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

A Quick Analysis

I could very well finish writing bulk of my manuscript before the month ends. Actually, I have to if I want to graduate on time. But something is stopping me. I did not feel this when I graduated from my BS degree, perhaps because I was more or less decided that I would take my MS after. I knew what to do then. But now, less than three months to finishing my MS degree (hopefully), there’s that fear of and excitement for the unknown. What will I do? Will I stay in academe, work for DOST, or go my own way in what the world would call an idealistic pursuit? Anyway, what I do know for now is that I have to push myself to finish that manuscript.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Nihil Sine Fide. <><

“Love is the answer”

I have a teacher this semester who never fails to make me sleepy when he gives lectures. Don’t get me wrong. He is probably one of the kindest, most diligent, and most patient professors ever! Unfortunately, that doesn’t change the fact that his class makes me sleepy. His way of teaching is traditional, most likely because he is one of the oldest faculty members in our department? Anyway, I was observing my other classmates during one of our three-hour classes. There were less than fifteen of us and all had either droopy eyes or eyes wide open just staring blankly at the PowerPoint presentation, emotionless, mouth slightly open, as if in shock (you get the picture?). I, too, was fighting hard not to sleep. Then all of a sudden I noticed that one by one my classmates were lightening up, almost giggling! They were passing something around, so I waited until that “thing” (whatever it was) reached my seat. All my drowsiness disappeared! The “thing” turned out to be a piece of paper that one of my classmates tore off from a periodical oddly placed on our table (the entire class was just seated around a single, big, rectangular, wooden table). The paper read:

LOVE IS THE ANSWER

Call me shallow, but I wanted to laugh in my seat! Just imagine feeling so terribly bored and sleepy then suddenly your classmate passes you a piece of paper saying that love is the answer! Thanks to my classmate, most of us survived the class without dozing off. The stark foolishness of the act woke us up (uh-oh! Is that good or bad?). :)))

Sometimes, we get so insanely serious about a task at hand that we forget to laugh at simple things. It feels good to laugh at ridiculous things once in a while. Oh, and even though the act of passing a paper around during class hours is sooo high school (or elementary!) the phrase above can be found in the Bible. It’s not so ridiculous after all!

Go ahead. Loosen up, laugh, be happy, and always remember that LOVE IS THE ANSWER! :D

On being a researcher

Being a full-time graduate student/researcher entails a different kind of discipline. Unlike the corporate employee who has a more or less fixed time at which he or she comes and leaves the office, the research world has more freedom. That freedom, however, demands a different level of responsibility and discipline. It was fairly easy during my first year because I had a heavy load of lecture classes so I was more or less still following a fixed schedule. There was structure. Now on my second year, thesis has started and lectures have almost ended. I only have classes twice a week so technically there should be a lot of time for thesis and a lot of time to accomplish what needs to be done in my two classes per week. Unfortunately, it also meant there was a lot of time to relax… excessively.

Having spent almost my entire life inside a school, I was used to structure (i.e. schedule). I knew when to do what. Come to think of it, I can now feel what Sir Ken Robinson keeps pointing out that our current educational system (from kinder to college at least) is designed for industrialization. Why do you think a career in higher education remains foreign to most people here in the Philippines?

Working in the corporate world did not and still does not appeal to me. Not because it’s bad, but simply because I wanted to do something else. I have always thought that there must be a different road aside from the study-then-work-in-a-company path. So I chose to be a researcher in my home university. Why? Because I wanted to serve the country that way. An MS and a PhD would be my ticket to form my own research group in the future, share my advocacy (whatever that might be) to my students, and at the same time promote education reform in any way I can. But as of the moment I have no capability to make those things happen. My thesis adviser said that an MS and a PhD would provide me with tools to help me achieve my goal. So now here I am taking my MS and struggling hard to develop the discipline to make better use of the time God has generously provided me.

I can do this. :)

Education Revolution

Here’s an article in response to President Obama’s announcement in his State of the Union address. I think it’s true not only for Americans but even for Filipinos. I agree that schools nowadays, at least the one I’m attending now, seem to think that “their main purpose is to churn out workers for Google—or whatever the dominant tech company of the moment happens to be.” There’s no problem with working in the tech economy, but when schools train all their students as if they will all work in that field, that’s when we have a problem.

 

Nerdy Talk that Works!

This short TED talk is so full of humor and inspiration especially for scientists and engineers. It gave me an idea of how nice it might be to have communication workshops in our graduate seminar course to teach precisely how to share technical information to non-technical people. This would be a great help for graduate students who are about to defend their thesis and/or present their research in local and international conferences.

I think we’re in an era where the image of a scientist or engineer is no longer that of an awfully introvert person confined in a laboratory doing geeky stuff. Society now needs scientists and engineers who can talk engagingly, creatively, and simply. Why? To bring our work closer to people, for whom we do research in the first place (and, more often than not, they fund our research too!). To show them that our field is not something to fear, not something separate from daily life.

Scientists and engineers have the opportunity to create positive impact in the lives of countless people.

Let’s not waste that opportunity. Let’s do our best to talk… nerdy and effectively. :)