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Friday, July 26, 2019

Biking through my PhD | Career Column -

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice.  

Overcoming my initial struggles after leaving China to start my PhD has been like riding a bike, reports Shuxuan Zheng,  PhD student in virology at the Department of Medical Microbiology at University Medical Center Utrecht, the Netherlands.

Shuxuan Zheng with her bicycle in Utrecht, the Netherlands.
Photo: Henrick de Buhr
Having flown halfway around the world, I finally arrived in the Netherlands to start work on my PhD at the medical microbiology department of University Medical Center Utrecht.

I was delighted to think of all the things I would see and experience in this new and different world. That was until I saw the one thing that absolutely terrified me — a bicycle.

I had never learnt to ride a bike. Growing up in Qingdao, a hilly, seaside city in China without cycle paths, biking was dangerous. The local laws discourage it for safety reasons. Now, my Dutch neighbour was telling me I had to learn. She sold me a second-hand bike and pointed me to the car park. I upgraded my insurance and started practising.

It took me a week to learn and a month to feel comfortable cycling. Now, after half a year, I am starting to enjoy it...

All that changed on the day I met Robert Jan Lebbink and Emmanuel Wiertz, my PhD supervisors. In the Netherlands, respect is based on your work, not on unnecessarily formal ‘civility’. I know that I can just wander into their offices and ask a casual question without worrying about causing offence. This shift has been transformational for me and has made me much more comfortable at work.