Staying the course: A German expat's 13 years in China
  ·  2023-05-05  ·   Source: China Today

When Thomas Weise started his academic journey in Hefei, Anhui province, by working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) 13 years ago, he never thought he could go this far.

The German computer scientist vividly recalls his first experience contacting Chinese researchers for new opportunities after completing his PhD at the University of Kassel in his home country. "From today's perspective, that must have been a very strange situation," he said. "A foreigner about whom they know nothing and who has never been in China just directly applies for a position."


Professor Thomas Weise gives an online presentation of Hefei University during a meeting of the German University Consortium for International Cooperations (DHIK), June 10, 2022. [Photo provided to] 

For Weise, China and Germany differ in many ways, but what matters most is that both countries boast advanced sci-tech capacity — especially in his field of AI-related optimization techniques.

After a few email exchanges, in November 2009, Weise joined USTC professor Yao Xin's team which is known for its expertise in evolutionary computing. Just six months later, he had already decided to spend the rest of his career and life in Hefei.

"I immediately liked the work environment in China. I felt deep respect for my colleagues, who were really outstanding researchers and from whom I could learn a lot," he said. "And the PhD, MSc and BSc students were all hard-working, kind and really smart. I really enjoyed working in that lab."

Despite China's dynamic and competitive research environment and good funding resources for both fundamental and applied sciences, Weise still needed to adapt to the different academic performance metrics compared with his home country.

"Doing this comes with changes. While I honestly probably was a good PhD student in Germany, it took some time to become an acceptably good researcher in China," he added.

Two years later in 2011, Weise had progressed to the position of associate professor at USTC. From his perspective, Hefei has provided a unique platform for expats. The city is home to a number of high-profile universities conducting fundamental scientific research, and it also plays a leading role in applied sciences thanks to companies such as Volkswagen Anhui, ChangXin Memory Technologies and iFlytek.

Hefei has also provided a package of preferential policies to attract talented foreign professionals and make their work and lives more convenient, such as providing experts with different benefits, international schooling opportunities for their children, and tailored medical services.

“All these policies have greatly benefitted overseas expats like myself,” Weise said.

Weise's career was taken to the next level in 2016 when he got the chance to start a new team and build a research group from scratch at Hefei University, which is known for its strength and innovations in applied sciences and which has well-established ties with higher education institutions in Germany. Today, the 42-year-old is leading a team of researchers working on a variety of topics related to AI and optimization, aiming to create highly efficient and intelligent systems.


Professor Thomas Weise delivers a research talk titled "Automating Scientific Research in Optimization" at the University of Applied Sciences Mittweida in Mittweida, Germany, July 24, 2017. [Photo provided to] 

"The goal of the team is that we eventually become a good research group, that we can make good contributions to our society and earn a good reputation, both at home and abroad," Weise noted.

In 2020, Weise received the Friendship Award from the Hefei Municipal People's Government for his outstanding contributions to local sci-tech development and China-Germany cooperation.

"My dream would be to make it from a small postdoc, who probably performed not as well as his fellow Chinese postdocs, to a professor who can build and lead a research team successfully in China, in our Hefei," he said.

"I do not know if I can become good enough to achieve this goal," he added. "But I want to try my very best, and I am thankful to Hefei University for giving me this opportunity."

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