Tears in my eyes right now. Deep breaths. Inbox filled with commitments that are not impossible to achieve, but require a tremendous amount of effort to pull through. Commitments that are self-inflicted. Commitments that were carefully chosen to align with what I truly want to do, not what other people want me to do– to provide students with extra opportunity to do funded research, to organize an event to bring the maker movement to more people, to further develop my research skills by crafting my own PhD topic, to test the waters of an administrative position, to see if I could actually find funding to fly one of my role models in Humanitarian Engineering from the other side of the world to our beloved UP Diliman, to test myself if I could design and 3D print something that people will use to further public school education in our country (even if my part of that project is just small, haha).
The first four months of the year was filled with decision-making. Which opportunities should I pursue? Which ones should I let go? Decisiveness is still a work in progress, but I’d like to believe that I am better now than when I started.
The tears are not solely because of joy or fear or stress or confusion or gratefulness or excitement or frustration. The tears represent all those emotions happening at the same time! Tears of overwhelm! :’D
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! :)
I think this is the first time in my 3 years of teaching that I taught a class that does not involve any (problem-solving) calculations, i.e. it’s very theoretical, probably because it’s an elective course. And it being theoretical has its own challenges. For one, I find it quite difficult to stretch the lecture to 180 minutes. I will never intend to speak for the entire 180 minutes. That would be dreadful both for my students and me. So I’ve been trying different activities for the past weeks that would make the lecture more engaging. Group discussions are good from time to time, but not always. Videos are almost always good, just don’t make it too long. Design activities are the best, but I have yet to master preparing one (I only did it once; there’s still a lot of room for improvement on my part). Games are also fine, but I’m trying to move away from it to introduce more “engineering-like” activities that are equally engaging. Tomorrow I’ll try this one:
Tinker Thursdays! It’s not an original name. Turns out that the Cornell University library maker space has Tinker Thursdays. I tried Googling “Tinker Tuesdays” (because my class is every TTh) and that name is also already taken by another group. So I settled with Tinker Thursdays (and, yes, there’s a pubmat! Just because I love making pubmats :P). Yay!
I scavenged our house this evening for stuff that we can take apart tomorrow. VHS, floppy disks, Discman, computer mice, etc. Let’s see how this activity turns out. I’ll post an update soon! Wish us luck!
One of the things that stuck on me after watching the documentary, “Becoming Warren Buffet” was focus. Focus on what you want and need to do. Never mind what other people think. He learned from his dad that, “as long as you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, then that’s enough.” Focus.
This year, I told myself that I will focus on what I want to do. There are tempting offers to lead research projects and/or stints that unfortunately do not align with my goals and this week I have to say my “no” to them. It’s a risk, as it always is with life. We always lose a potential outcome when we make choices. But what is life without risks? We grow because of the risky decisions we make. I have enough on my plate for this year. I need to focus more on making an impact than making a name. As Mr. Khanjan Mehta told me when I interviewed him last year, “It’s all about impact. Impact. Impact.”
Another reason why I will say no to these other projects is because saying yes to them would mean saying yes to having a boss again. I have proven last year that I am not the type of person who wants to work for someone. God willing, I want my PI in the US to be the last boss I will report to. I will find mentors/advisors, but definitely not bosses.
Bottomline: focus on projects that will have an impact. Impact. Impact.
My friend and I were talking over lunch about his experiences and realizations from a recent faculty workshop he attended. He described, among other things (and with much delight!), how inspired and excited successful people in the workshop were, how they enjoyed the daily “grind” of work, how good PI’s cared for the growth of each member of their group, how successful people competed in a constructive way, and how they threw themselves “out there” and took risks because they never settled for anything less than what they wanted.
A knot was forming in my throat as I fought back tears (of joy) because all of the things he was saying, I have experienced in some way back home in the Philippines.
I remember so clearly how inspiring majority of my fellow teachers are both inside and outside of the classroom. When demotivation strikes me, I simply remember how passionate my colleagues are and I get back up quickly.
I remember how majority of the senior faculty members in our department care so much for both undergraduate and graduate students to the point that DMMME was regularly sending students abroad (Japan and Taiwan mostly) for short study visits and internships. My adviser would also think about job opportunities for her graduating students (she was the one who offered me a job in DMMME).
I remember how exciting the daily “grind” is in the department (it’s stressful, but exciting!), especially during the semester before I left for the US when I had three simultaneous collaborative projects with different departments and colleges, on top of other faculty duties. It was exhilarating! How I terribly miss that feeling!
I remember how the junior (and some senior) faculty members would have a healthy competition in that we would compare the average performances of our classes at the end of the semester or compare the performance of our students on a specific project. It was healthy because no one was pulling the other down when they succeeded. We would even ask one another what they did to have a great outcome. We help each other grow as faculty members.
I remember how exciting a feeling it was to take risks and throw myself “out there” for the sake of an advocacy I work hard for. It was by taking risks that I got to travel to Europe and the US.
But I left all that for a year and now I find myself struggling to save whatever light and inspiration I have left inside of me because my current circumstances keep sucking it out. I wish I could say that it was only research that is challenging here, but it’s not only that.
I have been in a three-week research hiatus already (going four) because of demotivation. And there were many times in the past month when I would wonder what I had turned into. This is not my best performance at work and it’s not like me to not give my best. That is what’s so bothersome. This is not me!!! But as my friend said today, “Kung ngayon pa lang mag iinarte ka na, wala kang mararating.” I think he was saying it for himself (or not? haha), but the words also hit me. Hard. I can’t be like this. I don’t want to be like this anymore. I need to remember what I came here for and if I am to reach my goal, I have to expect that I’ll be in a far worse situation in the future. As President Truman once said, “Being President is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep riding or be swallowed. A President is either on top of events or, if he hesitates, events will soon be on top of him.” I’m not planning to become president, but I do need to persevere to prevent myself from being swallowed by the tiger I’m currently riding.
I came here in the US because I was frustrated by my lack of skills when I was in the Philippines. I felt so limited that I couldn’t share enough to my students and fellow teachers. I must not come home empty-handed. I have an INSANE plan right now; I guess desperation is an effective antidote to hesitation.
We in the Philippines don’t lack inspiration or great minds or perseverance. We lack opportunity. Faculty members are so burned out from juggling teaching, research, extension work, committee work, admin work, etc. making it very easy to lose the opportunity to work for the essential things that matter to us (e.g. thesis, skills development in various aspects, etc.).
Now I need to pull myself together quickly. I only have four months left. It so long a time to stay in my somewhat dreary situation, but so short a time to develop skills and find opportunities. Whatever. As the poem I posted yesterday goes:
Carry on! Carry on!
Fight the good fight and true;
Believe in your mission, greet life with a cheer;
There’s big work to do, and that’s why you are here.
“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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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! :)