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

 

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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. ❤

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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