Saturday, September 27, 2008

Kuya Rico's wedding




The wedding happened on a clear, cloudless day September 26, 2008 in Mundelein, Illinois. Here are some of the pictures from their wedding... all from my camera (haven't merged photos from Daddy's camera yet).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

my week in Honolulu... in snapshots


This is the view from one of Narita's transit lounges. The airport is huge!


Some pictures from the AACC meeting in Honolulu, Orville giving Chan and I the tour of Oahu, and Chan and my flight to Honolulu from Narita, Japan. Chester and Orville kindly gave us the bus tour to the university area... That was a whole lot of fun!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Welcome wagon in Honolulu


The term associated with Hawaiian culture and warm hospitality is "aloha." The symbol I associated with Hawaii is the hibiscus (gumamela), noting that this is the symbol of Hawaiian Airlines. Landing at the Honolulu International Airport, this traveller was surprised to see neither the flower nor the warm smiles of the Honolulu ground staff. First off, the Wiki Wiki bus transferring passengers from the arrival area to customs and immigration was an old bus with blue stripes... no sign of the hibiscus there. Then the shirt of the driver was of the plain light blue colour associated with his profession... no sign of flower designs on shirts. Finally, his first words were not the oft-linked aloha; instead, he just said good morning.

Whoa! Was I really in Honolulu? The presence of the sharp peaks of the lush green mountains in the background, which contrasts to the stark white and beige colours of the central business district, confirmed that I was indeed in Honolulu.

The airport architectural design exudes classic beauty typical of the 1960s. Nothing fancy like the modern steel and glass designs of modernised airports commonly considered beautiful today. The airport may not be the biggest nor the best I've been to, but nobody can deny that it has atmosphere. Seeing the airport then explained the old buses: probably, Hawaii wants to maintain the uniformity: old building and old bus (which I liked, weird perhaps, because of my interest in period architecture) to imprint the pre-WWII charm to the traveller before the city's attractions overwhelm him or her. Even the brown paint, which strongly reminded me of the old grain quality lab in IRRI, brings one back to an era before computers, internet, and Starbucks.

Nobody greeted me "Aloha" when I first got into the Immigration counter. But the staff's enthusiasm to greet people into the room, and their smiles were enough to make me feel welcome. Customs officials looking through luggage are thought to be strict and intimidating, but the ones in the Honolulu airport were kind, and even started conversations with me while my luggage was being inspected (I was one of the randomly selected passengers for baggage check)! Indeed, actions speak louder than words ever could, and this was one proof of it.

To top things off, I got one of the best and, I think,  the most iconic welcome gift in Hawaii: a lei of orchids from Orville! Now that's better than a whole lot of strangers greeting you aloha.

Chatting above the clouds


One thing I appreciate about the trip to Honolulu is that this time, I wasn't alone. I was travelling with a fellow PhD student, Chanthakhone, who's enrolled in Thailand. For the first time, I had a companion, and she's one chatty lady at that! We weren't seated adjacent to each other in the Manila-Nagoya flight, but we were seated next to each other in the next two segments. With a friend along, the usually boring lay-overs became not so strenuous anymore.

Aside from her, I also struck up an interesting conversation with a teacher from Saipan (I didn't get her name, though). She's left her job back home to go to Missouri for military training... she's a member of the reserve corps of the US army, and she was to be deployed for a year someplace. She has two children, whose pictures were in a gadget that looked like an ipod but contained pictures only. And then, she plans to study for her PhD in leadership or in a course that can provide the skills needed in being a boss in school. She was also one chatty lady. It's a wonder how easily people tell their stories to strangers in airplanes!

Flying Northwest

The check-in counters were the centre of hustle and bustle that greeted me as I entered the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. It looked like the flight to Nagoya, the first leg of three of my trip to Honolulu, was fully booked. In fact, a ground staff approached passengers, enticing them to give up their seats on this flight (NW 72) in exchange for some monetary compensation and a change in flight plans because the flight was overbooked. I don't know if anyone took the money; After the initial extra-strict security check (perhaps because the flight was eventually going to Detroit), I was on my way to board the plane.

I would normally not sleep while en route, but because of lack of sleep and the lack of movies in the in-flight entertainment system (which I see as a blessing), I got an hour's worth of sleep! Breakfast was delicious (I had an omelette with sausage), starting the day right; so when the plane landed in Nagoya five hours later (which in reality was just four hours, due to the time difference) I was quite energised for the lay-over before the NW 78 flight to Narita.

I was so shocked to find out that passengers had to go through the whole security check before boarding... even the same plane! The staff at the connecting flights counter had a difficult time making us understand that passengers on the same flight as mine would have to skip the queue and go through the security check straight away. Anyway, after the check, I had to walk fast up the escalator ramp and through the duty-free shops to Gate 20. Basically, the airport was just a blur to me because I did not have the chance to roam around... reminded me of my monorail ride and then the dash from the monorail to the boarding gates in Frankfurt International (in March 2008). The plane to Manila had started boarding while I was making a mad dash to the gate (and arrived in a huff).

Back now to the present story... the flight to Narita was far more interesting than the one to Nagoya. This time, I was seated beside a teacher from Saipan (more on her later) who said that the flight would take only 45 minutes. Honestly, I was puzzled at how an international carrier like Northwest could transport passengers on a domestic route. Since this flight, NW 78, was a lot shorter, the flight attendants only served drinks and pretzels, much like the Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Birmingham in March 2008 (if the attendants served food, I wouldn't have known because I fell asleep in the plane... waking up only as the plane landed in Frankfurt).

Once in Narita, I was famished, and since I was a tourist in transit, I did the most logical thing: I skipped McDonald's and ate an authentic Japanese meal (or at least the restaurant appeared to be Japanese). It's beef steak with carrots, potatoes and gravy, and miso soup, with stacks of cooked rice. Then, I had to wait for four hours for the next and last leg of the trip... NW 30 from Narita to Honolulu. Since the flight crossed the International Date Line, I actually gained a day; so, even if I had left Manila at 6.30am Saturday, September 20, and had taken more than 12 hours in flight or in transit, I arrived in Honolulu at 8.30am the same day!

Once again, I had nothing but praises for the food: I ate beef with mashed potatoes and carrots (in hind-sight, I think I ate exactly the same meal as in the Japanese restaurant in the airport) but sans the miso soup for dinner. The salad of shell macaroni and smoked salmon was simply delicious, and the lemon cake was lovely. Expectedly, I was able to clear off my plate! Then for breakfast, I had a croissant with sugar on top and some yogurt (I missed this a lot!). I just gave up on the soy stick dessert, too hard for the teeth (the brackets of my braces might get damaged).

The flight attendants were all very friendly. I especially liked the attendant in the Narita-Honolulu flight because she was kind with the passengers. No snobbish attendants unlike in some other airlines I have ridden.

The only downside I could think of was the in-flight entertainment per passenger was only available in the business class section. Economy class passengers had to crane their necks to watch the movie on the projector screen in front of the section.

So far, I've enjoyed my three airplane rides on Northwest... I'm excited to take the domestic flights to the mainland. :D

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Preparing the talk (Part 2)

Earth to Rochie!

There's no way for me to prepare a Gore-like presentation in a week! Reading more about the preparation that went into his An Inconvenient Truth lecture made me realise that his Oscar-winning and Nobel Peace Prize-winning presentation was the product of quite a lot of initial lectures, revisions... but the content is essentially the same. Still, I keep that lecture (note: both the visual aid and the presentation itself) as an example of how to do an oral presentation.

Still working on how to make my presentation professional-looking and clutter-free, I came across Steve Jobs' Macworld 2007 keynote speech. Aside from the glaring absence of the otherwise omnipresent bullet point, what struck me with this presentation was that he could deliver his message WITHOUT the aid of his slides! How did he do this? He used pictures, videos, graphs, and charts to illustrate his point most of the time, and rarely did he write the point down (unless it's the number of downloads or number of songs available in iTunes). At one point, he even had a blank slide so everyone's attention would go back to him! Now that's a very gutsy move - a mark of confidence. He has succeeded with getting rid of the crutch that is the slide presentation, and instead, uses it as it really is - an AID. Being able to tell the story with minimal visual aids is one philosophy I'd like to practice myself (and is yet another goal to reach).

If Mr Jobs uses the slides as visual aids, Prof Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law has gone to the extreme of putting only a key word or phrase, and almost no pictures in his presentation... plus, the font he used was the typewriter-like one: white letters on a black background, a distinctive style straight out of the silent movie era. I have only listened to part of his talk (and watched the Powerpoint presentation) and still I became amazed at how he synchronised his narration with the slides! Some people call this "slide as chorus," a term I picked up in Wikipedia, I think.

In a weird way, the design of these people's slides remind me of Ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement: simple and elegant; meaningful despite the empty spaces. This brings me to the blog site on presentation design I came across the other day while finding commentaries on effective public speakers, and on the bad ones too: Presentation Zen (http://www.presentationzen.com/) by Garr Reynolds. A very interesting read, and a mine full of lessons on presentation. My favourite article: the entry bringing Steve Jobs' and Bill Gates' presentations head to head. A great study on contrasting styles.

Anyway, back to Prof Lessig and Mr Jobs...

Of course, their ways of presenting will not always be applicable in the sciences, and it would be difficult to do a Steve Jobs-styled presentation on something technical with graphs and charts as the heart and soul of a presentation. But if there is a means to shake things up a bit and make the talk a bit more entertaining, then I'd try it. I mean, there are scientists speaking during the annual TEDTalks; these speakers are some of the best minds in the world, and they are so unlike the typical professor! Two who I am familiar with are Jane Goodall and Al Gore (yet again). I have yet to see the Ms Goodall's TEDtalk on her research, but I'm sure they are as superb as her features in the National Geographic.

Monday, September 15, 2008

preparing the talk

After the highly stressful thesis preparation with Word 2007, the next challenge is to prepare an oral presentation for the American Association of Cereal Chemists, Inc. Annual Meeting (scheduled next week). Since I'm using the Microsoft Office suite, I am preparing my slides with Powerpoint. And once again, I am using two versions: the 2003 version installed in my computer at IRRI, and the 2007 version I have in my personal computer.

In preparing the slides, my "inspiration," as artists would call it, is Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth. Yes, this presentation is among the best in the world (with a Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar among its laurels), and I have so much to learn before my presentations even get a notch closer to the calibre of this presentation... which was put together by Duarte Design using Apple's Keynote.

What makes the presentation so great?

First, the presentation did not use bullet points... I couldn't even remember numbered lines or text boxes in his presentation. How then did he pull this one off?! Mr Gore's presentation maximised the power of vibrant visuals to drive home the point that he did not need to outline everything using text. The pictures and the graphs were literally his visual aids. The photography was of very high-quality that I would expect them to be gracing the pages of National Geographic.

However, the slide presentation is only a visual aid. The speaker is always more important than the visual aid; this brings me to the next point.

Second, Al Gore is such a great presenter. He knows exactly what he is talking about. He was on the field with the researchers; he mastered the content of his talk that he was walking on stage as if the next part of the presentation comes naturally. He was serious, yet relaxed; authoritative, yet entertaining; his commanding presence compels the audience to listen and not to fall asleep (which commonly happens in lecture classes, I know... I've done this in organic chemistry lots of times). 

By following just these two points: using great graphics and being prepared to talk, I will try to prepare a presentation that is better than the last one I did (which was for the 2007 International Network for Quality Rice workshop). I hope these work!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Review: An American Tail (1986)

Rating:★★★★
Category:Movies
Genre: Kids & Family

"Somewhere out there/ Someone's saying a prayer/ And we'll find one another/ At least somewhere out there..."

"Never say never... again!"

"There are no cats in America/ And the streets are filled with cheese... It keeps your mind at ease..."

Some of the more memorable lines of the beautiful songs giving life to the adventures and hardships faced by Fievel Mousekewitz and his family while they migrated from Russia to America to live the American dream. One of the cartoons which showed racial discrimination explicitly. And the vegetarian cat convinced me that broccoli must be delicious!

Review: Anastasia (1997)

Rating:★★★★
Category:Movies
Genre: Kids & Family

One of my favourite cartoon of all time, Anastasia tells a fictionalised version of the escape of the princess Anastasia from Russia and the evil hands of Rasputin. And the best part of the movie? The beautiful soundtrack. The songs I liked best are "Journey to the Past," "At the Beginning," and "Once Upon a December."

Monday, September 8, 2008

Ready Steady Cook

Rating:★★★
Category:Other
Caught this on the Ten Network right after Oprah, I think. It's a funny program, with two teams composed of a professional chef and an audience member each. The two groups cook for 20 minutes, and the audience decides who wins (cooked the better meal). The there's the quickie bag portion, where the both chef prepare food within 10 minutes. I looked forward to this show during my last few days in Brisbane.

Chuck

Rating:★★★★★
Category:Other
Chuck is a hilarious take on the secret agent / conspiracy / double life lifestyle. The head of the Nerd Herd unexpectedly becomes a government secret asset, with all the USA's top secrets stuffed in his head. The series is a breath of fresh air among all the serious TV series about spies. Definitely a must-watch!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

my fair lady in Brisbane

My Fair Lady is a play adapted from George Bernard Shaw's book called Pygmalion. It was by pure chance that I learned that this was being shown in Brisbane: I was on my way back to Highgate Hill from Indooroopilly when I saw the billboard on a bus (the wonders of advertising!). Since I've often heard my parents mention this play to me and my brother and sister (along with Carousel, the King and I, and Annie), I decided to spend my last night in Brisbane watching the play.

This production, being staged at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) in Brisbane's South Bank, is produced by Opera Australia; the production is touring different Australian cities. The cast was led by two well-known Australian stage performers: Taryn Feibig as Eliza Doolittle and Reg Livermore as Professor Henry Higgins. The book and the lyrics were by Alan Jay Lerner, while music is credited to Frederick Loewe.

Basically, the story is about how Prof Higgins transforms Eliza, a flower girl who belongs to London's working class into someone anyone can mistake as coming from the privileged class. After six months, Higgins credits himself for Eliza's success and she realises that she can be independent and no longer needs him.

The play explored the boundaries drawn between different social classes, as emphasised by differences in the way the English language was spoken: the London working class spoke Cockney which has its unique ways of pronunciation, and the English language as spoken by the educated and upper class. There was reluctance to move up the social ladder, as exemplified by Eliza's father, who loved the perks of having a lot of money but did not like the expected behaviour coming with the move up (he's marrying Eliza's stepmother because he's become respectable). The clothes were also used as means to show how different social classes were. When the play began, Eliza was wearing layered clothing and small hats... as the play ends, she was wearing gowns, shiny dresses, and huge hats (that were full of feathers and almost buried her head).

Feminists would have a problem with this play, especially with the way Prof Higgins treated Eliza and the other women in his life. He clearly thought that women are lower life forms, and men are better than women. Extending this view, to him, perhaps, women are nothing more than creatures that go around picking up after him. Clearly, he's a self-absorbed chauvinist. On another extreme, however, Prof Higgins can be seen as a homosexual, and the ultimate feminist, finding fault in women that he wants to change to make them perfect. He is a self-proclaimed bachelor, apparently because he despises women. Yet he may not be disgusted with them, but envies them instead. He asks Colonel Pickering why can't a woman be more like a man, and more pointedly, like Pickering. In the end, though he is sorrowful that Eliza has left him, his attitude towards her has not changed ("where are my slippers?").

No wonder the play is a classic, with different revivals, tours, and movie versions. Clearly, though the play was set in the early 1900s, the theme of equality, not only among social classes but also between the genders, is not missed by the audience and can still spark discussion almost a century later.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Sense&Style August 2008

I am very honoured to be featured in the August 2008 issue of Sense&Style magazine. I mean, how many times in a year would a science graduate student be featured in a magazine, let alone in one which occupies a niche where celebrities and really famous people grace its pages?

Because of this, I would like to thank the writer, Sara Aunario, for having a very well-written feature on me. And of course, Ivy and Maan, for making me look good in front of the camera (see below).


And thank you also to everyone who gave their comments and feedback on the article!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

the Word processor


Introduction
To many of us, MS Word is just the equivalent of typing on a computer screen instead of directly on paper. I remember Ms Gapud, my second-year Math teacher in UP Rural High, having problems with printing the symbol for average (x with the overbar) in our exam questionnaires. However, my experiences the past few days (two weeks, to be exact) made me realise how powerful this software can be. Here, I am sharing some of my shortfalls in using what is seemingly a very simple software (at least in my erroneous opinion).

Materials and Methods
Of course, there are other word-processing software out there, but I was only able to use several versions of MS Word, and yet only up to some degree.

Results and Discussion
Equation Editor. Ah, yes, the feature in the 2007 version of Word that I could not use to full capacity because I was keeping my document compatible to the older versions of Word. When I used this with the intent of pasting the equation from Word 2007 to the Word 2003-compatible, the font was default at Cambria Math, font size 11, and I couldn't change the font to something else. After figuring out how to get the equation into the editor, I had trouble pasting the equation into the compatible version, because the equation gets converted into a picture! With time running out, Bob decided that it's better, under the circumstances, that I just type in the equation in line with the text (no fancy Equation Editors involved).

Field Codes. I used these to insert captions and titles to figures and tables, and then to insert cross-references into the main text. Apparently, field codes can also be used to insert equations (which I obviously did not know) and symbols that are not found in the Insert Symbol function of the software... such as Math symbols. EndNote citations are also inserted into the document as field codes before these are formatted based on the style required.

Styles. Heading 1, heading 2, heading 3, normal, caption, clear formatting... These are the choices for the style of the text in the manuscript. The title of the chapter has heading 1, the introduction has heading 2, and so on... I used to just write the chapters using the font I wanted. However, I found out that styles saves time in preparing the Table of Contents because everything that has a style assigned to it will be included in the table! So, instead of taking a day to write the TOC, it took me about an hour including checking the numbering. This could have been quicker if I had used the numbering feature of Word 2007, which automatically assigns outline numbers to the different sections of the manuscript. Another feature of styles is its capacity to keep section titles and text together in a page, called "keep with next," and this is very useful in maintaining a clear flow in the manuscript.

References. One of final steps before handing in the manuscript is formatting the list of literature cited. I thought I wouldn't have problems here... it was just a matter of clicking the Format button in the EndNote Add-In. Unfortunately, my EndNote library did not include the reference style preferred by my supervisors in a PhD manuscript. So I had to redo the formatting a few times, using the style Bob provided from the Australian Research Council.

Captions. Ever wonder how to quickly keep the text of a long figure caption together in one page? Simple... Melissa's advice is to use text boxes... and don't forget to group the figure and the caption together. That way, when the text about the figure moves about, the figure and its caption stay together.

Summary and Conclusion
What did I learn in all of these? Before embarking on the gruelling task of writing a thesis, get acquainted with the many powerful features of the word-processing software.

an extended acknowledgment page

"A journey is best measured in friends rather in miles.
-- Tim Cahill
I just handed my thesis in for assessment by a panel of external examiners this Tuesday, September 2. The days leading up to this were long, and filled with so many challenges that it was a struggle to get it done. Along the way, though, I was never alone, and I gained a lot of friends through this whole experience.

Starting off this list are the interns who lent a hand. Virrey was an efficient operator of the differential scanning calorimeter; even when I was in Sydney, she was able to do her assignment without a hitch. Clara, on the other hand, contributed a big deal to the genotyping work. And Arvin contributed a whole lot with data-gathering from capillary electrophoresis. Then the new batch of students, Mahalia,Mayrene, Charlotte, and Chris, helped me with more size distributions work, this time using size exclusion chromatography.

Graduate students I've encountered in IRRI also helped me a lot. Doug and Rachelle (a PhD now) helped me understand how the SEC works, Vito orientated me on the details of molecular biology and protein extraction, and Henry (who has since obtained his MSc) was helping me out with SEC work. Then there's Chay (yes, another PhD today) and Chan, who provided comic relief constantly. Ah yes, being able to laugh and relax is essential to survive the harrowing experiences leading up to handing in the thesis manuscript for evaluation.

The staff at the Grain Quality, Nutrition, and Post-harvest Centre at IRRI were also instrumental for helping me get to this stage. Ate Lucy, Kuya Ferdie, Kuya Johnny, Kuya Teodie, Kuya Boy, and Tita Puring all assisted me in preparing my samples. Fe and Tita Ruby helped me a lot with the statistical work, aside from Tita Ruby staying in the lab late with me. Kuya Jun and Dara were very efficient in squeezing genetic information out of seeds. Tita Dory was so generous in helping me out during the last moments before I flew off to Brisbane; I don't know how I would finish if she weren't around. And then there's Ana, the secretary who works wonders to put me on a plane ASAP, and always seems to have all the paper, and writing supplies I need.

Other people in IRRI also made my life as a student easier. Ate Beng helped me with binary logistic regression. Tito Ato provided waxy rice seeds from the IRRI farm. Ate Digna helped me get the samples I needed from the GeneBank.

Technical support from the suppliers of the different equipment was given very generously. Carlo and Steve taught me how to use the rheometer and the differential scanning calorimeter; Patrick, James, and Lorna did not give up on the CE when it kept acting up "like a porkchop" (Doug's expression for malfunctioning equipment).

Then there were those who generously provided samples for analysis, making my set of samples highly diverse. Aside from the IRRI Genetic Resources Centre, the California Cooperative Rice Research Foundation (Dr McKenzie) and the Korea Rural Development Corporation (Dr Park) sent rice samples over for analysis of starch structure. Dr Morell of the CSIRO assisted in interpreting data from the mutants used in my study.

Moving over to Australia... I am deeply grateful for the assistance given to me by Marion, who processed my samples by NMR because I was not allowed to use that machine. Then there's Jon, who taught me how to use the AF4. Patrice and David who spent a lot of time teaching me the ins and outs of the SEC machine at the University of Queensland, although my experiments failed. The staff and the students at CNAFS were all very supportive, especially during the days leading up to my manuscript submission.

I am deeply honoured to be a student of two scientists at the forefront of research on starch: Bob and Melissa. They demand excellent work from their students, and though I fell short quite a few times, they were always there to support me.

Finally, my family and friends were always there when I'm stressed out and panicky... always ready to lend a hand.

To all of you, thank you very much!!!! I would never have finished without all your help.

Sense&Style August 2008

I am very honoured to be featured in the August 2008 issue of Sense&Style magazine. I mean, how many times in a year would a science graduate student be featured in a magazine, let alone in one which occupies a niche where celebrities and really famous people grace its pages?

Because of this, I would like to thank the writer, Sara Aunario, for having a very well-written feature on me. And of course, Ivy and Maan, for making me look good in front of the camera (see below).


And thank you also to everyone who gave their comments and feedback on the article!