A Passion Taught by Science


The Sitio Linao Mangrove Community, my workplace, viewed from the intertidal area.


Most, if not all, that is happening on our planet have evolutionary roots. I’d like to discover when in our evolutionary timeline did humans start to feel very passionate about something. Was it genetics or learned?  Was it felt routinely or only at specific experiences that gave us a sense of purpose? I am curious about this as I have always been living the passion that has become a driving force to reach my goals. I really wanted to be a marine biologist or a wildlife scientist but my first and current job is not in line to any of those. I work as a project-based research assistant at the Institute of Human Origins (IHO) under the supervision of Dr. Kim R. Hill, and this what drove me to ask those questions. From the institute’s name itself, my work is anthropological in nature. I was afraid that I would underperform in this job since it is far from swimming with turtles or climbing mountains, but this satisfied something in me.




We conduct the same sets of interviews to Linao people on their economic productivity, demography, and social networks.


We weigh the marine resources the gleaners collect along the intertidal area during ebb tides.


There were times when I felt so down because choosing the job required sacrifices that alienated me from the when-you-work-in-the-government-you-are-successful kind of world. I am in the employ of an American bioanthropologist working in his human uniqueness project, which is clearly not in the scope of what I’ve learned in the University. I’ve been questioned why I, who graduated with flying colors, did not choose a life better than going to stilt houses of a Samal-Tausug community doing the works I never experienced as a marine biology student. Not to mention that there are no benefits, no financial security, hazard pay, or whatsoever stuff you get from working in a company/government. But I still tried. I would say choosing this job was a leap of faith since studying about our own species, though interesting, was never on my list of passions.

The questions were so frustrating at first but I get to live with those every time I felt the pride of working in the world’s single-largest grantee on human origins research. I choose to not leave because my inner scientist tells me to discover more about our early history. I know that my work is a far cry from marine biology, but our research answers questions that human evolutionary biologists have long been asking. I’ve been reading a lot to follow the latest trends in human evolution and it is indeed intellectually tiring. But I’m grateful that my boss aids me in learning by giving me free lectures in our 20-minute ride to our field site. Well, it’s not a formal lecture, but I get to ask questions I like to discover. This developed more my love for this research project.



When my boss is around, since he also spends months in the USA to attend classes, I would sit in the front beside him so we could have random conversations. But I take advantage of this opportunity and open up topics related to evolutionary anthropology.


When you view our work from a perspective of a person whose interest is only salary and credit, you’ll have a hard time appreciating the implications of our research. It’s a speck in a vast amount of information that a 12-project research program could produce. There’s nothing special about what I do either.  Though I have a flextime work schedule, my social environment is limited and my work is kind of repetitive. I spend my spring tides on the field collecting data mostly through structured interviews and neap tides at home, coding. For a marine biology graduate, this kind of work is so different. We were trained to study marine flora and fauna, not humans. At first, it felt very marine biology but as months progressed, we delved deeper into the economic productivity, life history, and social networks of the community. Also, the work environment has been very hard for me, not the usual workplace you would imagine. These are not what I thought I would be working in when I was still a student. But the positivity of the people at Linao is like an emotional contagion—it keeps me going.


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The kids at Linao are so friendly and happy-go-lucky. Despite being in a depressing situation, they never miss to welcome us with warm smiles every time we visit the place.


I am in my second year now and I am amazed by how our simple data are producing interesting results. Sitio Linao is more than just a study site, it has become my home and it offers knowledge to help us understand the early coastal adaptations in the Philippines. I still get the awe-inspiring feeling of knowing more about human origins: of how we were able to expand globally and outcompeted other hominin species to the point of their extinction. We are uniquely unique as a species—a biological outlier as what my boss would consider—and this understanding have helped strengthen my interest on who my ancestors were thousands of years ago. My strong liking to human evolution topic back in high school reinforced my present knowledge. Not only it is intellectually challenging, it is also fulfilling that I get to be academically involved in a topic I have been strongly defending from the people who believe the opposite. Though I face criticisms from having a strong opinion about the matter, the intellectual and personal satisfactions I felt overshadow them. I guess this is one of the many experiences in life when you really feel satisfied without passion being involved. But who knows? Maybe I just didn’t know that my affinity to knowing my early ancestors was embedded in my genes and it takes this research to turn it on, that passion is somehow genetic and it takes a significant experience to awaken it. I do not know the answers but one thing I know is passion, in a stimulating environment, can be learned.



Some children sitting on the wooden pathway sharing jokes with each other.


I’ve read in a scientific article that feeling the passion is not just as simple as doing pleasant things, one needs to do something that gives him a sense of purpose and satisfaction—and this what pushes me to do things that are out of my academic comfort zone. I think that involving myself in a scientifically significant research, is what satisfying the scientist in me and is giving me academic purpose. I may not have the passion at first, but things can always be learned and be loved. For a person who’s figured out his passion since childhood, the experience of learning a new one is something to take pride on.

I will be starting my graduate studies in two months at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. Though my program is wildlife studies, I still want to integrate a little bit of what I learned and will learn from the project. It is complicated to think about it but that’s where passion comes in. I’ve learned from Dr. Frankestein in the Penny Dreadful that in life, nothing is happenstance; there’s always an inner clockwork. When you know where you are heading and if your heart desires it, then nothing could stop you from reaching that destination.

Should you want to know more about our research project, visit https://iho.asu.edu/research/IHO-Templeton-research-program/project-4



Thank you letter for my Ohana

Ohana means family and family means no one gets left behind. —Lilo


To my YSEALI Academic Fellow siblings:

Being accepted in the YSEALI Academic Fellowship is one thing, and meeting all of you is another.

Time flew so fast that today, I wrote this letter in the same exact place where I first read my congratulatory e-mail—it was so nostalgic! My five-week trip to the United States of America offered me a lot of firsts and surprises, not to mention you, my co-fellows turned family, who I lived with throughout the program.

Without your humor, wit, craziness, or should I say ‘cray-crayness’, the fellowship would have been just another leadership program! So I want to formally thank each of you, my YSEALI siblings for making the fellowship one of the bests that ever happened in my life!

To Johnben, you’re the silent guy in the group, but your curiosity was so loud! Maybe you didn’t know this, but I greatly appreciated your support during our ropes course activity; I felt secured that time! Buena suerte en tu carrera, nos vemos pronto!

To Aya, thank you for being a good and patient listener, I remembered our conversation back in Yosemite, it was a relief that somehow I shared out my frustrations. Just to let you know, it helped a lot. And thank you also for always sharing your chicken curry with me! I’ll always remember what you shared with Natalie, and please know that I’m always here to support you!

To Big, I really appreciated you when we were roommates! I felt like a little brother to you that time. I really admire you for critically thinking things and for politicizing the cohort, which helped us view issues in a wider perspective.

To Prim, my partner in the craziness and extra rice! When I’m with you I felt so 18, haha! Thank you for laughing with me, Prim! Maybe you didn’t know, but it helped increase my self-esteem. Always remember the answer when you’re asked of what you learned in Hawai’i, HAHA! I’m looking forward to eating the best Thai foods with you soon! *singing in my high-pitch voice*

To Tri, we didn’t talk that much. I felt bad because I haven’t bid goodbye to you back in Washington, D.C., but at least we had a chance to meet again in Japan, even for few minutes only. Just so you know, I felt so important during your last hug in Narita Airport, and I want to thank you for that! *Hugs!*

To Pony, my other partner, this time, in singing! HAHA. We both believed that we have good voices and that being single is a strength, not weakness! Thank you for being a therapy. Because of you and Prim, I got to show again the characters I lost— outgoing, happy, and loud—in the process of dealing with my illness.

To Quyen, my big brother who bullied me often, I can’t thank you enough for sharing personal matters with me! It made me feel like a true family. It’s so fun to remember those nights when we fell asleep in the laundry room while waiting for our clothes to dry. And I’ll always keep in mind and treasure the note you left on my bed back in Yosemite with your jacket that says: take my jacket if you need. I tried it but it’s so HOT!. Your simple gestures of care, such as this, were greatly appreciated! I’ll miss you so badly brother!

To Migel, thank you for looking after us! You’re a caring and supportive sister to everyone, no wonder your sister Kristine loves you so much. Your laughter, together with Darren, painted colors that brightened our gray days! Your voice, when it reached two octaves higher than normal, served as chimes of happiness and craziness! Thank you for making the fellowship extraordinary!

To Paul, the unusually reticent turned outspoken guy! Everyone would miss the fun you brought to the fellowship. Thank you for being a harbinger of cray-crayness in the family! Personally, I think you’re a multihyphenated type of guy, and that makes you more than just an Agricultural Engineer!

To Khalish, the person who first offered us doughnuts on our first night; I really appreciated you for that! You know, I felt so open when I’m with you because I got to share my aspirations, goals, and even personal matters. You’re my big and not-so-strict sister during the program. I thank you for lending your ears to me when I talk about my advocacies! JSYK, It’s the best reward you can give to a person who is very passionate about what they do.

To Han, I thank you for saying that I have a well-built body, haha (in case you forgot, you said that in the first week)! Anyway, your passion for forest conservation really amazes me. Knowing that there are people like you, gives me hope for the future! Myanmar needs you!

To Su, your ‘Hi Baby Kier!’ always echoes in my mind, and it makes me miss you so much! Thank you for sharing your foods with me, and for being my mutual partner in photography. We have same childhood family story, and I think that made us relate to each other very well. At least before the U.S. program ended, I showed you that I’m not serious and strict as you thought I am.

To Gugu, thank you for your energizers! You developed that niche that no one can do in the group. I remembered you saying that English is a language, not knowledge, and I look up to you for that! You’re an inspiration to many, so continue being so genuine!

To Caroline, the second person I got to know in the program! When I first learned that we’re working on the same story, I felt very excited! Thank you for your ideas and understanding. Your brilliance and eloquence coupled with your passion is your trademark! And because of that perfect mix, I know someday you can be the Jane Goodall of Indonesia, or even of ASEAN!

To Rini, I see you as the outgoing lady with a teacher-like attitude in the group! I already said this but thank you for reminding us the moral values that we overlooked throughout the program. Remember that there is someone in your friends’ lives who will remind them of the wrongs and rights and that someone is YOU. ☺

To Niomi, thank you for your patience in dealing with my dramas! I know that back in Yosemite, you’re afraid of the dark, but you still chose to stay and listened that night. We have the same work, though a different wildlife, that’s why we got along together so much! And that created passionate discourse about the things we do. Thank you for being a listener, sister, and a confidant to me! I’ll never forget that you have more fillings (feelings) than a Kualoa burger!

To Fariz, I felt weird that we didn’t converse that much in the first week even though we met in the Oceans workshop before, that’s why I took an effort in reaching you out! I didn’t actually know if you really chose to be silent, but every time you conversed with me, I felt so acknowledge, just so you know, haha! When you asked me to wake you up before we left for the Philippines, it felt so emotionally elating. Thank you for the friendship my noodle partner!

To Pokkee, my Lao sister, Sabaidee? I remembered our serious conversation on the bus back in Hawai’i about my aspirations. I thank you for taking the time to listen! And I want you to know that you have a comforting aura. You became both a little and an elder sister to me. As petite as you are, you have an immense dedication to your goals, and people see that.

To Darren, I felt bad because I didn’t notice you on that day in Walmart. But anyway, at least, I had the chance to laugh with you in the later part of the program. Your laughter, together with Migel, really turned the gloomiest days into sunshine. Thank you for bringing fun in the group. You’ve contributed a lot in making our fellowship a not-just-an-ordinary leadership program.

The space is so little to cater everything that I owe you guys! You provided a platform where I confidently showed who I am, especially the things that I couldn’t do at home and at work. I hope that the bond we created would last long enough to witness Big’s Premiership in Thailand or Pony’s marriage with his ideal boyfriend.

And this sound so cliché, but I left pieces of my heart with you guys, so please take care of it. Until next time! I love you all guys!

Daghang salamat kaninyong tanan!


Kier Mitchel E. Pitogo

LAMAVE Adventures: A Turtley Awesome Trip to Apo Island (Part 1)

I woke up very early hoping to have a quick bus ride from Cebu City to Dumaguete since I was told that the travel would last more than 6 hours. As I hopped in a cab, I left an anxious smile to my classmate Krai, who housed me for a night, since it was my first time to journey alone over Visayan Islands. I brought with me four luggages—vexing for a long travel I reckon—and rode one vehicle to another, which was a discomfort at that time. I arrived at 8:30 a.m. at the South Bus Station and needed to wait for the bus that would go straight to Dumaguete. I took my breakfast in the terminal and after an hour and a half of waiting, I finally managed to get a comfortable seat on the bus.

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Me and Krai

The travel lasted for six hours and I finally arrived in Malatapay waiting for upcoming passengers who would ride with me across the sea. As I stand on its shores, I gazed upon one of the Philippines’ well-known community-managed marine reserves, a microcosm of the rich Philippine seas—the Apo Island. It is known for its diverse marine ecosystems, which are favorite sites for divers, and recently became a must-see tourist attraction because of its marine turtles. Yes, marine turtles or locally known as Pawikans are a guaranteed sighting in the area and they were the reason why I am headed to the island.

In April 2016, I happened to read an opportunity posted by Dr. Alessandro Ponzo, the Director of the Large Marine Vertebrates (LAMAVE) Project Philippines on Facebook. It was a month-long scholarship for their Marine Turtle Tourism Interaction Study in Apo Island, Dauin, Negros Oriental in May 2016. Confident with my concurring experiences in research and advocacy works, I boldly applied and was fortunately got accepted. It was a momentous time for me knowing that LAMAVE was not a dream anymore. I’ve always wanted to be a part of their team; in fact, when I was still a Marine Biology student, I liked reading the works of LAMAVE, especially about whale sharks. It fascinated me a lot and would want to work with them someday. And that someday finally came. Never did I imagine that I’d be visiting Apo Island, not for a vacation but to work as a researcher of LAMAVE.

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The first photo I took when I was leaving for Apo Island

I boarded the boat with a French-Arab family and a few locals from the island. Since it was late afternoon, I expected to have a rougher ride, but it didn’t worry me for I have done oceanographic surveys during the Southwest Monsoon in Sarangani Bay. As we navigated forward, the shores of Malatapay faded while on the other side, Apo Island welcomed me with its limestone formations and contiguous stretch of white shores. The dark blue waters became shades of turquoise as we approached the shallows. While they were docking the boat, I took a quick glance of the circumambient people hoping that I would find someone wearing a LAMAVE shirt. Dashed, I jumped out of the boat and the boatman handed me my belongings. When I turned around, I saw a tall, slit-eyed man approaching and eventually reached out his hand and uttered Ethan. I knew then that he was a colleague.

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The sea turtle team: (from left) Ethan, Ivan, Monty, and me

Ethan, a BS Aquatic Biology student from Western Philippines University, introduced me to our two other teammates: Ivan, a BS Marine Biology graduate from Visayas State University and was an instructor of the same school, and Monty, an English MS Astrophysics graduate from the University of Sheffield and also our team leader. Ivan was a flamboyant lad and I knew then that we’d go along with each other because of our common interests as both Marine Biology graduates. On the contrary, Ethan was a serious-type, brother-figure, who talked few words yet enough to make me feel welcome. The coyness of Monty caught my attention, and if I would best describe him, he was reticent. He was selective of his words yet spoke like a learned man as he is. It’s like anytime he would speak about the physical nature of the cosmos and other celestial bodies. Although I kind of struggled following his northern English accent, it gave me the challenge to converse with him more often.

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A typical sunset in the island

As we all walked to our quarter, I noticed the picturesque scenery of the sun kissing the horizon—the clouds stretched long across the sky and were embellished with hues of orange and shades of blue. Ivan and Monty hurriedly spotted a perfect position, and from their vantage point, they both captured the spectacle of sunset on their cameras. Tourists walked along the shore as they enjoyed the breaking of astronomical twilight, the cold touch of wind was ironic to the fiery skies up above us. We’ve reached our two-storey quarter, which was being renovated at that time, and settled for a bit before we did the hours of works and acquaintances until the electricity went off at 9:00 p.m.


Photo was taken by another team member, Simon Hilbourne

It was a very tiring day and we all went to our respective place to sleep. I was offered to sleep on an airbed—the best thing I’ve had on that day. I positioned the bed in the balcony so that the fresh cold breeze from the sea would complement its comfiness. I was about to drift off, but the vast stillness of impenetrable umbra and its astral display of diverse constellations were too sublime not to be gazed upon. For a moment, I realized that tomorrow is the beginning of a month-long island adventure with LAMAVE. And as I closed my eyes, the breaking of waves became a soothing lullaby to that peaceful darkness.

To be continued …

Finding Nemo: Story of a Marine Biologist

There is an abounding life under the ocean horizon – this is what the movie Finding Nemo taught me.

3324_fp_FWB_FindingNemo_19082013It has been 11 years since I saw him on television — the curious, cute, and high-spirited Nemo. He was taken away from his home anemone and got separated from his father. Yet, despite distance and hindrances, they still managed to be reunited. 

Although it was just a movie, I was so moved and inspired by the story of Nemo that I have embarked my own adventure to find him. I was in Grade 4 when I decided to be a Marine Biologist because I know it was one easy way I can see Nemo up close. It was not easy knowing that my family rooted for me to become an Engineer. But I must say, my passion was stronger than their will. I spent 7 years preparing myself to be a marine biology student by reading books and watching a lot of documentaries about the marine environment. It was such a fun thing to do when I was growing. I was like the odd one out because my friends used to play and watch sci-fi movies during leisure hours while I sit in the corner reading books about marine science. I remember having damselfishes caught from a nearby brackish stream as pets before while others have mollies, swordtails, and goldfishes in their aquariums. And when going to the beach, others enjoyed swimming through the waves, while I fascinated myself with small fishes swimming around the towering mangrove roots. As a kid, I wasn’t afraid to explore. Thanks to my inherent curiosity, I became a little biologist before.


The scenic Lemlunay Resort

My childhood ended inspiringly, but entering high school was a challenge. I was introduced to different studies that have caught my interest. I backslid from my love for marine biology while I enjoyed learning history, chemistry, and geometry classes in school. I almost forgot how Marlin and Nemo found each other and remembered only that they were clownfishes. While I was getting pulled away from my passion, there was someone who always reminded me of how beautiful life undersea is. He was an uncle from Davao and occasionally visited GenSan with his family to meet with close relatives.

We always had side trips to beaches every time they visit. And one significant experience I’ve had with him was our trip to Lemlunay. The place is a 40-minute ride from GenSan proper and is an expensive resort by local standards. It is actually a resort on top of a cliffy limestone and known for its infinity pool and appetizing menu. But what is best in Lemlunay is its rich undersea life as the water down the resort lies a drop-off wall with swaying fan corals, vibrant big reef fishes, turtles, and much more.

Anyway, we visited the resort and had a mouth-watering lunch of seafood before snorkelling around the unspoilt reef. Seeing marine life up close fuelled more my passion and commitment to marine science. It was an awe-inspiring moment to see giant clams, surgeonfishes, stonefishes, and sea krait. And I met two prominent Finding Nemo characters, Gil and Deb/Flo the first time! Gil is a moorish idol (Zanclus cornotus) while Deb/Flo is a three-striped damselfish (Dascyllus aruanus). Unfortunately, I did not find my very elusive Nemo, but still, I never lost the ardency of finding a way to meet him. 


This is how we do fieldwork in Marine Biology (It was a sandy bottom, no corals were stepped on)

It was an experience I hold dear when I took the entrance exam in MSU-General Santos. The university is the only one I know that is near and that offers BSc in Marine Biology. Thank the stars, I passed it and got enrolled in the program! I am so proud of myself for I have successfully got what I really wanted despite the temptations I faced. Being in the marine biology program was not an easy adventure. People have asked questions like ‘sayang ka kay Fisheries lang ka’ (such a shame you’re just a Fisheries major) and ‘unsay trabaho ana? sa canning?’ (What will you do when you graduate? Canning?) and they’re driving me up the wall. Sometimes I got rude thoughts of how poor their science background was without knowing what marine biology is. 

So much for the fuss, and I want to go over to my diving experiences. Together with some marine biology students, we took our diver’s license in 2013 at South Shore Divers in Davao. It is not really required to have one if you’re in the program but for me, the license completes the whole marine biology experience. It takes a thousand words or more to describe my the feeling and to sum it up — diving is like the bridge to Terabithia, a whole new world full of amazing life and wonders! Another thing, diving is an expensive hobby haha.

I did not fully enjoy the underwater view in Samal Island probably because we only dove 20ft below, so I badly want to experience the prominent ‘Tinoto wall’ of Sarangani. Summer of 2013, a good news came when my dive instructor Sir Emman invited me to have a fun dive in Tinoto Wall. At the drop of a hat, I texted yes for it was an opportunity I shouldn’t miss. I immediately called a close friend, Almyrrha, and persuaded her to save money for that dive. 


The Tinoto Wall dive with our dive instructor and his friends

I know that Tinoto Wall has a lot to offer to satisfy a thalassophiliic like me. The day came, and I met two foreigner divers together with Sir Emman and Sir Elmo. It has been two months since I last dove and I got so excited because it was my first time to dive deep down the famous wall of Tinoto. Cold waters started filling my tight wetsuit as I froze with excitement. At the reef crest, I saw a lot of reef fishes, not to mention the vibrant corals around. Together with my dive buddy, we descended deep down to 60ft. The water was cold, the current was moderate, and the visibility was high — it was a real dive experience. We were sandwiched between the schools of fishes while we swam ahead to view the wall’s magnificent marine life. It was like in a museum where you watch paintings attached on the wall designed with fan corals swaying back and forth, vibrant green and black crinoids, and much more. But what captivated me most was a dancing anemone with three orange-colored fishes with white stripes outlined with a fine black line. I described it clearly because it was the time I finally see my Nemos! Everything froze, as these fishes swayed back and forth with the anemone.  They were really cute and I couldn’t really articulate the feeling of seeing them up close. During that time, I experienced a love at first dive moment with them. Although it was a short time because I needed to get going, I can still say that my 7 years of waiting was very worthy of the experience.

Seeing Nemo was the first in my bucket list and there are still hundreds of it that I have to do. My quest had given me the unique experiences that a marine biology student can only have. Nemo let me walk on tidal flats with hundreds of sea urchins, get stung by jellyfishes, swam with venomous sea kraits, and rode big waves. Retrospecting the last 11 years of my life, It was my very passion that taught me to be patient. In April 2015, I finally finished my Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology with honors, and currently working on a US Embassy Manila-funded project about marine turtle conservation education in Sarangani Province.


Wrong ‘okay’ sign and a very destructive buoyancy problem, sorry Coral 😦

Finding Nemo deserves all its awards for making me this far. I may have found Nemo, but my life never ends there. I was destined to have a life full of adventures, and I know there’s much more abounding life underwater that Nemo wants me to see. What I need to do is to just keep swimming