Brunch with the Professors: Join the Conversation!

Article by Jin and Francis

Towards the middle of April, Francis (F) and Jin (J) sat down for brunch with Marcella (M) and Gao Xia (G) on a fine Sunday with freshly baked biscuits, smoked salmon, and wine, to do a tandem interview about their work as professors in Xi’an.

Are you an aspiring woman seeking career excellence or professional development? Join the conversation below!

Can you introduce yourselves?

My name is Marcella Festa. But my job, that’s difficult to introduce. There isn’t really a proper translation in English. Maybe “Visiting Associate Professor.” I studied archaeology first, then Chinese studies, and then I was awarded my Ph.D. in Chinese Archaeology as a joint Ph.D. from Sun Yatsen University in Guangzhou and Ca’fosci University of Venice. I am currently pursuing a master’s at York University in zooarchaeology, and I graduate in August! I speak English, Italian, Chinese, and am currently studying Russian (because this is necessary for researching Central Asian archaeology). I’m lucky that my hobby is my job! I also love swimming.

My Chinese name is Gao Xia, which every calls me because it is easier to pronounce than my Polish name, Malgorzata Garstka. I am a tenure track professor at the 2nd Affiliated Hospital of Xi’an Jiaotong University. There, I lead a research team of 6: 3 Ph.D. students, 2 associated post-docs and 1 assistant. We research diabetes and are developing ways for early diagnosis. To do this, we collaborate locally with medical doctors and researchers as well as international groups in France, Germany, the UK, Poland, Turkey, and other regions and countries. If you are interested in biomedical research and might be interested in joining my team, let me know! As for my educational background, I was awarded my master’s in Poland by the Lodz University of Technology. I was awarded my Ph.D. in Germany by Jacobs University. I completed my post-doc in the Netherlands at the Dutch Cancer Institute, Amsterdam. I speak Polish, English, German, Spanish, and am currently learning Chinese! Marcella stole my answer – my job is ALSO my biggest hobby! My physical activities include swimming, running, and cycling.

So is there a theme here?

Yes, the moral of this story is science is so difficult, that you really need to love what you are doing! Make your hobby your job.
Alright, so why are you guys here?

Workwise, Xi’an is the best place to be. Northwest University, where I work, has the best collection of professionals, knowledge, and excavation sites for Central Asia archaeology. Also, I like China!

Yes, there is a great job environment. I also like to be in a place where things are developing – here we have the One Belt One Road initiative and our university is becoming more international, especially with a new campus and the “iHarbor” (short for Innovation Harbor or chuangxingang). Also, there are fewer foreigners in Xi’an, so my overall ability to make a difference is bigger, relatively.

Sometimes I feel that way too!

Right, so I can contribute to teaching or introducing an international way to conduct research here in China. I love the combination of culture and history with modern infrastructure, friendly people, great food, and beautiful mountains! I love cycling outside of the city with my husband, Marcus.

I also want to add this (the friendly people and great food) to my answer!

What exactly do you do every day? What is normal schedule like? What is not “normal” work for you?

I bike to work. ½ of my day I’ll work on reading, writing, and reviewing. As a professor, it is my main responsibility to know what is going on the field and to develop new ideas and use them to generate successful applications for research funding, as well as finalize scientific articles and patents in written form. During lunch break, I don’t sleep. I go for a walk. The other ½ of my day is communication with my research team, local and international collaborators, new collaborators, and sponsors. My third ½ (haha, just kidding) is doing actual experiments. Some weeks I only do experiments; some weeks I only do other tasks. It really depends on the schedule. Less common work is meetings, conferences, or trips to collaborating hospitals. Also, I teach a short course on scientific presentations and writing.

I also read and write, but I do a lot of teaching. I teach two courses a year. My first term is theoretical archaeology. My second is approaches to the archaeology of Central Asia. I also do writing, meaning I write to publish. I was also awarded a national project grant for 2 years as part of the Overseas High Level Talent Recruitment Program to study mortuary variability in the Yili region of northwestern Xinjiang. Sometimes I have to give special classes or travel to other cities. For example, I’m going to Chongqing to give a lecture on zooarchaeology.

Wait a second – have you even finished your master’s degree yet?

So you are still in this program, and people are already asking you to give guest lectures?

Yes. Having a PhD in archaeology, I already have some knowledge of zooarchaeology! I applied to the master to refine this knowledge and learn about the most innovative approaches to the subject. Also, because zooarchaeology is a highly specialized field and people are very curious about it.

Wow. That’s awesome.

How did you decide to do research/academia?

I always knew. I couldn’t really see myself do anything else other than studying and learning. Archaeology is not just the study of old things. It requires a wide range of different disciplines – geography, chemistry, biology, and many others. My current master’s program in zooarchaeology is a very specialized program. This major is only available in few universities. Now, I have to research ancient animal assemblages by looking at excavations in two villages in Xunyi County, which includes the original mythological origins of the Zhou people. And, I love it!

I was always extremely curious about how things work. When I was 16, I had a boyfriend who needed insulin injections 3 times a day. But if you do too many injections in one place, you will get some discomfort and irritation. If you don’t do your own shot in your leg, then someone has to help you do the shots in other parts of your body. Giving these shots, I was traumatized. And because of this, I wanted to find out how diabetes works, how to diagnose it, and how to stop it or cure it. This was my dream when I was young. When I got to China, there were estimated to be some 110 million patients with type 2 diabetes. Now it’s estimated to be even more. I think my curiosity has led me into biomedical research, and the purpose of helping people has kept me in the field.

What are your most badass accomplishments? What accomplishments might not impress an average person, but you are particularly proud of?

Getting my Ph.D., being a professor, being awarded a national project grant for 2 years, getting published in Chinese, and presenting in Chinese! I have one paper published in Chinese. Also, every paper I have published. I am proud of all of them!
So, how do you celebrate your accomplishments?

If it’s a modest accomplishment, I’ll go out with friends and eat and drink! If it’s big, I’ll organize a party and then travel with my sister.

For me, getting my Ph.D., being a full professor at the age of 37, submitting and getting (in Chinese) 2 grants, being a reviewer of National Science Foundation of China grant system applications (in Chinese!), being co-inventor of a patent, and currently having submitted a second patent application. Personally, from doing no real running at all, I prepared for a half marathon. Finishing my first half-marathon was such an amazing feeling! (A half-marathon is 21 kilometers)

And to celebrate?

If it is work related, I will invite my team and contributors to dinner, and an after-dinner party like KTV! Oh, and something that I am also very proud of, I recently rediscovered Polish cuisine and made fermented cucumbers. In Polish, that is Ogórki kiszone.

What are the biggest challenges you face in academia? Why do you think these challenges exist?

Communication: speaking, reading, and writing in Chinese. Talking to professors, post-docs, students, and collaborators whose English is ok is fine, but to communicate with some medical doctors I need someone to help to translate. Also, culture. I’m not only learning a new way of doing science in China, but also learning a totally different set of social expectations.

Bureaucracy; things here are just done differently. I need an assistant to help me navigate different requirements. For example, when filling out forms, the amount of stress or importance varies a lot. Something I think is important or stressful will be easy or a small issue for someone else.

What are your hopes/dreams/goals for this year? 5 years?

Get a green card, get my next patent, publish 5 research papers and 4 reviews, and move my laboratory to the new campus of our university. As for 5 years, I can’t wait to see my first Ph.D. student graduate! I hope I can establish my research group with a local and China-wide network of like-minded experts. I also want to build a network of women in Xi’an who can help each other.

Finish my thesis on ancient animals in Shaanxi and how people used them, graduate from my master’s program in zooarchaeology from York University (UK), and publish 4 papers I’m working on. As for 5 years, I want to get my Ph.D. thesis published in a book, contribute to a network of women professionals, and have my own research project on zooarchaeology.

What advice do you have for other women, Chinese or foreign, who are looking to be rockstars like you both?

Everyone who is willing to work to improve themselves is already rockstar! Listen to everyone’s opinion but make decisions yourself. If you feel like you are good at something or you like something, then you should go for it! Take responsibility for it, and make sure you do it as well as you can!

Network, network, network! Your network will help you develop crucial skills. The people you know (and the people they know but you don’t yet know) will help you get invaluable feedback. They will also give you opportunities that you wouldn’t know about or couldn’t have access to otherwise. Speaking of networking, I’m working on creating a group of like-minded professionals in Shaanxi. If you are an aspiring woman of excellence and are interested in knowing more, contributing, or just have questions, please reach out!

We will be sure to let people know!

Francis and Jin are both teachers in Xi’an who love exploring and meeting new people.