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 Changing Perspectives

Whenever I do goal-setting, I always welcome the possibility that my priorities would eventually change. Now that I am older and much different than my extremely idealistic I’m-out-to-save-the-world self, I do find my perspective and priorities changing. I was being interviewed the other day by a friend and his daughter who started a blog last year about women in technology. My friend refused to believe that my idealism was lessened through the years because to him my projects and advocacy on Humanitarian Engineering still sound idealistic. So I told him that, yes, idealism is still there, but there is now a touch of reality in it.

Take my perspective on PhD for instance. Just last month, I was telling my long-time mentor in the department that I wasn’t interested in taking a PhD. This was my view ever since because my role models in Humanitarian Engineering don’t have PhDs. They can complete impactful projects without that degree, so why should I whack my brain for 3-5 years just to get the title? Publications also never appealed to me until I was actually able to publish in a high-impact journal early this year. But it wasn’t seeing my paper published online that changed my view of journal articles. It was when I realized that students were actually reading my work that I started appreciating its significance. People read it! It’s not just “stuck on paper” as I always used to believe. People use it to advance their respective research projects, which will consequently help move humanity forward.

I was surprised how my change in perspective on scientific journals immediately dispelled my abhorrence in taking a PhD. All of a sudden, the 3-5 years looked exciting! It’s like an adventure in search of knowledge and skills development! The best part is if you get a scholarship you will even get paid to be on that adventure!!!

Thus, here I am applying for a PhD. I already have a prospective adviser who is guiding me in crafting the proposal for the scholarship. Hopefully, all goes well. Please pray for me! :)

#parasakinabukasan #parasabayan #paradinsasarili :P

Entrepreneurship and Success


I was given the opportunity to attend the 2014 IDEA Global Entrepreneurship Workshop Series sponsored by PhilDev and USAID last March 14-15 at the Asian Institute of Management, Makati. It aims to promote Technopreneurship in the country because the sponsors believe, and rightly so, that local entrepreneurship is the key to economic development. The workshop facilitators came all the way from Silicon Valley and the teaching assistants were mostly Fil-Am as well. Attendees were a mixture of people from business and academe, the majority of which were from the latter, specifically engineering students (undergrads and postgrads) and educators from local universities. 

This was the fourth workshop on entrepreneurship that I attended since 2009 so you would think that by now I would have gotten the concepts already. But I really had a challenging time applying the concepts! Oh my goodness, and I thought engineering science was challenging! :))) I told Papa of my slight dilemma after Day 1 of the workshop and he simply said in his serious tone, “Hindi kasi basta ‘sari-sari store entrepreneurship’ ang tinuturo sa inyo. Intindihin mo, magagamit mo ‘yan.” When Papa says something in that tone, I just surrender and obey. So come Day 2, I whacked my brain once more with entrepreneurship terms and concepts. I felt like a contestant in The Apprentice because groups were given scenarios and asked to create 10-slide presentations in just an hour (sometimes less!) to apply the concepts. The pressure was crazy, but it was fun at the same time! That workshop was really worth it.

Before the workshop ended one of the facilitators asked the educators about the state of entrepreneurship in the curriculum of local universities. Of course, that part of the curriculum is not well-established here (which was why they had the workshop in the first place). And then all of a sudden the facilitator made all the educators in the room stand on stage and told us, “You should be the start-up.” He made us pledge right there and then to spend some time in our classes to at least talk about entrepreneurship. “Be an entrepreneurship activist,” he said. In my case, I pledged to become a humanitarian engineering and social entrepreneurship activist.

For the closing remarks, the emcee said something that caught my attention:

“The more successful you are, the more you will be able to help other people.”

I have been thinking about the future too much for the past two weeks (yes, I know that is wrong. I’m working on it. Hence, the FB and twitter deactivation). The words above boggled me even more. I’ve been thinking once again of whether there is a need to take PhD abroad or not. I had dinner with my orgmate in ICTUS after Day 1 of the workshop and asked her thoughts about studying abroad. I told her about the pressure I felt to study abroad for PhD because almost everyone in academe is going towards that direction. I told her that I ask myself sometimes if my dreams are not that big enough because I don’t want to leave the country. My friend told me, “Hindi naman. Iba lang kasi ang gusto mong puntahan.”

Does success equate to being able to study abroad? Does success equate to having a PhD? Of course there are advantages of studying abroad. We can learn so much from advanced countries. However, it’s not only knowledge I’m after, but skills. And the way I see it, taking a PhD in MSE would give me a different skills set. Sure it would improve my speaking and research skills among others, but how about entrepreneurial skills? Teaching skills? Community surveying skills? I have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages very carefully. Is it really worth it to spend five years abroad to get that piece of paper that gives you a large body of knowledge and grants you a prestigious title (and tenure) versus spending that five years in, say, immersion or collaboration with NGOs locally to learn the skills I need “the hard way,” informally, outside, in the real world.

Meanwhile, I have to constantly battle with myself to stop thinking about PhD and just focus on finishing my MS thesis first (yeah, it sounds crazy, right? Thinking of PhD when you’re not done with MS to start with). I guess I just get caught up in this PhD thing because I don’t see a concrete plan ahead of me after earning my MS degree, unlike after undergrad graduation when I was more or less 80% decided that I’ll take my MS under the ERDT scholarship. So yeah, the uncertainty is killing me. Lol.

Anyway, I guess I just have to breathe and embrace uncertainty! Haha. This is all I’ll write for now. Have a great day everyone! Good morning! :)

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived – that is to have succeeded. – Ralph Waldo Emerson