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.