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.