On Finding One’s Place

There was a lecture I attended before at the Mabuhay Temple about finding your place in the world. I remember shifu reminding us the importance of knowing one’s value to help determine where you will place yourself in this complex world. Seven years later, I still struggle with finding my place.

Others will find it surprising that I am writing about this topic. Many people know about my advocacy and how passionate I am about it. But now that HEED is growing, the question of where to place myself and the group becomes even more pressing.

Do I place myself in engineering? Here I am expected to do technical research. Publish papers. Attend scientific conferences. Teach engineering. I learned to do these things in undergrad and grad school. I did well. My mentors expected me to thrive. But there was always something missing. There was always that tug in my heart from the creative side.

Do I place myself in the world of design? I love creating. I was the type of kid who would make my own toys from scrap materials when my parents refused to buy me something I like from the toy store. I was the type of student with high regard to aesthetics. The lay-out of a report, the font, the graphics, everything must be beautiful. I used to spend hours a day designing my blog and, eventually, my personal website, HEED’s website, and DMMME’s website (all works in progress, lol). I’ve created several mini-books I give to friends just because I love writing and graphic design. I love Lego and building various things with it — syringe pump, automated dog-feeder, robots, etc. Doing creative work always gives me a high.

Creative work always gives me a high. When everything else fails, my heart comes home to making something (photo from UP FABLAB, my #happyplace!).

I tried integrating my love for design with my academic work as a materials engineer. I advocated strongly for product design in our department and, eventually, in our college. It seems to be working, but I do get frowned upon sometimes because there is still that impression that product design is not “technical” enough. But I think the real issue is why design and engineering are separate in the first place (at least in the Philippines)?

I experienced this disparity recently when I accepted two high school interns in FDI — the design group I started in DMMME. At first everything seemed okay. Our visiting professor even commented during the HEED design sprint, “I’m impressed with the high school students. This is such a great experience for them!” But as our interns were presenting in the culminating ceremony yesterday, it hit me so hard how separate design still is from the so-called “technical” world. It’s like our interns did the right activity in the wrong venue. It’s confusing. I was so proud that in 10 days our interns were able to model several objects in Fusion 360 and SketchUp, do 3D printing, participate in a 2-day design sprint (where they worked in a very interdisciplinary team from other colleges, i.e. COE, CFA, and BA), attend a humanitarian engineering symposium, identify their own design problem and prototype a solution. But reality hits hard. Even though my students were the only interns with a tangible output, they did not do “scientific” work like other students. Even though I saw how amazing our interns did design-wise, the reaction I received left me feeling like I did something very wrong. Very, very wrong.

Do I place myself in community development? I strongly believe that meaningful work comes from doing something to better the lives of people. That’s why HEED was born. It integrates engineering with my inherent love for community development and design (I’m sorry if it sounds selfish T_T). But as HEED executive director, I have to be in neutral ground. I cannot wear my “engineering hat” when talking with other colleges. But without my “engineering hat” and with HEED not (yet) formally recognized by the university, where does that place me? Where exactly do I stand in the university?


More opportunities are opening up for HEED and for that I am truly grateful. But I guess growing pains are expected to be part of the picture. It’s like I’m in a crash course on leadership. I deal with people who are both younger and older than me. I write grant proposals for HEED on top of the grant proposals for FDI to “satisfy” what is expected of me in engineering. I design the course syllabus for the HEED elective on top of managing the MatE curricular revision. People expect more from the group now that we are branching out to other universities. More community project opportunities are coming in, but I am still expected to do “technical research” on top of all this because HEED is “just extension work.”

“You need an enterprise model for sustainability. Hire more people to do work for you.” I need to get a grip of that model immediately.

It can be very overwhelming and confusing. I feel like a little bit of everything. A little bit of an engineer. A little bit of a designer. A little bit of a social worker. But maybe that’s not really bad? Optimum ignorance, as my mentor said. Maybe I just feel weird because this is not yet the norm in the environment I’m in? Titles are still important in this environment. Engineer. Scientist. PhD. But today’s society is already ditching titles, right?

This image will always be special to me because in it are people from engineering, design, business, and community development who are having fun while working together for a common goal. <3

Don’t get me wrong. HEED will always be my passion. I guess we’re just in that phase where uncertainty is still very high. Where we’re still learning to effectively manage long-term interdisciplinary relationships. Where we’re still finding our place in the larger scheme of things. It’s very challenging, but my heart is hopeful and overflowing with gratefulness for all the support. Please be patient. We’re learning. :)


On Determination

So the Universe is testing me again. Push and Pull.

Just when you think you know the way to go, something shiny and tempting is placed right in front of you before you make a turn.

Crossroads. One road with all the prestige academia demands from a faculty in engineering: a big project, international collaboration, a living legend in the scientific community as mentor, publications. I’m sure there will be lots of it if I choose to commit to this person. All planned out. Secure. Just say yes. “ASAP.”

The other road demands I let go much of the “power” I have now to make more time for what I believe matters to me. This road is not yet constructed. I’m still figuring out how to manage it. Sometimes I fail and stumble, but I’ve spent six years on this road already– as a side project. I’ve been considering flipping the picture this year, i.e. make this unsure path my priority and the established road the side project.

The heart already knows what it wants, but it’s terrifying nonetheless. I let go of a shiny thing last year around this time, too. I did not regret it. HEED was born because I chose to stay on this road.

Yes, I will let this shiny thing go… again. It will be alright. It will be alright.

On Responsibilities

“More is asked of us than most people, therefore we must strive to be better than most if we are to prove ourselves worthy of that responsibility…” – Nasuada, from the book Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

2017 was about beginnings. 2018 will be about growth.

I am still not used to introducing myself as an executive director, but it is one I need to learn to embrace and live out together with all the responsibilities attached to the title. I will commit new mistakes along the way that will teach me new lessons about leadership, public relations, and life in general, among others. It is daunting, but also exciting.

First meeting of the year was successful and productive. May we face our responsibilities throughout the year with as much vigor as when we started.

Cheers to 2018! :)

On Lectures & Grades

I have a dilemma. Creating lectures and checking exams and quizzes are increasingly difficult to do when you no longer see the point of these outdated teaching and assessment techniques. :(( Probably one of the reasons why I enjoyed handling the product design class this semester. Very minimal lectures. No written exams. But students have a tangible output.

Why am I still lecturing in class? Why am I still giving exams? Because of standardization in engineering education? The lectures I can replace with an alternative, but still easier said than done due to other faculty responsibilities. The written exams and quizzes are more challenging to remove because I need to convince other faculty members (at least one; my partner next sem) to remove it as well in order to comply with Washington Accord (sections of the same courses should have the same assessment techniques).

I’m still here struggling to finish checking an exam that happened two months ago. Soon I will calculate numbers that will “assess” student learning. But even those numbers are quickly losing meaning. I am currently a student in another school where we are not given grades, but I have learned so much in just one semester. Is it not possible to ditch the grade in university and just provide feedback on student work and have them learn not to get 100% or 1’s, but simply because they are curious to discover new things?

Then again, this might be just the idealistic me speaking. The struggle is real.

On Color

A brewing interest. Let’s make 2018 #colorful! :3

This book is slowly opening my eyes to the fascinating world of colors and natural pigments. Read about the white pigment so far and how lead carbonate was used for the longest time despite its toxic properties (lead poisoning!!!) because it provides a vivid, opaque color. Zinc Oxide would’ve been an alternative, but it was too expensive that people still used lead. Fortunately, titanium was discovered! I’m in the chapter about ochre now and learned that it can be found in certain rocks!

Outside the book, I learned from a YouTube video how to extract pigment from bamboo! Now I want to try it!!! Just need to buy some alum powder (tawas?) and cook baking soda to turn it into washing soda. It’s also very tempting to buy clear acrylic gel medium to turn the pigment into acrylic paint (or watercolor, but apparently it has more components like honey, glycerin, etc., so let’s start with simple acrylic first).

Definitely something to explore next year after this jam-packed semester is over!



On Good Conversations & Pursuing Dreams

“Money does not equate to good design, but good design can turn time into money.” – Dean Tobias Guggenheimer, SoFA Design Institute

Dean Guggenheimer of SoFA dropped by our furniture design class yesterday. Sir Rey invited him and he stayed for around 10-15 minutes getting to know each student and why we enrolled in SoFA. The dean was a very pleasant man. One can sense an air of humble confidence around him, probably drawn from years of experience in the field. One of the things I remember him saying was how common it was in SoFA to have students in specialized courses (e.g. lighting design, furniture design) who are pursuing their love for design after years of putting it aside due to various reasons (e.g. money, work, etc.). This was a familiar story for some of Sir Rey’s students, including myself. I often wondered before how I ended up in engineering even though everything I enjoyed doing pointed towards the creative side. But now it seems clearer what my role in engineering is: to introduce HEED and to pave a path for MatE to enter product design and art.

It was interesting because when I told Dean Guggenheimer that I am a Materials Engineer, he became so excited that he said I should teach at SoFA! I’m not sure if he was kidding, but he seemed really into that idea because he asked if full-time faculty members in UP were allowed to teach elsewhere (unfortunately, no, huhu). But his reaction is somewhat a validation on how important materials are in design.

I love SoFA’s goal of molding designers who are not only locally relevant, but also globally competitive. They put a lot of emphasis on developing a strong foundation on design conceptualization because they believe that no matter how skillful someone is in, say, drawing or CAD modeling, ultimately, the design will start from a concept.

Another story that left a mark on me was when the dean shared how he started his career as an architect. He said words like, “I didn’t sleep for the first 6 months… I only had one client… I had children, I kept thinking at night, “how will I feed them tomorrow?” Now he has a design school. He told us that pursuing dreams need courage. That we must be prepared to eat just rice and water (which I might experience sometime soon at the rate I’m going, gaaah).

It is always a pleasure to meet people with inspiring stories like Dean Guggenheimer. Plus, my classmates and I got to know each other better, too! :)