Friday, June 28, 2013

Traditional Chinese Medicine Research

My internship here in China is with the Good Agricultural Practices group here at SNNU. The majority of their research involves products that are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Many of you know of my interest in tradition Chinese medicine, which makes this internship opportunity even more exciting for me. As of tomorrow I begin my lab work involving one of the most expensive, non-animal products used in TCM. In China, the product is call Dong Chong Xia Cao (while literally means "winter worm, summer grass"), but it's scientific name is Ophiocordyceps sinensis). Here is a look at what we're dealing with:

Mmm... Cordyceps
What you see here is the result of a parasitic relationship between ghost moth caterpillars and fungi. Located mostly in the regions of Tibet and Nepal, these caterpillars become infected with the cordyceps fungus and proceed to bury themselves into the ground. The fungus then mummifies the caterpillar and waits until early summer to produce the sought after fruiting body. When you buy this product, you typically get the caterpillar and fungus together and it'll cost you about $12-17,000 per kilogram! No wonder they call it soft gold. The fact that I get to work with this product at all is amazing.

That'll be $5000 please!
So why do we want to eat these creepy things? Traditionally, is was thought to be an aphrodisiac (like most TCM products?), but also a treatment for ailments ranging from fatigue to cancer. Today, we know that there are a few potentially powerful pharmaceuticals present in cordyceps. Some of which may help protect the body from irradiation and boost the immune system's ability to fight cancer. Modern lab techniques have allowed us to discover that not only are there useful compounds but also multiple species of fungi contained within cordyceps. So which species are producing these helpful compounds? That's what I hope to find out!

To be continued... 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Big Wild Goose Pagoda & Tang Paradise

Finally have some solid plans to go out and do some field work! I'll be going up into the mountains to survey water quality and the distribution of plants used for traditional Chinese medicine. I look forward to filling the blog with some work related things.

A while back I took a day trip into the city to check out some other tourist sites in Xi'an. First on the menu was the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the surrounding park.

formally had 3 extra stories
This pagoda was originally constructed in 683AD and built to house the Buddhist treasures brought back from India by monk Xuanxang. Apparently there is a wild goose pagoda in India that inspired this architecture.  It has undergone some reconstruction over the years, the last reconstruction being in the 1500s after a big earthquake. Today it has a bit of a lean to it, pointing slightly to the west. At the end of the night we went back to the fountain to check out their big fountain show, here's the video:

The surrounding blocks are all part of the pagoda experience, parks and markets everywhere. My favorite part had to be the Relic Site Park, where I spent plenty of time hanging out in the morning. Statues of people and poems line the paths, there are even some Kung Fu babies doing their thing.

a great spot to relax during the midday sun 

Next we walked down to Tang Paradise. It's a 164 acre landscaped park that contains many reconstructed buildings of the ancient Shaanxi style during the Tang Dynasty. The park took most of the day to walk around. This park makes for a great escape from the city life, without needing to leave the city. Had it not started to rain so heavily we would have stayed later to check out some of the theater performances.

tang dynasty architecture (always a crane present)
That's it for today! I took a lot more pictures so check them out here.


Monday, June 10, 2013


Alright, folks. I was warned that things may take a while to get rolling, and they did. Here's a little update on my research

Originally, the plan was to go out into the field, interview farmers about their agricultural practices, and compare the effectiveness of organic vs conventional methods. There is just one little problem... nobody seems to have hopped on the organic train. In fact, people seem to think it just doesn't work. I've spent the past few weeks surveying students, asking them what they think about the concept of growing plants without artificial inputs. I received a lot of reasons why they think it wouldn't work.
  • Plants don't grow as big without fertilizer,
  • insects eat all the plants without pesticides,
  • there is more work involved,
  • and the Chinese people don't like change (actual quote).
These were top reasons, which aren't necessarily true, but understandable worries given the pressure to produce enough for your family and/or make a reasonable income. Trying a new method of agriculture would not be without a certain amount of risk, there is always a learning curve. Finally, after a long discussion about organic farming with a member from my lab, we decided that China still has a long way to go. Education, workshops involving alternative methods, and a pilot project showcasing them would be a great start. If only I had more time here! 

The other interesting fact that I discovered was that many farmers have switched to growing ornamental plants. The city is very fond of covering every park and roadside with intricate displays of ornamentals. Trees, bushes, and grasses are all needed to fill the green spaces for new developments. This need has likely driven the shift to letting large companies mass produce all of the food. Which will make it even more difficult to find someone who would be interested in organic food production. 

every plant on campus was planted within the last 8 years
So that's where I'm at right now, good thing I put together a back up project! I'll update you with the details of the other project when things are finalized. Hopefully I can still redesign my original topic, I was looking forward to spending more time in the rural areas.

Strawberry Music Festival!

Last weekend I was invited to join some new friends to check out the Strawberry Music Festival. The 36 degree heat was a bit much, but I had a really good time between shade-following sessions. I couldn't really tell you who I saw perform that day. Some pop-punk girl named Big Sister (or was it little sister), an guy name Old Wolf (mostly sings about his university days), and some local bands with a wide variety of sounds.

The festival also turned out to be my first experience with the take-your-photo-with-a-white-guy experience. Many people brave enough to say hi quickly turned the conversation towards wanting a picture with me. I can only imagine what they look like. A sweaty North American guy dying of heat exhaustion, definitely one for the grandkids!