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.

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Plants: Teachers of Contentment and Patience

When gardeners garden, it is not just plants that grow, but the gardeners themselves. –Ken Druse

Horticulture 2014. It has been a long time since I last felt the excitement of being in a garden show filled with wonderful plants of all colors and sizes! The “busy” schedule in school has limited my gardening to my Mongo sprouts, which died after four months (January-April 2013) because I did not replant them in soil. But I found it really, really amazing that a mongo sprout can survive four months with nothing but water and sunlight. It’s fascinating to see it literally grow before your eyes every single day right beside your bed!

After saying goodbye to the mongo sprouts, I went out to our garden again in May 2013 to find something to grow on my bedside table. I found the bonsai my late grandmother made for a school project back in elementary. Ok, it used to be a bonsai, but because we did not cut and trim it regularly, it has grown quite big already. So I cut a stem and planted it into a small, empty pot, putting in some soil and coco cubes, and bringing it happily up to my room. After 8 months, my bonsai now looks like this!

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Just like the mongo sprouts, I’ve witnessed how my little plant struggled to live when it was just newly planted. She was shedding leaves excessively that I was afraid she was dying, but luckily after about a week I saw new leaves coming out. It was amazing!

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As I was saying, this year’s Horticulture 2014 made me excited about gardening again. There were plants from different parts of the country like the miniature Anthuriums shown in the photo above (right side). The one on the upper right is colored pink and purple and sells for PhP80. The one on the lower right is colored lilac and sells for PhP250 because it’s bigger (it has two plants in one pot already) and came all the way from Cagayan de Oro (CDO). It was love at first sight when I saw the Anthurium from CDO! The seller also said that this variety of Anthurium can be kept indoors and watered every other day. Great! I can put it in my room!

Another plant I immediately fell in love with is this Begonia from Bohol (shown below). What’s unique about Bohol’s Begonias is that their leaves are much smaller compared to other varieties. This one originally sell for PhP150, but the seller gave me a discount so I bought this beauty for PhP130. I was so happy! :) Mama said that Begonias don’t really like a lot of water so I don’t have to water it everyday. I made an arrangement in my room as shown below. The journal on the table is my late grandmother’s, the greatest and most beautiful gardener ever! :)

20140126_080810There was this stall in the garden show that specifically sold indoor plants. Mama, my aunt, and I were all so giddy as we admired and decided which plant to buy. Mama was so thoughtful and paid for mine (THANK YOU!). The one below sells for PhP60. I used my old yellow mug to catch the excess water from the pot instead of using a small plate (platito).

20140126_081254Similarly, the plant below also sells for PhP60 and I also used an old mug for a more aesthetic effect. The framed picture of the flowers on the left came, again, from Uwa (my late grandma). The piece of wood on the right used to be a slingshot (tirador), which Papa made from the old Bayabas (Guava) tree I used to climb when I was little. We had to cut it down a long time ago because termites (anay) killed the tree. :( The rubber we attached to the slingshot last year already degraded so I now use the slingshot to organize stuffs like hair ties, bracelet, headband, as well as the ocarina I got from the nostalgic old street of Jiufen, Taiwan.

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I am now slowly understanding better why Uwa and Mama and many other people are so happy with gardening. Unlike animals who move about and can make sounds and actions to express their feelings, plants are our silent companions who may seem immobile, but if you look closely you will see if they are happy or sad or proud or in pain. They are saying something using a different language. Being in the company of these wonderful creations can give a sense of contentment. They are a good reminder of the importance of learning to be still. Plants are also one of the best teachers of patience (though I’m not necessarily a good student, haha).

There are now six plants in my bedroom who keep me company and make me happy. The challenge now, of course, is keeping all of them alive! Haha. We can do this! :)