Sorbonne Universités: A conversation with a Mitacs Globalink Research Award recipient

University of British Columbia PhD candidate explores new research techniques and French culture

Reposted with permission from Sorbonne Universités.

After getting his Master’s degree, Yang Liu left his native China in 2011 to attend the University of British Columbia, one of the best universities in Canada, where he is working on his thesis.

Since January 2015, thanks to the international mobility agreement between Sorbonne Universités and Mitacs, a Canadian organization, Yang has joined the Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC) for a six-month research internship at the Institut d’écologie et des sciences de l’environnement de Paris (IEES-Paris).

What is the topic of your research?

My thesis is about the impact of genetics and the environment, and their interactions on plant life-history traits, that is, about the characteristics that determine their fertility and their survival. I’m focusing on two traits in particular — seed dormancy (their stages of life in slow motion) and their size.

At the University of British Columbia, I developed a statistical model using climate data that shows the major role that climatic parameters play in variations in seed dormancy and size, allowing us to predict these traits by using future climate data.

At the IEES-Paris, my project consists of developing a theoretical model that will represent the effects of both ecological parameters and genetic mechanisms on seed dormancy and size. This model will be the subject of one of the chapters in my thesis. It will allow us to predict eco-evolutionary dynamics, for instance, and to assess the impact of climate change on these traits. 

What does the IEES-Paris contribute to this project?

I’m learning a lot about theoretical modelling thanks to the expertise of my research supervisor, Nicolas Loeuille. I wasn’t that familiar with this field before coming to Paris, and it’s fascinating! This research internship is even going to change the direction of my career — now, I want to do postdoctoral work in a lab that works on empirical and theoretical modelling.

Did you know the UPMC before this experience?

Yes, I had spent two weeks there during an international conference on the molecular mechanisms of seed germination in 2012. When I learned that Mitacs was offering fellowship awards at Sorbonne Universités, I immediately applied, especially since I’m very interested in French culture.

I discovered French culture in China while watching French movies, and I’ve been taking French language courses since I’ve been in Canada. Spending six months in France was also an opportunity to improve my French language skills and especially to immerse myself in French culture. 

Are you adjusting to French culture? 

Yes, and the doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows I work with at the UPMC are helping me by explaining the subtleties. But there are, in fact, similarities between the French and Chinese cultures. For example, a penchant for street performances or “Système D” [a French term that means thinking on one’s feet]. In France, as in China, we don’t hesitate to cross the street on a red light if there are no cars! And I often hear people say: “If you can’t get in through the door, go in through the window.”

Will you be going back to China after your PhD?

I’ve lived in China for 25 years already — I know China! I prefer to continue discovering other cultures. Ideally, I would like to do my postdoc in the U.S. or even in Europe, and then come back to Canada.

In any case, wherever I am, I want to continue working with the doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and research supervisors that I met at the IEES-Paris. This is one of the interests of Mitacs and Sorbonne Universités — giving young researchers the opportunity to forge relationships overseas with a view to developing international collaborations afterwards. 

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada and the Government of British Columbian for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, the Accelerate program also receives support from Alberta Innovates, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, the Government of Prince Edward Island, the Government of Quebec, the Governement of Saskatchewan and Research Manitoba..

In addition, we are pleased to work with international partners to support this award including France’s Campus France, Inria, and Sorbonne Universités and India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development. 

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