News & Analysis Physics World  October 2021

A life in China

Italian astrophysicist Roberto Soria talks to Ling Xin about the opportunities and challenges of living in China and how that changed when the pandemic hit 

Eastern promise Roberto Soria says there are many opportunities for researchers in China, despite the impact that the pandemic has had. (Courtesy: Roberto Soria)

How did you end up working in China?

I was born in Italy and did a PhD in astrophysics at the Australian National University. In 2004 I moved to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics before heading to University College London in 2008. In 2011 I returned to Australia to work at Curtin University and in 2017 moved to China to the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences (UCAS) in Beijing. There I work on several projects and also collaborate with colleagues worldwide. 

Why did you decide to move to China?

When my contract with Curtin University was coming to an end, I assessed my options. Liu Jifeng from the National Astronomical Observatories (NAOC) in Beijing, whom I had met when I was at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, encouraged me to come to China and apply for a tenured position at UCAS. I already had some connections in China as I had been regularly visiting Tsinghua University between 2008 to 2010 thanks to a programme called China-UK Fellowship for Excellence. So, it was not like jumping into a completely different universe. 

What are your main research areas?

I work on the physics of accretion onto compact objects. For example how a neutron star or black hole receives mass from a nearby star or other sources of gas. I explore how the gas falls towards or into the compact object, how much radiation is emitted, how much mechanical energy is carried by outflows and transferred to the host galaxy, and what is the maximum power that can be generated by such sources. I use X-ray, optical and radio data, and work with different groups that specialize in various areas.

Does that involve international collaboration? 

I spend about 30% of my time collaborating with scientists at NAOC and the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing. The rest of my time is spent with colleagues in Australia, the US, France and Italy. I’m now part of the $300m SiTian “Sky Monitoring” project, which is a proposed Chinese network of dozens of 1 m-class telescopes in different parts of the world to scan and monitor the whole sky every night. It aims to detect gravitational-wave events, fast radio bursts, or supernovae on the largely unknown timescales of less than one day. We hope to get the project approved in the 15th National Mega-Project Five-Year Plan (2026–2030). Construction could then start in 2026, with facilities operational by 2032.

What are some advantages of working long-term in China as a researcher?

Science has a good social status here. For instance, I was surprised to see pictures of the FAST telescope used as one of China’s landmarks along with the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. That is rare from a western perspective. The level of scientific and technical knowledge in the media is very good in China – the public seem to have a good understanding of science. The money available for building scientific infrastructures is also attractive: telescopes, space missions and so on. You feel that there is interesting science going on and there are opportunities for the future. There are always new missions and facilities to look forward to and you can also think of new topics of research, new ideas and new collaborations.

What’s the biggest challenge?

For me it is the language barrier. I can learn how to buy food or talk to a taxi driver, but it is very difficult to reach the level of Chinese sufficient to participate in technical discussions. Most scientific meetings here are in Chinese, which means that I am often excluded from the astronomy community. For example, the annual conference of the Chinese astronomy community is in Chinese and I was not even invited last year as it would have been a waste of time for me to fly to Shanghai to attend a meeting in which I could not understand any of the discussions. Also, PhD theses must be written in Chinese so it is hard for me to supervise students. Language is important, because it is difficult to do good research if you must spend half of your time trying to communicate with PhD students, postdocs, or even senior professors.

How have you dealt with the pandemic? 

When the travel ban was first introduced in February 2020, I was in South Africa for a conference and then went to the University of Sydney, where I have an honorary associate position. I only had a small bag of summer clothes with me. Luckily, I got on a plane before all international flights were shut and made it back to China. I saved my belongings and my job! During the pandemic, I spent time visiting new places in Beijing. I went hiking several times on the Western Hills. I also had the chance to visit Sun Yat-sen University in southern China, where they are developing satellites to detect gravitational waves. I stayed in touch with my parents in Italy via Skype. Luckily, they have been in good health. I do not know what I would do if they needed my immediate assistance.

What do you think of the Chinese government’s pandemic response?

I think China has managed the pandemic pretty well. It avoided an economic recession, which is now badly affecting western Europe. There was no social unrest or dissatisfaction with the government. Lockdowns and restrictions in Europe and the US were often imposed by local governments without co-ordination, which created chaos.

Tell us about your meeting earlier this year with Li Keqiang, the Chinese Premier

I was selected as one of the two speakers to give a 10-minute presentation at the foreign experts’ symposium, which is a meeting between the Chinese Premier and 30–40 foreign academics working in China. My speech was about the need to keep open channels for collaborations with foreign countries because it is necessary for us to do research at the international level. I mentioned China’s long history of international exchanges, to present-day multinational collaborations on projects such as the FAST telescope. 

Premier Li Keqiang was very sympathetic. I think he had seen the texts of our presentations beforehand and his comments were much to the point. Of course, we couldn’t shake hands due to COVID restrictions, but it was nice to be sitting next to him. It was also a good opportunity to get to know other foreigners here, including someone who teaches Latin in Beijing and is originally from Turin like me.

I would like to return to Italy eventually, but my retirement plans are still a long way off 

What are you future plans?

I would like to return to Italy eventually. It is hard to remain in China where I don’t speak the language well enough and I’m always a visible minority. However, my retirement plans are still a long way off and I think I can still contribute to China’s science and perhaps later as an overseas collaborator. 

I want to continue developing international projects from the Chinese side and in the longer term explore the possibility of continuing to work for UCAS, but be based at least half of my time closer to my family or to some of my other scientific collaborators. 

Is this international approach something that institutions in China could do more of? 

I think it would be important for UCAS and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) to think of themselves more like an international brand that can open research offices and support scholars based in other countries. In fact, the CAS has already started doing that with CAS South America Center for Astronomy in Chile. Moreover, the presence of many second-generation Chinese immigrants in western countries is an untapped market for the possible opening of Chinese university campuses overseas.