On Learning How to Fly

“Sometimes you just have to take the leap and build your wings on the way down.”
― Kobi Yamada

It’s actually happening. When the first speaker pubmat was published this evening, when I read the answers of the people who registered for the event, when I looked at the HEED Facebook page and saw that the posts are reaching thousands of people now. I didn’t know how to feel. I stared at my computer screen for a long time. I couldn’t believe it. It was real. Suddenly, I found myself in tears. I cried because I was so grateful and happy and scared and excited all at the same time. 6 years. There is overflowing gratefulness in my soul right now.

I am grateful to the Universe for giving this opportunity. For giving me patience and stubbornness, because without these I would have given up on this advocacy a long time ago. When I was laughed at in front of 120 people for pitching my social enterprise. When some people close to me thought I was crazy for prioritizing community service over the more “prestigious” side of engineering. The Universe granted me stubbornness when I couldn’t find anyone (yet) with the same passion to support my idea of establishing a humanitarian engineering program in our beloved university.

I am grateful to UP students. They were the first ones who listened and took notice of my advocacy. It was my students who showed genuine passion for the idea of service-learning and humanitarian engineering. They showed their passion through fearless action. For every project they showcased to either a public high-school student or another college or the public, I saw how they went the extra mile by doing things beyond what was required of them. They owned each event. They owned each project. Even if the challenge was huge and it was their first time doing it, they faced it. And seeing that fearless passion kept me going. They gave me hope that HEED had a chance of becoming a reality.

Now, the tide has finally turned. The University heeded the call by granting us money for HEED 2017. A college (hopefully two colleges by next week!) heeded the call by endorsing the event. And of course, two student organizations also heeded the call, showing that signature Iskolar ng Bayan passion in making this event a reality.

My adventures for the past 6 years flashed back as my tears fell this evening. The long boat ride to Culion and its neighboring islands that opened my eyes to a harsh reality. The long bus ride to Penn State, the long train ride to D-Lab, the first GHTC conference I attended in Seattle, every interview I had with anyone who has done or is doing humanitarian engineering work to get whatever knowledge I can from their experiences. Every letter I wrote, every proposal crafted, every email sent. I remember how I used to do technically everything on my own for HEED, to protect my idea from being laughed at again. To prevent people from telling me to forget about HEED because it was too idealistic. But now, as I looked at each pub that comes out, each message in our HEED FB group, I tell myself, “It’s okay. You no longer have to do this on your own. You can share HEED with others now. There’s a big chance people won’t laugh anymore because circumstances have changed. Trust that they will listen this time.”

I know that we are just starting and there is still a lot of work ahead of us after the Symposium. It actually scares me a lot, what happens after the symposium. But seeing how HEED learned to fly when it took a leap 6 years ago, and with the people supporting it now, I am confident that it will continue learning to fly higher and farther as more people join the movement with fearless passion for action. :’)

#HEEDtheCall

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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 Overwhelm

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

 

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

On Tinkering

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:

screen-shot-2017-02-08-at-7-13-17-pm

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!

#makermovement #TinkerThursdays

Video

On Focus

 

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.

On Waking Up

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.
Carry on! Carry on!
I can do this!