Silent Sounding Board

It feels weird sometimes. I’ve been in engineering for a little more than a decade now, eleven years to be exact, but from time to time the question still pops out: What am I doing here?

Before entering college, I remember my father asking me what course I wanted to take. “I want to be a scientist to help people,” I responded vaguely. He asked what type of scientist I wanted to become and how I intended to help others. I didn’t know (hey, I was just in high school! I feel quite sorry for the youth who are in K-12 now; they have to decide early on which track they are going to take!). Anyway, I ended up in engineering. There were times when I felt that it was perfect for me, especially last year when I worked in a chemistry lab. Oh boy did I really tell myself that I was meant for engineering! I was the one making contraptions or 3D-printed set-ups for some of my polymer chemist lab mates and I absolutely enjoyed doing it. I would sketch out ideas, do some basic 3D modeling, disassemble stuff, assemble stuff, etc. That has always been my general idea of an engineer: someone who designs and builds stuff that people can use to make life better or easier. But society would constantly dictate things from time to time that would really influence the way we think. In academia, for example, there’s this idea of prestige.

I was fortunate to be able to publish papers during my one year stay in the US last year. Over there, paper is prestige and papers come out quickly. My adviser gave me the impression that being able to publish as first author in a high-impact journal was a big accomplishment (maybe it is, but it took some time for that to sink-in). When I came home, I realized that I almost had the same number of publications as some of our returning PhDs. “Holy crap,” I told myself, “so it is an accomplishment.” By April another one of our papers was accepted for publication, and I’m finishing another one, which should be submitted by June. “I’ll have more papers than some of our PhDs if all of this come out this year. This is insane.”

Ego started kicking in. There were two arguments in my mind. On one hand, my mind is saying, “Go apply for a PhD immediately. If you can publish at least three papers in one year, imagine how many papers you’ll have after four to five years of PhD training!” But the other side of my brain is saying, “What’s the PhD for? You’ve proven that you can publish papers of equal number, if not more, without the degree. Why spend five years in a lab if you can spend that time doing projects for your advocacy?”

My advocacy. The thing that changed my life for the better. My commitment to my advocacy was tested last April. I was offered a PhD position in the UK. The voice in my head telling me to apply for PhD was suddenly in full throttle. I came up with my own dissertation topic in about a week with the guidance of my prospective advisor. But somehow something didn’t feel right inside. The topic was absolutely new to me and not connected with my advocacy; I just tailored it in such a way that it became related to some of the projects I worked on in the department. I realized how the entire process just seemed so forced. I also didn’t feel excited. I didn’t get the same “high” I got when I visited MIT’s D-lab last year or when I conversed with Penn State professors about their HESE program. It was as if I was just applying because I didn’t want to waste the opportunity and because it was “cool” to apply for a PhD in the UK (plus it was under a prestigious scholarship, too!).

After much thought, I declined the offer. The professor was kind enough to understand. That PhD offer was probably a temptation, something to test how strong my commitment to my advocacy is. I knew a university in the US where every single thing they do seemed to be aligned with what I want. My resolve got stronger to apply to that university after declining the UK offer. So all was decided then. I’ll take the GRE. I’ll take the IELTS. I’ll apply this Septemeber.

Then Makers ShowUP happened.

Makers ShowUP is the maker fair organized by my Additive Manufacturing elective class.  By God’s grace, it was a huge success! It wasn’t perfect, but was very much successful in achieving the goal of connecting with makers within and outside UP as well as promoting the maker movement to the public. Makers ShowUP connected me back to the UP College of Fine Arts (CFA), specifically their Fab Lab and Ceramics Studio. I have always enjoyed visitng CFA. Their grounds are filled with artworks of different kinds and everyone always seems to making something interesting! This was also the first time I knew someone from the Industrial Design program. Oh and what fun they seem to have! I realized that my general definition of engineering somehow fits into what they do as well, they design and build stuff (without excessive math!)! Hence the question, “what am I doing in engineering?” I asked this question so many times now that I think I know the answer: my advocacy. Humanitarian engineering (HE) is why I am in engineering. As long as I don’t see HE institutionalized/formalized in the Philippines, then my mission as an engineer is not yet done.

So now I’m fortunately in a good place. I can be a materials engineer who has connections with the maker movement, which allows me to do what I enjoy (making stuff!), while working on my advocacy. This was really the semester when I felt that work and play actually intersected. I would come to class and have Tinker Thursdays or we would build a boat (a life-size one!) or create concrete pavers, etc. Ideas for collaboration and projects are already popping in my head, which brings me back to the question: How about PhD? If I start a long term project in this direction, I won’t be able to leave for PhD.

I guess I’ll just push through with the application in my dream school and see where I go from there. And while I’m at it, I need to constantly remind myself to watchout for the noises in my head telling me to go for prestige rather than what gives me meaning.

You know where you’re going. Stay on track.

On Collaboration

What Steve Jobs said about only being able to connect the dots looking back is definitely true. There were times since 2011 when I felt that I wasn’t going anywhere with my advocacy, or that I was going too slow. But things seem to be coming together now. I know that it’s not permanent and there will be time again for doubt and reflection (which is not altogether bad, I realized there is a need for that). For now, we should make the most out of the opportunities coming up. Opportunities to connect with other departments, institutes, colleges, and universities. May we be able to play our cards wisely to maximize everything for everyone, i.e. faculty, students, and institutions alike. As always, I don’t know where all this is going. Nevertheless, times have taught us to just dive into the uncertainty with a spirit of excitement and joy and curiosity and gratefulness (and lots of hard work!). Let’s go DMMME! :)

#engineeringeducation #engineering+art #design #materials

Taking the Leap: A Second Attempt in Undergraduate Advising

“Something has changed within me
Something is not the same…
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap!

~Defying Gravity, Wicked

When I applied as a faculty member two years ago, I made it clear during the interview that I wanted to advise undergraduate students in doing their research projects. I had my first attempt last school year when four beautiful ladies (naks!) bravely accepted the thesis topic I offered on fabricating mushroom materials (Yup, you read that right, MUSHROOMS!). Advising was foreign land to me. It was different from teaching in a classroom setting. I was terribly limited by experience and during that time, I have yet to learn about and harness the power of collaboration.

Expectedly, I failed as an adviser the first time around. My students suffered during their defense because I  overlooked a lot of things. I fought back the tears that wanted to flow during the deliberation of my advisees. I really wanted to cry because I felt ashamed by my lack of experience in research. I may not be the only one to blame, but I know truthfully that I could have done better as their adviser.

Then came the next school year and I was given another chance to handle undergraduate advisees. Our department chair informed the MatE faculty that the Mechanical Engineering (ME) department was seeking help in fabricating the body of UP’s entry for the Shell Eco-Marathon Asia 2016 (SEMA 2016). The pain of my failure the previous year was still fresh, but if there’s one thing I learned from Steve Jobs and the IDEA workshop and symposia I’ve attended, it’s that failure is a stepping stone to success. It does not make you less of a person. I grabbed the opportunity.

Obviously, this whole composite fabrication thing using vacuum infusion process is new to the department. Vacuum bagging was as far as we have gone before and even research involving that has already stopped. Our department chair and I made this clear with ME and, fortunately, they were still willing to risk it by involving DMMME in the UP SEMA team for the first time. The department got into the UP team. Three faculty members were involved: our chairperson, myself as adviser, and another MatE faculty as co-adviser.

The next step was to find advisees. The scale of the project and the pressure involved demanded a screening process for interested students. We came up with four students. All six of us were in for a very bumpy, but exhilarating ride!

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The first meeting of the DMMME SEMA Team

One of the things I was confused about advising was the extent to which I will guide my students. Should I be in the lab to help them or should I leave them by themselves and just have them consult when they need help? I learned that students become too dependent on the teacher if the latter is too hands-on. On the other hand, they become demotivated or discouraged if the teacher steps back too much. Finding the balance is still a challenge and is something that only experience will most likely be able to teach.

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The first fabrication experiment. Getting the feel of how to handle the materials. We failed, but learned from mistakes. :)

One of the many feelings I will never forget was a sense of pride for my students whenever they figured out how to do something or solve a practical engineering problem on their own. At first I was working with them in the lab to share what I’ve learned from making fiberglass boats last year, but after some time they did the work by themselves, only asking for guidance from time to time. By now they know their craft so well that I am confident they can conduct a training workshop on the fabrication process (you will in the future! Kailangan niyo ipasa ang natutunan niyo. :P)!

Another moment I will never forget was when the DMMME SEMA team was granted access to a room in our building that would serve as our temporary laboratory. My long-term goal as faculty is to establish a laboratory, much like what my beloved adviser and other senior faculty have been doing. So being given a room and having the team clean it together, furnish it with lights, tables, etc., the entire process was like a peek of what might be in the future!

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With Cathy, one of our most reliable volunteers! The photo was taken when we were still doing lab work as NOMADS (literally!). We worked wherever there was space that would not interfere with other labs or with classes. This was just along one of the corridors of DMMME and it was even raining that afternoon!

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We were finally given access to our temporary laboratory!!! It was a great feeling seeing the team clean it, furnish it, and of course work in it. :’)

One of my failures last year as adviser was my lack of expertise. A solution I found for this is collaboration. Collaboration can work wonders by providing perspectives different from yours and getting expertise that you lack, among other benefits. The SEMA work environment made me realize how important it is for every engineering student to, at least once in their college life, be part of a major collaborative project that would put them in a high pressure environment. And by pressure I mean real-world pressure from a funding agency and/or another institute/department/organization (not the type of pressure simply demanded by deadlines set by the teacher). Why? Because it is that type of pressure they will encounter out there if they decide to pursue meaningful things after graduation. They must learn to think and make decisions in the tough and diverse face of collaboration, on top of whatever they are going through in their personal lives. It is also very rare that a real-world project would involve people from only one discipline. Thus, students must learn how to work with people from other fields.

Looking back at the activities of the past few months, I will never forget how I saw my advisees persevere both physically, mentally, and emotionally (pati ba spiritually?! haha). The late nights, the overnights (grabe never ko ginawa ito sa undergrad at master’s thesis ko!), the disappointments (especially when we found out that we cannot use the mold), all the pain from the carbon fiber dust, the itchiness of the fiberglass, etc. All these experiences eventually led to a positive outcome because our students chose to continue moving forward. They never gave up!

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Our first successful vacuum infusion!!! THANK YOU Sir Teej!!!

After the DMMME SEMA team attended the general meeting at EEEI for the first time last August or September, five of us gathered in the EEEI parking lot and I will never forget what one of my students said: “I waited five years for an opportunity like this!” I waited for almost ten years! haha. We have a lot of people to thank for this much-awaited opportunity:

Our chairperson, for giving us faculty and students the opportunity to be involved in a project like SEMA (and for being very supportive of the team). EEEI and ME for inviting DMMME to be a part of the UP SEMA team. Sir Teej for teaching us how to do a proper vacuum infusion process. My colleague who served as co-adviser, for imparting his amazing statistics skills to the team (thank you, Sir Audric!!! Ang galing mo sa stat!). All the volunteers who gave and still continue to unconditionally give their time and energy. Other MatE faculty that the team consulted, thank you for giving your insights on the project! Last, but absolutely never the least:

Anton, Ison, Jason, Joseph – thank you for facing the challenge head-on! I have said this to some of you before, but I will say it again: your perseverance and commitment to the project is inspiring. I know there were times when you felt so discouraged, but I hope the experience has taught you that failure is a part of the process. I’d like to believe that by now you have developed a greater degree of emotional resiliency. How I wish I can still be there to see the car to its completion, but I am confident that you already have the skill needed to fabricate the other parts (naman, after ng lower tub! haha). If you still need guidance on anything, I am just an email away. Aabangan ko ang pictures niyo sa FB group. For now, your teacher needs to train to improve her expertise for future advisees (para naman hindi na ako masyado aasa sa collaboration to get the expertise a Materials Engineer should know in the first place) and for us to have something more to offer to other fields for future collaborations.

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All the blood, sweat, and tears led to this day: a successful thesis defense!!! On time kayo guys! I AM SO PROUD OF YOU!!! CONGRATS!!!

Compared to last year, I’d like to believe that I somehow made some progress in advising. I learned how to show some level of strictness (natakot daw sila na galit na ako kaya tinapos nila yung manuscript and presentation on time :D) and, from now on, to meticulously check before embarking on a project whether or not it is materials science or materials engineering related. I have nothing against science. It’s just that, sometimes, the line between science and engineering is so blurred in the Philippines.

We are engineers. We design and create things that will push humanity forward! Mabuhay ang mga inhinyero ng bayan! :)