able to walk along the walkway around the perimeter, as well as drive down a spiral path to the bottom of the dish and look up from the receiver. We also climbed up one of the towers that levitated the receiver from the center of the dish, which was about 150 meters tall and overlooked the dish among phenomenal mountains and clouds. It was not the best time to realize I was semi-afraid of heights.
  • Q. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done or seen while abroad?
    • A lot of Guizhou cuisine centers around brined meats, which has a really smoky and salty flavor, and a really strong smell as well. In a supermarket in Guiyang, I saw a pre-brined pig head in plastic vacuum packaging. I didn’t take a picture because it disturbed me so much, but I vividly remember the big, round, blackened pig’s face and especially the snout protruding from the packaging. I never really liked the flavor of brined meats before, and that image didn’t help at all.
  • Q. What advice would you offer others thinking of going abroad?
    • When visiting and working at a place with a new culture and language, it’s of utmost importance to be humble, respect the culture and the people around you, and be completely accepting of what the native people consider their social norms. A lot of foods, scenery, and habits might strike you as unusual or even disturbing, but it’s so crucial to remember that not everyone has the same set of social standards, and only with an accepting frame of mind and loads of hard work can you get the most out of your experience.
  • Q. What skills have you learned abroad?
    • Other than learning how to optimize and run Bash code efficiently as well as the basics of pulsar astronomy, another imperative skill I learned during my experience was playing table tennis. I was fortunate enough to receive coaching from an experienced player who I worked with in Guizhou Normal University, and can proudly say I won a game against my boss’ 11-year-old son given a 7 point handicap.
  • Q. Is there anything you’d do differently or anything you wish you’d have known?
    • Honestly, I don’t think I regret anything or had done anything differently. It would have been nice if I’d known a bit more background about pulsars and astrophysics beforehand though, since I was only a freshman and hadn’t yet taken a college-level astronomy course.