Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Unwinding

Months after driving myself to the brink of a burn out, I was forced to take four days off work because I got quite sick. It served as a reminder that it’s okay to work hard, but it’s not okay to forget to take care of myself.

So the past week, I decidedly shortened my office hours from the usual 12-14 hours to just 10 hours… which really isn’t too much of a cut, but I gained a few hours free to do whatever I want. The trouble is, with all that time on my hands, I didn’t quite know what to do! I wasn’t used to having so much free time in the evening before I sleep, and I certainly did not want to spend those hours amidst a traffic jam!

The good thing was, a reunion of sorts (of my classmates in college) was hastily organised for August 27, Monday… because it’s a holiday. But despite being a non-working holiday (I think), the microbiologists had to come in from work. I, on the other hand, the perennial crammer, had to be at the lab before the reunion because I was (and still am) writing bits and pieces of my thesis and a paper that is due for submission in the next few weeks.

I thought that there would only be a few people. But around 15 classmates showed up! Just like during the Feb Fair, we met up at McDonald’s at the Vega Centre. The newly-licensed doctors wanted to look around the campus, but the others wanted to stay behind and exchange stories. I went with the docs so I could get a glimpse of the campus again in daylight… I always end up leaving in the middle of the night, so there isn’t so much to see. The walk was good even though it was raining. 

Dinner was at Joe’s, an Italian restaurant inside the Umali Subdivision. The manzo e pepperoni was fantastic! Then, while some had to go back home, the rest of the crowd went to LB square.

I particularly enjoyed that day because it was one of those few times that I could go out and touch base with people I was in college with. And with an almost non-existent social life (someone should have warned me that the path leading to a PhD is quite a desolate road!), I thought it was time to take a few hours off and be with friends.

It was amazing that five years after graduation from UPLB, we all grew up! Everyone had been dealt with quite a few blows in Life that we all looked back in retrospect (thanks to Au) - reality bites, and we had to live with it.

After all that relaxation and recovering, it’s now time for me again to return to the hectic pace at work. I feel like I jumped onboard a moving bus!

Friday, June 22, 2007

U.P. diliman

My trip to U.P. Diliman this week was a like retracing steps I had made long ago. When we were kids, my siblings and I had a "guided tour" from the family’s resident U.P. Diliman alumnus: my dad. But this tour was unlike the conventional walking tours participated in by incoming freshmen during orientation week. My dad’s tour was more personalised. He showed us where he got stuck during a particularly strong typhoon, where our eldest cousin (a nursing graduate) and her brother (a geology graduate) went to class, where the library was, where he hung out for lunch… basically, we had a pretty good picture of what college was like for him.

A few years later, I was once again walking up the stairs of Juinio Hall (where the College of Engineering is located). At the right side of the hall, there were several plates listing the "500" alumni of the college - whatever that meant. My dad’s name wasn’t in the list. Apparently, he didn’t join the "500" alumni group.

On this same trip, I also passed the Biology wing of Palma Hall (was it?). If I had ended up taking Biology in Diliman, I would have called that building "home." 

My interest was piqued when I saw an "ikot" jeep, which I understand goes around campus; and a "toki" jeep, which goes around in the opposite direction. Since the campus is huge, I easily got disoriented, and just relied on the sign boards hanging in the jeeps.

On this trip to U.P. Diliman, I felt as disoriented as a new freshman or as an UPCAT applicant searching for the right building. And there was no road map to guide me on campus (unlike in USyd where maps were everywhere). But I had fun, nevertheless.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Mud Spring hike 2007



A hike up to Mount Makiling's Mud Spring. We couldn't stay too long though because the rains were coming... fast.

Monday, April 23, 2007

calm after the storm

A few months back, I can’t wait to be able to get past the INQR workshop. All I wanted to do was to get through it. Weeks into the preparation, I was working over weekends… working long hours in the lab… skipping dinner with friends (or at least having hurried lunches/dinners with them — so SORRY!)… everyday felt like I was flying in a whirlwind and everything passed in a blur.

Now that the workshop is done and over with, I feel like the storm has ended and the debris that have been shot up in the sky are now falling back to Earth one by one. Ah, everything is going back to its normal pace.

But that’s only until the next deadline or the next big activity comes along. For everyone in the lab, that’s the Rice Camp starting Wednesday. For me, the next deadline is on Friday. So, after a short rest, it’s like being blown again into the wind, never knowing where I’d land.

And do I look forward to it!

Friday, April 20, 2007

overcoming butterflies

Being in front of an audience has always been one of the situations I tried so hard to avoid. I dreaded going on-stage because I was so scared of facing so many people. I have always felt butterflies in the pit of my stomach each time I go up to face the audience. It’s probably normal. Even the most experienced public speaker must have some nervousness left in him/her.

This week, I had to, yet again, keep myself from getting into a nervous breakdown. My oral presentation was finalised the evening before I was going up the stage! I forgot to plan what to wear during my talk.

On the day itself, my hands were so clammy I was regretting not bringing a pair of mittens. My feet were getting cold that I regretted wearing leather shoes with thin socks. My stomach was tied up in knots I couldn’t eat properly since the evening before.

The presentation went without a hitch, which was a good thing. I received comments about my talk, which was about a new way of approaching old problems. My supervisors were pleased with my performance. But the icing on the cake was that I was able to bring across the importance of the study to the barely-English speaking crowd. The Latinos and the Kazakh all understood the talk, saying that they could probably apply it to their work.

My officemates thought I had an easy time on stage. But when they shook hands with me after my talk, they were surprised to find that my hands were so cold! And they thought my presentation was just a walk in the park!

I wouldn’t be able to mask the lack of confidence on stage without the help of the IRRI Toastmasters Club, which trains people in the art of public speaking. And I am also thankful to my supervisor for all her guidance and her perfectionism… because without her comments and suggestions for my slides and her insistence that I practised my talk in front of an audience, my presentation would just be lackluster.

The speakers from my lab prepared for their talks at least three weeks before the workshop. All that preparation for our 15 minutes in the spotlight has paid off because we all did well.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

learning a third language

I have always loved to be able to converse in a third language, may it be Spanish (undubbed telenovelas), Mandarin (the new business language), or Italian (yummy food). My recent trips to the uni have exposed me to French (as I stayed in a French couple's terrace house and there were many French students in the lab). Plus, I always am amazed at how smoothly my academic supervisor can talk with me in English, answer the phone in Italian, leave a message in German, and talk in French to a BSc Hons student… all in the span of five minutes!

I figured, since Filipino has lots of Spanish influence, I might as well start learning it. My main reference is a Lonely Planet language book (which covers most of Europe’s major languages). Plus, I bought another book on learning Spanish.

That was a luck move, because this week, I got to meet numerous people from South America, where Spanish is the official language. Despite all the preparations I had, my Spanish vocabulary was still in a horrible state, but they didn’t seem to mind.

It all started at the workshop of the International Network for Quality Rice (INQR). I approached Mr. Cuba because I heard him speaking in Spanish and I wanted to practice all the Spanish words from all that exposure to books, CDs, and telenovelas.

Early today, as I was walking into the lecture hall, he was greeting me in rapid fire Spanish. When I blankly stared at him, hablo espanol muy pocito, he told me to go to practice so that when I go to Havana, I could talk with them fluently.

Then there’s Ms. Uruguay and Ms. Colombia who called me Paula the whole time! Mi llamo Rochie.

During the field tour, they could not understand some of the English words of the guide. So I had to dig deep through the mishmash of Spanish words I know. No rattas, no aves. Agua embotellada? Fotografia. Ritratto de quadrado.

Hence, I have now decided that I would learn how to speak in Spanish.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

after Lent

Ah, yes, the vacation is finally over. If the long weekend can actually be called a vacation. It WAS indeed a break from the daily grind - going to and from the laboratory. However, the weekend was far from stress-free.

So many city dwellers have clogged the national highway going to hundreds of pools and private resorts in the Pansol area and the beach resorts dotting the coastline of Cavite and Batangas. And it was easy to pick them out too. They were the ones who brought road rage with them to the province… the drivers who thought they owned the road (and basically caused most of the accidents, in my opinion)… and those who showed no concern for the environment by throwing their trash outside their car windows (as if they’re still in Manila).

But now, the tourists are all back in the city and the probinsyanos have the roads all to themselves again. Indeed, the long weekend has ended and everyone is grudgingly going back to the daily grind - going to and from work.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Good Friday

This year’s Good Friday was unique because it’s the first time I went to the beach instead of participating in the annual processions in Sta. Cruz or watching the different rituals in other places like Marinduque or Banaue.

No, I wasn’t on the beach for a little rest and recreation. I drove all the way to Nasugbu, Batangas to assist foreign post-docs, grad students, and their families in THEIR vacation. The group decided that their short trip would be held on the long weekend of Lent.

I thought it’s such a waste to go to the beach alone, so I took along my cousin and her daughter so they could also see the beach.

My superstitious mom had some violent reactions with going to the beach on Good Friday. According to her, it’s a particularly bad day to go swimming. I, on the other hand, didn’t see it that way. For me, it’s a time for self-reflection and renewal of faith, not the perfect holiday excuse to go to a resort.

But being non-members of the Christian denomination, it’s not such a big deal to the participants (many of them were Muslims and Hindus). To them, it’s a long weekend and a perfect time to spend away from Los Banos. This wasn’t surprising because they don’t oberve Lent at all.

When I got to the beach, I was shocked to find so many people swimming, sun-bathing, and frolicking on the sand. And these were not foreigners. These were Filipinos!

Seven years ago, I spent Good Friday up the mountains of Banaue with family. I had the privilege of discussing Lent traditions with a mumbaki in his house and visit the well-preserved remains of his father. But in that year, there were hardly any Pinoy tourists up there. Most of the people I saw were foreigners (and their beer-chugging during mealtimes was a big issue to me, being the season of restraint and all).

I guess the Lenten scene has indeed changed. Enough for a priest in Mindoro to comment sadly about Pinoys no longer understanding or observing the meaning of Lent while favouring the more worldly partying activities accompanying any beach vacation.

And this little beach trip I did on Good Friday? I think it’s an eye-opener for me about the changing landscape. I may not have queued in the procession or fasted (but I did refrain from eating meat), but the day trip has given me a chance to reflect on how the Pinoy Lenten tradition is being changed in today’s modern landscape.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

santuario de aguila

Once again, I was amazed by the birds of prey that call the Centre for Philippine Raptors their home. On March 31, I was counting on my lucky stars to at least get a glimpse of the mighty Philippine eagle.

In the centre, a guide was explaining how the different raptors are being released into the wild. My eyes were suddenly drawn to a violent flapping of wings behind the guide. It was a serpent eagle, and I thought it had escaped from its cage. The guide said that the centre has released the bird into the wild, but it would always go back there… perhaps as if it had a homing beacon atop of its head making it go back.

Then there was a pair of eagles, one’s a white-bellied sea eagle. I forgot what the other one was… but it had fluffier feathers. According to the guide, it’s not found in the Philippines. Instead, it thrives in temperate regions. These two birds caught my eye because both were sitting in the middle of a pond, untied, and without a cage! It turned out that these two were too injured to even cross the pond. They have to rely on their caretakers for food and water. Hence, they need not be restrained.

Sitting quietly on a perch right by the caretakers’ office was another raptor. If the guard did not tell me that it was there, I would never have noticed it… and it could have pecked the wits out of me in fright! Apparently, the bird was being trained for a flight show and was getting ready.

Finally, I noticed a feather held by our friendly guide. I was about to ask him if I could have it when he identified it as a juvenile Philippine eagle’s feather. I looked around and found no Philippine eagles flapping about… they were in a cage away from public viewing. To be caught with a feather like that in one’s possession is just like signing a death wish because anyone caught with a feather would be fined a whopping P5,000,000! I stopped in my tracks and bit my tongue. Now I now what that amount of money looked like.

I guess my lucky stars did allow me to see a glimpse of the elusive Philippine eagle… not the whole animal though.

Live to fight another day then.





Friday, March 23, 2007

the tables are now turned

At first, I acted as a critique and as a guide for the PUP students while they crammed and nervously prepared for their oral thesis presentations scheduled on March 21. All their efforts had paid off: they all showed confidence and were knowledgeable about their studies... they made me proud.

But now, the tables have turned. It was my turn to rush, to cram, to panic, and to get all nervous as the clock happily ticks away the minutes to my presentation. Most of my data are vastly raw at the moment since the instrument got re-commissioned roughly only four weeks ago. I just prepared my slides this week and Melissa and I discussed my talk only on Wednesday; in contrast, Fe and Tita Dory have been discussing the flow of their talks and rehearsing their lines with Melissa since last week.

And finally, my first dry run happened earlier today during journal club hour. My talk has a glaring NEEDS IMPROVEMENT sign over it. Because of this, I feel honoured that my supervisor is doing the critique because she is one big perfectionist. This assures me that come presentation day, my talk will be great and I will be a convincing speaker on my topic.

But before I get to that stage, I still have a lot of growing pains to go through and a lot more rice to eat. Who says I won’t go through what the undergrads went through?!

hunk of hardware

Each achievement comes with a price. Case in point: The BSc students worked on their research projects at the GQNPC lab for a summer and two semesters. The final few weeks were the most trying, just when they were so close to the finish line; but their studies were really nice. They were so good we thought they'd be included in the Best Thesis Competition in their uni. However, the examination panel in school had another idea: the IRRI thesis students were NOT included in the competition because the topics presented were all about rice (again!).

That was a bummer! It is blatantly obvious that the panelists did not understand that both groups were offering pieces of information that have never been found before. Both teams have created new paths in the never-ending road of discovery. And yet, these achievements went largely unrecognised by the school.

Despite being disqualified from the competition, they were still invited to present their work at the scientific congress (which is the prize for winning the competition). I think this is doubly unfair. One, it is unfair for the students because their presence in the congress is just going to be a consolation prize. Two, it is also unfair to the recipients of the Best Thesis award because that group would have gone through the actual competition to reach the congress.

That goal, upon which they only had eyes for, has now become another hunk of hardware.

No matter, even though this non-recognition is a huge setback on their part, it nonetheless pales in comparison to being acknowledged as co-authors of a presentation to be shown to an international audience. And their names will be printed side by side with some famous names in the rice chemistry field.

Once again, my congratulations go out to Arvin, Clara, Virrey, Gerald, Jay, and Jenny for a job well done. It’s been an honour working with all of you.

rice: brown or red?

What is better to eat, brown rice or red rice? A panelist asked us during the thesis defence of the other group of BSc students from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.

With this question, it becomes obvious that it is much much easier to convey results from research work when put into context of the consumers. This was why the second group of BSc students that I helped out had an easier time wiggling out of their presentation… in contrast to the first group, which had a rough time defending their work.

But before answering the question, some things have to be clarified first. The colours brown and red refer to the pericarp colour. The pericarp is one of the materials that cover the rice grain when it first comes in from the field. When the grain is dehulled and milled, the pericarp should have been removed to reveal the white grains we know as rice.

In contrast, the more popularly known brown rice found in the groceries is rice that has not been milled. Only the golden brown hull has been removed. The bran layer (containing lipids that give the grains a richer flavour, and minerals that increase the nutritional value of the grain) remains intact.

What does rice have to do with dietary diseases? Rice is the central food item on tables in most of Asia. As the lifestyles of humans become more and more sedentary, people eat more and more calories than they can burn. And since the main energy source of most people is rice, scientists are now attempting to lessen the amount of calories rice can pass on to the eaters.

With this in mind, the second group of PUP BSc students looked at some aspect of the evolution of rice… again, another REVOLUTIONARY study. The students delved into why domesticated rice is what it is now. They looked at wild rice varieties and noted that these ancestors have red or brown pericarp (they still exist in the wild, hence the use of the present tense). The group’s results showed that brown-pericarped rice grains are easier to mill to white rice.

This ease of milling implies that it took the Neolithic humans less time to manually process the grains for consumption. These grains are assumedly easier to digest too… essential to the largely nomadic humans 5,000 years ago. That is why brown rice plants were domesticated.

But the pressures of domestication has caused for the easily-digested starch to be present. And with the increasing number of cases of diabetes, scientists want to develop varieties with hard-to-digest starch. That is why they are beginning to take interest in red rice.

The question remains: Which is better, red or brown rice? The answer really lies upon the consumer. If a consumer is an active person, like a farmer or an athlete, he needs to get more energy from the same amount of food as a typical sedentary office worker. Thus, he would be more interested in eating the brown-pericarped rice (the domesticated rice). On the other hand, the office worker does not need as much energy; thus, he may prefer consuming the red rice instead.

This subjectivity of the science of food quality is both its beauty and its challenge. Being able to streamline your diet depending on your lifestyle is a beauty. Designing rice varieties for specialty consumers is a tough task… it’s a challenge.

genes -> structure -> function

Gene -> Structure -> Function

This is currently the mantra being chanted by biological chemists. And this is the approach we took in developing the thesis defence presentation of one of our latest BSc student groups from the Polytechnic University of the Philippines.

What’s exciting about their work, without going very deep into the details, is that they have shown that results from previous studies -- which have used germplasm with limited diversity -- can be reputed because of the very fact that the genetic background of those collections were limited. And the group’s advantage was that a large collection of rice accessions was at the reach of their fingertips at IRRI.

Aside from challenging old results, the group may have discovered something new by connecting the dots from the genetic behaviour to the architecture of the polymer and finally to the cooking property.
Confident that this group’s work is high-level science and the results have paved the way for more research into the inner core of starch molecules, I went to the group’s defence with my supervisor, Melissa, on March 21.

Alas, the panelists during the defence did not get the concept. To me, it’s apparent that the group’s research is too high up the research ladder to easily be consumed by chemists not specialising in polymers… and it’s even harder to understand because the borders between the realms of biology and chemistry is blurred with this project.

By looking at starch as a polymer, one acts like a chemist; but by looking at it as a result of a metabolic pathway, one acts as a biologist. And it gets even more befuddling when starch is looked upon as a quality parameter because by then, one acts as a consumer.

Putting it this way, it becomes easier to grasp the difficulty in conveying such NEW and REVOLUTIONARY results because language and technical jargon become barriers to understanding. Because of this, I remember the importance of considering the audience during presentations. New discoveries - no matter how novel or life-saving it is - will be worth nothing if the target audience does not get the picture.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

“death is but the next great adventure”


… so says Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster in the Harry Potter series.

This message was the first thing that popped into my head as I read Ate Maddie’s message when I woke up yesterday morning. Tito Nani, her dad, passed on to the next life at around 3:20am with his family surrounding him.

He battled cancer.

Though I am sad at his passing, I am also content that he is no longer in pain and is now at peace. He may even have resumed playing golf in heaven.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

eureka!

it’s one of those moments when i felt both happiness and relief. and it happened last week…

the background of the story is, i have been doing an experiment for a few weeks already, but i could not understand why i kept on getting wrong results on a standard (whose description is known: molecular weight, etc.). i tried varying the conditions, and combining different conditions together to no avail. i suspected that the raw data was correct, but i wasn’t plugging in the correct constants and coefficients… or at least i wasn’t filling in the blanks properly.

2006 ended with me still puzzling over why my experiment was not working.
then, last week, help came from the tech people from the instrument’s manufacturer. the techies showed how to use the coefficients properly. i was right in suspecting that i was doing something wrong.

with knowing how to use the numerous values, i was finally able to get the correct results, and they were replicable too!

what a relief! i’m now off to the level two!

i don’t have enough bragging rights to put QED after the solution though.

*sigh*