A Passion Taught by Science

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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.

 

 

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

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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

 

Lessons from Baldness: My 2016 story

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Life was never easy for me this year. December 2015, my Alopecia recurred again few days after the 2nd phase of our project in PaWeCan Do It—a marine turtle conservation education project funded by the US Embassy in Manila. I was scared because I knew then how difficult life would be in 2016 carrying the shame of being bald at an early age. I’ve been carrying this disease since it occurred in 2009, I was still in secondary education, and it recurred again in 2013 when I’m on my third year in the University. The disease is chronic and science hasn’t found a cure yet for this disease. Knowing the facts, I have accepted already that this remains with me forever.

I decided to shave off my hair in January 2016 because my hairs started to fall excessively. It was such a smart decision I made yet a tough one. It’s a challenge I saw at first since I have my organizational & professional responsibilities in which confidence is my capital. A big part of my work as an environmental educator and a research assistant in an anthropology project is facing the public, yet the thing that gives me confidence was lost already. It was a motivation for me to see the baldness as an opportunity rather a challenge and a weakness. I went on with our project swallowing my pride for not having my crowning glory, toughening myself as I witnessed people laughing at me or making fun of my baldness.

One of the motivations I’ve thought of that time was developing myself professionally so I could convince myself that at least with my current condition, I could still achieve greater things. So I applied to YSEALI Generations: Oceans workshop in February 2016 and was fortunately accepted. I traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia from March 16 to 20 to attend the workshop and met different marine conservationists coming from different ASEAN countries. It was at that time I felt my self-worth. With my regained confidence, I came back to the Philippines knowing that I won’t feel being a social misfit again.

We’re down with the last phase of our project and I felt more empowered in finishing it. My passion for marine turtle conservation was immense that people’s dejected actions weren’t enough to undermine it. In May 2016, I was given the chance to be a research scholar of the Large Marine Vertebrates (LAMAVE) Research Institute in their Marine Turtle Interaction Study in Apo Island. I stayed on the island for a month and did an in-water research observing the behavioral ecology of the Pawikans. It was an addition to my list of achievements that I’m proud to show to those people who laughed at me.

It boosted not just my professional career but my life’s aspects as well. Confident with what I’ve achieved, I applied to the YSEALI Academic Fellowship on Environmental Issues. It’s an environmental leadership training in the USA together with other ASEAN youths. At a certain point, I gave up hoping since I didn’t receive any call from the embassy in the first week of June 2016 for the interview round. I thought that time, “it could’ve been a great platform for my development”. But to my surprise, I received an e-mail on 11 July 2016 congratulating me for being selected for the fellowship.

Two out-of-the-country trips in just a year were more than I’ve ever wanted, and they’re both free! I didn’t’ even think of the challenge that my baldness posed at this point since I’m overwhelmed with opportunities. With a successful culmination of our project on 26 June 2016, I embarked on a new journey for self-actualization. What I carried that time with me, and until now, are my experiences, ardor, drive, and determination to survive the battle. I am not sure if, as a bald person, I already mastered the art of facing people because it still pains me to see people looking at me like I’m a freak.

Before my USA trip, I received good news from the US Embassy. I was invited to attend the YSEALI SEA Camp Summit in Manila! Another unexpected opportunity to finally meet one of my inspirations in conservation, Tita Anna Oposa! Just a few months back, I was only a fanboy sending her messages on Facebook and tweeting to her, but the moment came when I actually got to talk to her personally. Too bad that I faced her bald but it turned out to be a great send-off gift from the embassy.

The time finally came and I visited the United States of America. I asked myself: if I gave up and let the disease stop me from doing the things that I’m passionate about, will I achieve this? The fellowship was my most significant milestone in 2016. It was a culmination of all my hard work and efforts. If I faltered, stopped, and gave up, I wouldn’t be able to visit the Pearl Harbor, see the most photographed bridge in the world (Golden Gate Bridge), and visit the Yosemite National Park. They’re my rewards, I convinced myself, my rewards for my discipline and determination.

You see? I used my baldness as an opportunity to broadcast my ardor for conservation. I’ve tried convincing myself that the only way to regain my confidence is to develop professionally. So I did not stop trying and pursued greater goals. Though it was a difficult year, I managed to survive because in every step of the way there were milestones that contributed to my confidence. 

I just want to add what Tita A said, “if that’s the chip on your shoulder to motivate you, then so be it”. Shameful I’ve been feeling maybe, but my baldness brought me to places, widened my social network, and granted some far-fetched wishes. The key takeaway of my story is that life’s challenges come in many ways, but the way to overcome these challenges is to view them as opportunities, not weaknesses nor threats.  

More challenges await me in 2017,  but this disease can not stop me from doing the things I love. Because just like Pia, I’m confidently beautiful with a heart. ❤

Thank you letter for my Ohana

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

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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!

Love,

Kier Mitchel E. Pitogo