Thursday, October 31, 2013

Black cat

Some say that black cats bring bad omens. Some say that black cats are signs of good fortune. Either way, the black cat, especially a large one, is a startling animal to see (for me).

In 2012, while on my way to the University of California-Davis, I came across this black cat. It's obviously not a stray, with the confident way it walked and approached people in its territory.

I didn't think it was a cat that would let strangers touch it, though, because of the body language.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Rice Survivor (Wet Season edition): Harvesting rice is easier than I originally thought.

Months ago, I was down in the mud, transplanting rice for a few minutes and watching field workers do it for a whole afternoon. I realized then what I've always known mentally but never experienced before: being a field worker is a back-breaking profession. Whoever penned the song "Magtanim ay 'di biro" was not kidding. 

So when harvesting time finally came along, I was fully expecting to be amid field workers and learning how to use the scythe. However, Team Tagumpay decided to try mechanized harvesting. This means that a machine goes into the field, cuts the stalks, threshes the panicles, and stores the grains in a bin. Ideal conditions allowed us to do so: (1) our plants did not fall over, or lodge, due to the wind and the rains of the wet season; (2) the soil was dry enough for the machine to drive through.

I had cleared my calendar for the morning for this. But it took less than two hours to finish the harvest! If you ask me, I find this as an anti-climactic end to my run as a Rice Survivor.

One thing I know for sure is this: Team Tagumpay had definitely survived. We just have to find out if our team can stand up to its name. :)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Review: Glee Season 5: The Quarterback (2013)

I was one of those people who watched out for the Glee tribute episode for Cory Monteith. He used to portray Finn Hudson, a co-leader in McKinley High's New Directions show choir and the quarterback in the school's football team in the tv series. Unfortunately, Monteith/Hudson died too soon. The tribute episode picked up a few weeks after Hudson's death and showed how the members of New Directions and the teachers were coping after his death.

It was a very emotional episode. As the cast opened the episode with "Seasons of Love" the way it's done in Rent, I just knew it would be a cry-fest. True enough, I was crying all throughout the episode. The weird thing was I wasn't crying for Finn or for Cory; I was crying because my maternal grandmother, Lola Estay, had died last year. The sadness felt by the cast during the episode brought back the pain of saying good bye to my grandma. 

It was certainly a difficult hour for me. 

But in the end of the episode, there was catharsis as life moves on, for the characters, for the people who portray them, and for the audience who've been watching Glee since its inception. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Rice Survivor (Wet Season edition): It's heart-breaking to see fallen rice plants...

... and they weren't even in Team Tagumpay's plot!

Now that I've gone through what it's like to be a farmer, albeit doing so in a learning environment—visiting the fields almost everyday, stressing out when a discolored leaf appears somewhere in the plot, freaking out when animals attack the plants—I can fully appreciate a farmer's pain when a season's crop is damaged, leading to less harvest, less income, and less food.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Rice Survivor (Wet Season edition): And now we wait...

Once the seedlings were on the ground, all we had to do was wait. Well, not exactly. We also needed to monitor the water in the field so that if there's too little water, we irrigated; if there's too much, we drained the water. Plus, we kept an eye out for weeds, snails, and rats. And then there was the fertilizer to be added at certain periods of the plants' development stage... we didn't add the fertilizer ourselves; someone from the farm did this for us.

Being the novice farmers that we were (except for RK), Neale, Jen, and I worried about discolorations in the leaves because these surely were signs of diseases. But Adam, an expert in plant diseases, told us to do nothing. So we did.

It's fascinating to watch the plants grow from tiny seedlings to mature plants. I dropped by the field every afternoon early in the season because it wasn't raining yet. But when the heavy downpours came, I visited only in afternoons when it wasn't raining.

When the leaves started to turn pale and the panicles became heavy with grain, we knew: the season was about to end.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Rice Survivor (Wet Season edition): Transplanting cramming

The rain fell over the weekend, which caused some of the land preparation activities to be delayed. So when transplanting day, June 24, arrived, we were CRAMMING. The nice thing though, was that staff from the farm were on-call: if we needed help, they were there to assist; if we didn't need help, they would still stop by and make sure that we were alright.

Since there were so many things to do with the clock ticking and the labor cost meter running, the members of Team Tagumpay divided its chores. RK was at the field watching over the final land leveling while Neale and I were checking if the seedlings were ready for pulling. Maya knew where the fertilizer, which was not applied the day before because of the rain, was kept. Once we've decided that the transplanting would push through, Neale took charge of the pulling activity while I watched over the application of basal fertilizer in our newly leveled field. (I wanted to do it but the farm staff said I'd slow them down.)

One has to have a strong throwing to fertilize this field.

Once the field was fertilized, I joined Neale and learned how to correctly pull seedlings (without damaging the roots). That was scary! I didn't want my team's crop to die because I destroyed the roots! The people who were doing it routinely assured us that the plants were sturdier than they seemed. So we continued until it was time for lunch.

After lunch, Team Tagumpay had its turn in manually transplanting the crops, alongside the field workers. This was our very own "Magtanim ay 'di biro" moment caught on camera! Since we were the slowpokes, we were shooed from the field after an hour of attempting to plant rice. The field workers were so quick!

Proof that we were in the field, planting, that day.

Members of the team took rotating shifts to continuously watch over the field workers and make sure that they were planting seedlings in the right positions. Neale, RK, and Maya stayed while I went to a meeting. Then RK left to attend his meeting, with Maya returning to her own field. Once my meeting ended, I drove back to the field in time to get Neale and to fetch snacks; a technician then stopped by and watched over. When Neale and I got back, the technician was on his way out.

While waiting for the field workers to finish, Neale and I grabbed the chance to try transplanting one more time. It's okay because we were muddy already anyway. Turned out that we just needed to learn the technique! At one point, we were transplanting at the same pace as the tired field workers! I emphasize on tired because they were slower at that point than when they began earlier in the afternoon.

As the afternoon drew to a close, RK returned to see how our transplanting went. One thing's for certain, we were dirty and muddy but unbowed. In fact, we were happy when the transplanting ended!

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Rice Survivor (Wet Season edition): Let's hunt snails.

As the plants grew in the nursery (and I waited impatiently), it was time to think about land preparations in time for transplanting. One of the tasks that Team Tagumpay had to agree upon was what to do with the snails. Maya, the team's environmentalist, was totally against the application of molluscicides to our team's plot (her words, not mine). So on the morning of June 21, we came to the field armed with plastic bags to hunt snails even though hunting was not allowed... at least according to the sign.

Hunting isn't allowed. Do snails count?

At first, we didn't want to go into the flooded field. Gaye Cuerdo (of The Avengers team) captured photos of Team Tagumpay staying on the sidelines, literally, collecting only the snails close to the bunds. In the end though, the snails just kept going beyond our reach. We just had to jump in... BUT there were no more cameras to take our photos because everyone in the team was collecting snails.

We didn't want to dive in at first. (Photo by Gaye; layout by Neale.)
After a few hours, our snail collections filled a plastic bag. But there were still more snails to capture. The team then agreed that it would be too risky to plant our rice seedlings in such a snail-infested field; so we ended up deciding to have the field treated with molluscicide.

So what happened to the captives? We gave them to staff at the farm. We never saw the molluscs ever again.

Friday, October 18, 2013

maybe i need to become a polyglot.

In my calendar, I'd call the third week of September as language week. There were three days during that week where I was talking with people who spoke little English while I speak little of everything else. Thank goodness for translators!!

Day 1: I was talking with a group of Chinese scientists. I don't know how to say anything in Chinese except for thank you (Xie xie) and hello (Ni hao). Their host acted as the translator and he asked me jokingly if I could talk with the visitors in Chinese. Actually, this is the second time someone has asked me if I could speak a Chinese language; the first time, it was Mandarin.

Day 2: A group of Japanese media practitioners talked with me through a Filipino translator. The only Japanese expression I could say on top of my head is thank you (Arigatou). They did not request a discussion in Japanese so I didn't have to worry so much. They did, however, request that I talk in Filipino. That was the challenge for me: it's difficult for me to talk science using my native language. Again, this was the second instance that I was asked to talk science in Filipino. The first time? I was asked to consider the option of using the local vernacular.

Day 3: I was about to speak to African trainees when I noticed that they were not paying attention to the facilitator. While the facilitator was introducing me and when I started speaking (in English), I realized that I was in front of an audience from Francophone Africa... and I needed to find a way to catch their attention on the fly. So I greeted them with the limited French I know: Bonjour! Comment ça va? I knew that had some impact because the trainees began talking animatedly with me. Problem was, when the energy ebbed during the hour-long talk, I couldn't seem to get reengaged. Time for Plan B: the food and Bon appétit! That, I think, was the last of my French sentences. Luckily, I didn't need any more because they became active in the discussions again until my talk ended.

Despite our language barriers, I didn't feel the need to resort to non-verbal communications that curious September week. Nothing still beats the way I mimed with a non-English speaker in a different country when my cousins, my sister, and I got lost and were looking for our hotel. They found it so hilarious that it still draws the laughs from them many years after!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Marketplace exhibits take 2: Women in Rice Farming

On August 8, IRRI played host to women involved in rice farming. Because there was just so much to see and to learn during the one-day event, the organizers decided to feature the different research highlights just like during the Ambassadors' Day months back: marketplace-style. Aside from the different exhibits, there was a panel discussion on the role of women in rice farms. Farmers stepped up to share their stories too.

For this event, the Grain Quality and Nutrition Center was represented by me, Cindy, and Tita Dory. It was a good thing that a rehearsal run was conducted before the event; otherwise, we wouldn't be prepared for the number of guests dropping by. Once again, our elevator pitches were put to a test. 

A great experience, overall. :)

As usual, photos taken during the event were captured after the whirlwind visit of the guests.

Hello, participants!

Panelists during the discussion
Jojo Lapitan facilitating the discussion with the farmers and the guests

Thelma Paris (left), gender specialist

Bruce Tolentino talking with media with the grain quality posters in the background

Wednesday, October 16, 2013


I have always been afraid of being up on stage. I'd get sick, lose my appetite, and just do something repeatedly (like walking up and down the stairs) hours before my turn onstage. Thus, it comes as a big surprise for me eleven years after my very first technical presentation, that I am actually spending a lot time in front of audiences who come from different walks of life, talking about rice as food.

me (wearing a pink bandana) walking media practitioners through an activity. Photo from  IRRI's Twitter account (@RiceResearch).

At some point this year, I was asked to make my presentation as interactive as possible (probably because the audience for that presentation were indoors for a whole-day stretch and needed to be entertained). I had taken up the challenge and adopted one of The Glee Project's core skills as a keyword: theatricality. Since that point, I've been asked to present the science that I do to general audiences that way. In the presentation to media practitioners (see photo above), I didn't even use slides anymore, as per discussion with the organizers.

I am still have stage fright, don't get me wrong. My hands still get cold and clammy (as Val and Matty can attest) and I still walk in circles to manage my nerves. But I've finally embraced the fact that theatricality/ having a conversation with a crowd is one of the things that I need to improve on if I want to help make science become something the general public can appreciate; something that is not limited to the realm of geeks and nerds.

Before my toughest scientific talk yet.

I was tapped to speak about rice grain quality at Eastwood Mall's International Rice Festival, as part of IRRI's symposium on July 28. Two days prior to the event, I had a glimpse of just how challenging such a task was as Dr Bruce Tolentino (whose speeches and media interviews are always great studies on how to speak in public) showed me where the speakers would be located: on an elevated stage in the atrium of the mall, in the middle of foot traffic. I felt that I was about to face my toughest audience yet. This marked my first time to speak to (window) shoppers and whoever would stop and listen about the science of rice quality.

While the reality of speaking up on stage was sinking in for me, Dr Tolentino asked the most important question of them all: Do I think I can sustain an audience's attention on a scientific topic for 20 minutes in that situation? How was I supposed to do that IN A SHOPPING MALL?!?

Needless to say, I had to rethink the way I conveyed my message. Here's how I did this on the fly, sort of. Stored knowledge from reading Garr Reynolds' Presentation Zen and Carmine Gallo's Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs really helped developing my story and the accompanying slide deck but I sorely missed the practice rounds and time trials I do well ahead of a presentation.

Keep it snappy. I had to cut a lot of fat from my slide deck. Originally meant for 20 minutes of presentation, the slide deck was reduced to a seven-minute talk through deleting slides and a few hours' worth of practicing. I had to master my presentation because the laptop I was to use was placed where I couldn't see the screen and my back was behind the projection. Visual aids as a crutch, gone. I felt like I was prepping for a TED talk or a MacWorld session in under two days!!

Engage the captured audience. While there were passers-by (the shoppers) who I really couldn't expect to stay, there were other people for the duration of the symposium: the exhibitors. I interviewed them hours before my talk to see how I could include their stories in my presentation (and get their attention).

Find what's in it for them. I believe that this is the best way to make sure that people stayed on and listened, in any presentation that I do. In this case, I attempted to keep the shoppers on-board by appealing to their experiences as rice consumers. To prepare for this, I talked with Val Pede, an econometrics expert, and Matty Demont, a market and value-chain expert, less than an hour before my talk to make sure that I understand and can correctly discuss the economic context of rice grain quality with minimal technical jargon.

Stumble onto carrots and then improvise. Keeping people's attention was one thing; capturing it first is a wholly different ballgame. And frankly, that was a challenge for me. Luckily, the organizers of the symposium were looking for a way of distributing a few loot bags provided by some of the exhibitors. During the last minutes before I stepped on-stage, I agreed to give them away during my talk... Problem solved!

Then, presentation time arrived. It's show time.