One of my classmates in my statistics class at Georgetown asked me how I went from doing tropical biology to becoming a software tester. I decided to share my response here because it might be interesting to others who are contemplating a radical change in career direction.

I was convinced throughout college that I wanted to be a tropical field biologist. I studied abroad at a field station in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and after graduation spent almost a year doing research in the Philippines on seed dispersal of a particular understory tree. I even got a publication out of the latter in a German ecology journal. So, I was all set to go for a PhD in bio, but while I was in Manila and Bataan I took some time to reflect on where things were going and I realized I didn’t want to do fieldwork for the rest of my life. It is an amazing experience and I’m glad I had the chance to try it out, but as a career it is a very isolated and difficult lifestyle. You have to spend a lot of time in very remote, uncomfortable, and occasionally dangerous situations to collect data. Experiments often fail, and you have to wait a whole year until you can try again (due to the seasonality of flowering, fruiting, migrating animals, etc). Almost no one pays attention to biology research unless it has a medical application, and most tropical biologists spend their lives documenting the ongoing destruction of species and ecosystems they care for very much but feel powerless to protect. What this means is that in order to follow this path, one must be extremely passionate and dedicated to their discipline. I actually had the good fortune to study under such a person in the Philippines- a man named Leonard Co who in my opinion was a modern-day Linnaeus. Sadly, he was shot about a year ago while doing fieldwork. He was a cheerful, multilingual, botanical genius whose whole life was dedicated to scientific discovery and conservation.

Yet as much as I admired him, I realized I did not want to follow in his footsteps, because I couldn’t imagine myself specializing and focusing so intensely on a single subject. I like learning about a wide variety of things, and since the financial crisis was going on at the same time, I started reading a lot about economics, which I didn’t know much about previously. Furthermore, I had never lived in a big city prior to Manila, and even though I always thought of myself as a rural person, I learned to love the excitement and mental stimulation of the urban environment. By the time I came back to the US, I was totally confused about what I wanted to do career-wise, so I just decided to keep an open mind when I got a job offer to do software testing in Charlottesville. I have enjoyed this work for the past 3 years and am grateful to the folks who decided to take a chance on hiring someone based more on his sense of curiosity than his programming experience. Since I still enjoy learning about both biology and economics (and especially how they sometimes intertwine), I decided to go ahead and try for a masters through night classes in something that seems to be useful in both fields, which is how I ended up studying math and statistics. My career philosophy now is more about just making the most of whatever opportunities come around and trying to always be learning something new rather than having a master plan to save the world. I do hope to someday use my technical skills to help conservation efforts in places like the Philippines and other parts of the tropics, but I imagine it will be more in my personal time than as a career. Indeed, I have continued to visit tropical countries and am always inspired by the beauty of the landscapes and the generosity of the people in places like Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, and Malaysia. I also feel fortunate to have maintained a connection to environmental issues through my work in that most of my projects have been supporting government (EPA) air quality and energy efficiency programs.

Yesterday was my birthday, and it was a fantastic, joyful day that filled me with delight. It wasn’t because I got a bunch of presents or cake or anything like that (although last weekend I did have a great time celebrating in such fashion with my family in North Carolina too). In fact, I spent most of the day in the office working. The reason I am so happy is that so many of my friends and family sent me birthday greetings from all over the world! I know it seems like a small thing just to post on someone’s facebook wall or send them a text message, but those small gestures mean a lot to me.  I want to say THANK YOU to all of you near and far for being my friends. Whether I met you only for a weekend while traveling or have known you since I was a little child, your kindness, inspiration, and the new perspectives you have given me are what make me glad to be alive. If a good friend is more valuable than gold, then today I feel like the richest man in the world.

[En Espanol] Ayer fue mi cumpleanos, y fue un dia fantastico con mucho felicidades, que me lleno con gusto. No fue porque yo recibi muchos regalos, ni pastel, ni algo asi (aunque la fin de semana pasada me diverti mucho celebrando con ellas cosas con mi familia en Carolina del Norte). En serio, yo pasaba la mayoria del dia trabajando en la oficina. El razon que estoy tan feliz es porque tantos amigos y familia me mandaron saludos desde muchos paises y lugares diversos del mundo! Se que parece una cosa de poca importancia poner algo en el “muro” del facebook o mandar un mensaje por text, pero esas cosas pequenitas significan mucho a mi. Quiero decir GRACIAS a todos Uds. cerca y lejos por ser mis amigos. Si te conoci solo por una fin de semana cuando viajando, o si te he conocido desde cuando eramos ninos, tu amabilidad, inspiracion, y las vistas nuevas Uds. me han ofrecidos son los que me dan feliz vivir. Si un amigo verdadero o amiga verdadera vale mas que oro, entonces hoy me siento como el hombre mas rico del mundo.

[Em Portugues] Ontem foi o meu aniversario, e foi um dia fantastico com muitos felicidades que me cheio com gosto. Nao foi porque eu recebi muitos regalos, nem bolo, nem algo assim (ainda que a fim de semana passada me divirti muito celebrando de tal forma com minha familha em Carolina do Norte). Em realidade, eu passava a maioria do dia trabalhando no escritorio. O razao que estou tao feliz e porque tantos amigos e familha me mandaram saudacoes desde muitos paizes e lugares diversos do mundo! Sei que parece uma coisa de pequena importancia colocar algo no “muro” do facebook ou mandar um mensagem de text, mas essas coisas pequenas significam muito pra mi. Quero dizer OBRIGADO a todos voces perto e longe por ser meus amigos. Se eu te conheci so por uma fim de semana quando viajando, ou se eu te tenho conhecido desde quando eramos criancas, teu amabilidade, inspiracao, e as vistas novas voces me tem ofrecidos sao os que me dar feliz viver. Se um amigo verdadeiro ou amiga verdadeira vale mais que ouro, entao hoje me sinto como o homem mais rico do mundo.

[Sa Tagalog] Kahapon ay ang aking kaarawan, at ito ay isang mabuting, masayang araw na napuno ako sa tuwa. Ito ay hindi dahil ibigay ng mga regalo o cake o anumang bagay tulad na (bagaman katapusan ng linggo ko ay may isang mahusay na oras pakikisalu-salo sa tulad ng paraan kasama ang aking pamilya sa North Carolina pa rin). Sa katunayan, nagtrabaho lang ako sa opisina. Ang dahilan ako kaya masaya ay na kaya marami sa aking mga kaibigan at pamilya na ipinadala sa akin na pagbati ng kaarawan mula sa buong mundo! Alam ko ito tila tulad ng isang maliit na bagay lang sa post sa facebook wall ng isang tao o ipadala ang isang text na mensahe, ngunit ang mga maliliit na gestures ibig sabihin ng marami sa akin. Gusto kong sabihin SALAMAT sa lahat ng kayo malapit at malayo para sa pagiging mga kaibigan ko. Kung makilala kita lamang para sa isang katapusan ng linggo habang naglalakbay o may kilala kita mula sa kailan ako ay isang maliit na bata, ang inyong kabaitan, inspirasyon, at ang mga bagong perspectives sa iyo ay may ibinigay sa akin ay kung ano gumawa ako masaya mabuhay. Kung ang isang mabuting kaibigan ay mas mahalaga kaysa sa ginto, tapos ngayon pakiramdam ko ang pinakamayamang tao sa mundo.

Henry Drummond‘s essay “The Greatest Thing in the World” is an excellent exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 (which is beautifully rendered in Chinese Calligraphy). I think every human being should read and think about these ideas. How can we love each other when the world is so complex, violent, and motivated by selfishness? How can the greatest thing in the world live within the same flesh and blood that commits the most atrocious acts?
A central question for me, is how to assign value to natural systems. First of all, as an aspiring ecologist, I want to understand HOW living systems work. But, I am also interested in them from a theological standpoint, as I believe humans have a duty to be stewards of this world. It doesn’t belong to us to do as we please. “The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). The hardest thing for me to understand is how a system whose agents are completely selfish (I have never met any species, humans included, that were not interested first and foremost in the propagation of their own kind above all other considerations) can be assigned intrinsic value rigorously. This is closely tied to the controversial concept of emergence (fun to note the connections between Thomas Pynchon and Norbert Weiner, thanks Will Cathcart). There is no question in my mind that wilderness is valuable to the spiritual health of humankind, and to its physical health. The latter argument is easy to make, but the former more difficult. It is interesting, though, how similar the ecosystem is to the market economy.
In the economy, agents compete for money, which basically is a symbol of the ability to control resources. In the ecosystem, agents compete for energy, which is used to increase or propagate their physical identity (genes). I think the answer must lie somewhere between the intrinsic (spiritual) value of something that is beautiful (aesthetics) and the ability of the system to efficiently allocate resources (making life for people better, allowing them to take more time to enjoy themselves and their surroundings). What a person finds to be beautiful is a reflection of their inner self (which, for all I know, may be just another emergent property of one’s brain). And, I believe it pleases God when we delight in the surroundings he has placed us in. Ultimately, this leads us to love Him more deeply, and to see His presence in unexpected places, and thus we can learn to love deeply that which is deemed repugnant by the standards of any society. These thoughts are rich in seeming paradoxes, which resolve into layers of meaning, ad infinitum (like a fractal?).

“The defining conflict of the next era will be whether life has any intrinsic value, or whether it is merely a tool for the continued propagation of human interests.” From The Corporation. I thought it was pretty biased, but very interesting and informative. I especially liked the interviews with Ray Anderson, of Interface Carpetting. My view is that the phenomenon of life cannot be confined to the stereotype of either extreme. It is valuable both for intrinsic and instrumental reasons. In this sense, wildness is a source for both art and engineering. Also in the news, the research of Alan Pounds, of Monteverde (where I will be studying abroad for the next four months) Costa Rica on tropical frog populations.
Now, for a few links. First, I was surprised to find evidence to contradict a stereotype (it originally came from the concept of takers and LEAVERS in Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael) I had about indigenous peoples of the past. I realized they actually weren’t perfect. In fact, I expect their sinfulness and relative ability to live sustainably was the same as all people, except their circumstances didn’t allow their culture to expand continually like exploitive agriculturalists did (see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel) and destroy or assimilate almost every other culture.
And, I am disturbed by a few trends in the culture. One is the disintegration of organized religions. Without religious traditions and scripture, how will we have any objective source for prioritizing our personal lives? I can assure you, if I didn’t have access to fellowship with other believers and the scriptures, my ability to love other people would dramatically decline as my life became dominated by selfishness and evil. Secondly, I don’t like the rampant surveillance going on, with the NSA, etc. It fits too well with ideas like the “mark of the beast” in Revelation (read it even if you aren’t a Christian. It’s a fascinatingly complex book). Bush isn’t the antichrist, of course, but one can discern certain tendencies in our society toward centralization and forced (albeit subtly) ideological uniformity, which, combined with vacuous “spirituality” premised on what amounts to hedonism leads to nothing short of tyranny. Also, I have become interested in Michel Foucault‘s meditation that modern prisons are seeking to punish not the body but the soul.
And finally, on a lighter note, don’t forget that “awkwardness is the new sexy.” That’s good news for all you nerds. Credit goes to Will Cathcart once again.

I am a rural person. I know a lot of “great thinkers” lived in big cities, but I believe that there is something to be said for the rural life. First of all, rural people are generally not very powerful, and thus they don’t cause scandalously huge amounts of damage to society when they act in a corrupt fashion (like this Jack Abramoff fellow seems to have done. I bet he didn’t grow up in the country.). Now, it’s not that country people are better than everyone else, it’s just that when they do what is wrong, it doesn’t cause the deaths of millions of innocent people, or the squandering of public property or funds, etc. When you screw somebody over in the country, they usually just hold a bitter grudge against you for a very, very long time. But, back to the point. The point is I think that a lot of people who are in my generation (I’m in college) are afraid to live in rural areas because of economic insecurity. Why is this? Why do all the “good” jobs have to be in a big city? The reason this bothers me is that I think that a lot of the intelligent folks would actually enjoy the rural life if they could see if for what it really is, rather than dwelling on the stereotypes (such as Deliverance).
Another thing that is bothering me is that I think the current economic situation is highly unstable. The dependence on foreign oil, the unfamiliarity of folks with how to procure food from the land, and how to work primitive technology. One electromagnetic pulse would be sufficient to render the entire Eastern US helpless, because everything is digital. It’s pretty scary. I think a little bit of farming familiarity would do a lot of people good. I was going to write more, but I’ll leave it at this. I’m worried we are about to hit another dark age, one from which it will be incredibly difficult to recover from, due to the ecological exhaustion of the land. Oh yeah, and there is one other thing, WIKIPEDIA IS TAKING OFF. The internet is my favorite digital technology. Even if our electronic world is about to come crashing down around us, we might as well take advantage of its fruits while they are still around (like blogs)!
And, I have become more confidant in the intellectual foundations of Christianity. Metaphysics ultimately boils down to choices between mysteries, not foolproof arguments.

I finished Foucault’s Pendulum. My favorite sections are here. It, along with my evolution/creationism class, has spawned a host of questions about the nature of the world. I started reading Metaphysics, by Peter van Inwagen; and The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. Basically over the past few weeks I have been compelled to completely rethink my entire belief system and I have closed off very few of the fuzzy conflicts. One thing I did realize, though, is that I believe it is more important to spend time with family and friends than to constantly philosophize. Also, I think that most of the “hot button” issues today (war in Iraq, evolution/Intelligent Design in schools, abortion, homosexuality, technological control over our bodies and the natural world, etc.) stem from a small number of deeper, foundational questions. For example, many environmental conflicts result because it is difficult to establish what the difference is between a phenomenon that is anthropogenic and one that is “natural”. The concept of “wildness” is surprisingly elusive. Also, the question of what criteria we use to define “being human” or “science” is the deeper question that causes the issues of abortion and Intelligent Design to arise. I have made one conclusion about the evolution/ID debate: it doesn’t matter whether ID is true or not; what matters is whether it is science or not. I do not think it meets any of the usual demarcation criteria. Besides, as a Christian, why would I require any scientific evidence to justify my belief in God? I would rather believe in a God that is “beyond human understanding” than one that can be manipulated in an experiment.
Finally, I think people have a mythical urge to worship something. If not God, then what? We are natural idolaters. Just look at the pages of fashion magazines, like Vogue. These idols are modern day equivalents of Aphrodite and Isis. Many Americans are captivated by these “super-beautiful” celebrities and practically worship certain of them. Other people idolize financial success (by the way, I am opposed to state-sponsored gambling like the recent NC Lottery). There is idolatry going on everywhere, because people want there to be something more than God. In Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco quotes Karl Popper: “The conspiracy theory of society…comes from rejecting God, and asking who is in His place?” Despite the prolific problems associated with the mythical urge, I think it is good that we have it, because it causes people to instinctively seek God. This means that scientific, valueless, objective statements will never give people a satisfyingly complete worldview. Either they will become atheists and worship the mind and the thought process (akin to Weston in C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra), or they will seek something deeper than mere physics and dwell in the realm of myth. Myth is not a derogatory term.

Found a number of interesting links. One about a Japanese AT hiker; International Organizations:
Oxfam, Worldvision (my friend volunteered for it).
Also several links about Christian non-marriage: 1,2,3,4
I am wanting to read Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat.
Always fun to check out Trailjournals.
Books I’m reading for Thanksgiving Break: Humility by Andrew Murray, Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco, Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter, and maybe a few others.
I just found out about Google Video. My favorite so far is probably here.

I now know what William Gibson meant in Neuromancer. On Wednesday I had almost 8 straight hours of philosophical discourse. First, I drafted an essay on the connection between the fetus’s “right to life” (in the abortion debate) to the rights of unborn generations to a good life (ie right to live in an environmentally and culturally sound world). Then, I met with the campus RUF minister and we discussed the prospect of Christian Dating (note there is nothing in the Bible that applies to this topic), and more generally the importance of belonging to the body of Christ (Christian Community). I found out that the Church Community, not the nuclear family, is the critical social unit to belong to. In fact Christ had many anti-family teachings (see Mark 10:29-30). Then at lunch a 2 hour debate on the limits of science. As a scientist, I am a strict empiricist; as a person, I am something else (not yet defined). Science is one of many tools I use to understand the world (the others including experience, emotion, imagination, revelation, cultural traditions, etc.). Note, however, that science is the only one of these that I can propagate to others in a value-free manner. That is to say, all the other epistemological tools are personal and not fully transferable to others without ethical ramifications. Science, on the other hand, is thankfully amoral (the scientific process is, but scientists are people too with all the concomitant flaws, and this causes the interaction between science and society to be less than the amoral ideal at times…). Then I had another long talk with my Biology professor about the culture wars over Creationism and Evolution. Exhaustion comes from the influx of concepts at a rate greater than the processing capacity of my brain.
The root questions are at once the most destabilizing and the most fruitful: THEOLOGY, SCIENCE, and INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS.
No matter which one you are engaged in, you are bound to come up against something greater than yourself!

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