Indian scientist finds a second home in Suzhou

Aug 1, 2014

STALL holders in food markets of Suzhou’s Kunshan County are almost all acquainted with an Indian man. A. Thomson Mathai is a scientist, an experienced ecotoxicologist to be exact. Like others, he visits markets to buy what he wants to cook for dinner, but he also buys things for research.

Mathai holds a PhD in zoology and came to China at the end of 2011 when he was 56. He hasn’t left since, bound by his sense of responsibility to his new laboratory in Suzhou and his love for the city.

Having worked for over 30 years in bio-sciences, ecotoxicology and environmental management programs, Mathai established the first Good Laboratory Practice ecotoxicology lab in India 15 years ago. It provides toxicity studies on farm chemicals.

GLP, a quality system of management controls for research laboratories, applies to non-clinical studies conducted to assess the safety or efficacy of chemicals on humans, animals and the environment. Test reports from GLP labs are accepted in many countries including the US and members of the EU.

After arriving in Suzhou in December, 2011, Mathai notes he quickly established the internationally accepted GLP ecotoxicology lab, the first in China. He installed ecotoxicity testing facilities for algae, water fleas, warm and cold water fish, earthworms, honeybees and lemna, a floating aquatic plant.

Mathai, who oversees a staff of six, two Indians and four Chinese, said the work isn’t too difficult since he’s been doing similar stuff for a long time and the company appreciates his efforts.

“This is my third GLP ecotoxicology lab,” he said. “Using my expertise from the last 20 years, it has the advantage of being the best. We have benefitted from expertise gathered over 30 years of post-doctoral work experience from academics, industries and laboratories. Both the lab and the personnel are more worthy.”

When Rotam Crop Sciences Co in Suzhou decided to establish such a lab to evaluate its crop protection chemicals, they found Mathai through one of his former colleagues, who had previously worked at Rotam.

A GLP ecotoxicology lab is important for the company because it saves time, said Li Li, manager of Rotam’s research laboratory.

“Before our own lab was established, we had to ask other GLP institutions to conduct ecotoxicology studies and provide safety certificates for our products to enter other countries,” Li said. “And it would be a long time before test reports came out. Sometimes, we had to wait for half a year.

“With our own lab and researchers, we can finish this process in one or two months. And if any problems are found, we can respond faster to reduce the ecotoxicity of our agrochemical and make them less harmful to the environment.”

The in-house GLP lab also saves Rotam money.

“For example, an ecotoxicity test on one kind of fish could cost 10,000 yuan in other labs,” Li said. “But the fish only costs a few dozen yuan. We can do the test much cheaper by ourselves.”

Li said an ecotoxicology lab is important for agrochemical companies as their products are poisonous to varying degrees and China is now very strict with pollution control and environmental protection.

Ecotoxicology studies are different from other chemical research. In Mathai’s lab, instruments often seen in other labs are mostly absent. The main task he and his fellow colleagues do every day is to watch the activity of plants and animals when exposed to different densities of chemicals.

It demands experience instead of equipment, said Li, adding there are few experienced experts in China, making Mathai a valuable employee.

The lab has proven so successful that it has applied to the Ministry of Agriculture’s Institute for the Control of Agrochemicals for accreditation on ecotoxicology testing.

Mathai said Rotam will soon expand the laboratory.

The one challenge he faces is staff training. He believes people should spend at least three to five years in training before they are ready to conduct research independently. Mathai laments losing three employees within less than two years.

“It’s not just a job. It’s also a responsibility,” he said.

This sense of responsibility means Mathai has seldom left Suzhou because he feels compelled to take care of his lab and the plants he keeps in his home in Kunshan.

Every year, his 26-year-old daughter visits but he hasn’t gone back to India despite Rotam offering to pay for the flight. The farthest he has traveled was on a company trip to Yellow Mountain in Anhui Province.

He loves his life in Kunshan.

“It’s a lovely and harmonious place,” he said. “I can see old people take kids walking on the road. And they are friendly to me. They may not speak English, but we have eye contact.”

Mathai especially loves the food markets, where he buys fish and other water creatures for his experiments or for dinner. Stall owners are so familiar with the Indian that some take money directly out of his wallet and give him the change.

About the Column

Suzhou Face

This series focuses on individuals who have lived in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province for a while and have a tale that’s worth telling. Age, gender, nationality and race are all unimportant in comparison with what adventures the subject has been up to, the experiences they can recount.

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