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.

April 2008 (corresponding photo album here)

(Continued from Part 1) After Ranau, I tried to catch a bus to the coastal town of Sandakan, but since no bus arrived, I ended up hitchhiking 3 hours with a bunch of carousing Muslim Filipino guys from Zamboanga City (Mindanao) instead. This was probably not a wise decision, because whenever you read about terrorists or kidnappings in the Philippines, the reporters always write about it from Zamboanga. It’s only a stone’s throw away from Basilan, which is considered the island base of the terrorist “Abu Sayyaf” group. Nevertheless, I had a great time chatting with them in Tagalog, and they never bothered me except asking for a few ringgits for gas and constantly pressuring me to visit a nightclub with them when we got to Sandakan, which I politely declined. Interestingly, they listened to a mixture of loud heavy metal music, Van Halen, and something that sounded like an Indonesian version of the Backstreet Boys on the radio. It was a lot of fun.

In Sandakan, I stayed in a hostel and joined an extremely friendly guy named Gordon to visit the Sepilok Orangutan observatory (did you know orang-utang is Malay for “Man of the forest”? Similarly, “orang-laut” means “man of the sea”. I guess we are all orangs somehow), where I was equally mesmerized by the massive number of British and German tourists as the orange, fuzzy, and definitely cute Orangutan babies swinging through the trees to get a banana. Predictably, for every five bananas set out on the platform for the orangutans, probably four of them were stolen by sneaky Macaques, possibly the same species Macaca fascicularis that the Aytas had to chase from their farms in the Philippines. Later that night, I met up with a new friend from the hostel named Zaity and joined her and her friends to go out dancing. She taught me a popular dance similar to the electric slide that is apparently the rage in Indonesia called “Poco-Poco“. It was a ton of fun, and I was the only non-Asian in the place, but when a heavily make-upped individual of ambiguous gender approached me asking for a dance, we decided to head home.

The next day, I walked around Sandakan and stumbled across a large Mosque on the outskirts of town that was under construction. I was surprised to find out that the laborers spoke no Malay nor English, but were actually Muslim Filipino migrants from Jolo (an extremely impoverished and dangerous island in the Sulu Archipelago). They invited me to visit their home, which turned out to be in an enormous slum constructed with rickety wooden planks suspended over a wide mud flat along the coast. Apparently almost everyone there was from the Philippines, and even though they have the same ethnicity and religion as the locals, the relatively wealthier Malaysian government won’t grant them any legal rights, and they survive as day laborers, essentially invisible to the rest of society. My new friend explained to me that he would rather face the discrimination and bleak employment outlook in Sabah than go back to Jolo, which is constantly ravaged by pirates, gangsters, and territory disputes between terrorist groups and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Furthermore, the largely Catholic Philippines government in Manila was not necessarily a better friend to his family than the Malaysian authorities. I found out later that an ancient border dispute exists between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah and Sulu, dating to pre-colonial times when a Sultan ruled over the area, and President Marcos even planned at one point to invade Sabah and take it from Malaysia. This historical animosity has so far prevented the Philippines from establishing a much-needed consulate in Sabah, because it would effectively end the Philippines’ claim on Sabah. Stepping tentatively across a gap in the wooden planks, below which all manner of trash and human waste floated in shallow water, I reflected with bewilderment at how ordinary people could suffer so much through no fault of their own, just because they were born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Furthermore, despite the fact that I was completely vulnerable in the slum, no one tried to rob me or even ask for money. They all just smiled and asked how my day was going.

March 2008. Click here for photos.
During my final days in the Philippines, I traveled with Rissa, Ryan, and Riva to Sagada and Banaue in the Cordillera region of northern Luzon. We took the overnight bus to Banaue (almost 12 hours on a bumpy road) and had breakfast overlooking the famous rice terraces. The ancient indigenous Filipinos constructed these staircase-like irrigated terraces so that they could grow rice even in the extremely steep terrain of the mountains. Interestingly, this is one of the only ancient engineering feats that was accomplished without the use of slave labor (compare this to the Egyptian pyramids).
We then took a Jeepney up the steep dirt road to Bontoc and eventually Sagada. When we got out in this ethereal village, the first thing I noticed was the frequent splotches of orange coloration on the concrete pavement. Ryan explained that this was caused by locals chewing Betel nut, a mild stimulant, and spitting out the juice, which stains the pavement. Our jeepney driver allowed me to sample one from his pouch. He wrapped the nut in a ‘betel leaf’ and added some white powder. I tried to chew it but the bitter taste caused my cheeks to pucker as if I was eating a sour persimmon. I quickly spat it out, with an anguished expression which greatly amused the local passers-by.
Sagada was a wonderful contrast to Manila, with clean air, a very slow pace of life, and relatively safe and predictable foot and vehicle traffic. We enjoyed pancakes for breakfast, swimming in a giant cave, hiking along the spiny Karst ridges, exploring the steep cliffs where local ancestors were buried in hanging coffins, and meeting some of the other travelers. We befriended four German visitors; two were biochemistry and stem cell graduate students. They taught me how to say “I am a beautiful angel” in German: Ich bin eine wunderbare Enggel! I kept repeating it as we walked back to the town from our caving adventure because it was cold and raining and I wanted to keep my mind occupied.
On the long, sleepless return to Manila, I couldn’t help but recognize the parallels between Sagada and Monteverde, Costa Rica, where I spent 5 months in college studying the rain forest. It seemed fitting that my studies of tropical life, and my inspiration to apply for a grant that would send me to the other side of the world, away from everyone and everything I knew and loved, would both begin and conclude in a small town surrounded by cloud forests and cow pastures. I wondered what my friends from Costa Rica, North Carolina, and Washington and Lee were doing back in the Western Hemisphere, and felt for the first time a strong tug homeward.

March 2008- photos for this post here.

The Bicol Peninsula of Luzon is known for its spicy food, convoluted coastline, and active volcanoes. On my first visit to Bicol in December 2007, fellow fulbrighter Rissa introduced me to her aunt’s coworker, Cam, who offered to show me around the coal-fired power plant where he worked. In March, Cam generously took the time to host me in Mauban, Quezon Province, and explained to me the inner workings of the plant. It was amazing to see how organized, professional, and clean everything was inside the plant. There was a big fence around the whole area, a loading dock where coal from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) is delivered, the furnace and smoke stack itself, and a small village housing the employees. My first impression of the community was that it was almost too perfect, similar to the dharma initiative village in Lost. Everything was running smoothly. Cam even explained to me the prolific, and extremely specific, environmental control measures the power plant employs, many of which go above and beyond the requirements set by the government regulator. I was especially impressed that the company had planted hundreds of trees on their property, and actively defended the stand from timber poaching. In sharp contrast to so many other experiences I had had in the Philippines, this place was actually functional. It reminded me too much of the United States! I was almost experiencing reverse culture shock by the time Cam dropped me off again at the Pagbilao bus terminal.

Whale sharks, the largest fish in the world, have long been associated with Donsol, Sorsogon, my next stop in Bicol. For years, fishermen from this sleepy town cursed the giant butanding for breaking their nets. Then one day a German tourist came and photographed more than a dozen whale sharks in a single day, and before long hordes of foreigners descended on Donsol. Now tourism is a mainstay of the local economy, and a huge shark mural adorns the elementary school wall. I was not disappointed in my own attempt to see these majestic creatures. It was fantastic to swim beside a fish the size of a school bus, even if the sheer number of other tourists in the water made it difficult to avoid getting finned in the nose occasionally. Later, I met up with a South African, an Australian couple, and a beer-drinking local tour guide who professed to be a member of the enigmatic Iglesia ni Cristo religion. They convinced me to postpone my return to Manila so I could join them in visiting a small island off the coast of Masbate, where a waterfall plunges off a cliff directly into the ocean. The S. African guy and I swam under the waterfall, and there were tiny red corals growing under the churning water. It was really fun to be pushed down to the depths by the force of the torrent. The tour guide and the boat captain cooked a fantastic lunch, including grilled liempo (kind of like a pork chop), mangoes, and an excellent marinated fish kebab. I spent my final night in a cheap hotel in Legaspi, and ended up chatting for hours with a gregarious medical supply salesman from Ilocos and the hotel staff, who convincingly pretended to be amazed at my Tagalog skills, and asked to take pictures with me. I never ceased to be amazed by the kind-heartedness of such people. The joy of sharing laughter and fellowship with new friends is the greatest reward for the weary traveler.

Here are a few things I did for the first time ever while I was in the Philippines:
FOOD

  • monitor lizard, aka “bayawak” adobo
  • balut, the boiled duck embryo
  • dinuguan, a congealed blood pudding
  • isaw, grilled pig and chicken intestines

RELIGION

  • I was invited to be one of three judges at a theological debate on “nature versus nurture” in a Claretian Seminary. I was supposed to represent the “scientific” judge. One of the other judges was an Opus Dei microbiologist and the other was a born-again Christian engineering student. All three of us were friends by the time the debate was over.
  • I touched the Black Nazarene in Quiapo.

INSOMNIA/POLITICS

  • I once stayed awake for 40 continuous hours soaking up the Manila nightlife. During this period, I walked through a rally intended to overthrow the government on my way to fellow fulbrighter Denver Nicks’ presentation on the government’s proportional representation system and its political ramifications.
  • While observing an NGO rally against the Japan Philippines Economic Partnership, I accidentally wandered into the main chamber of the Philippines Senate without an ID
  • Experienced walking through the heart of the market district during a coup attempt by a Senator, who, prior to election, had already been jailed once for attempting to overthrow the government. When I panicked and asked my Filipino companion what to do, he said, “no big deal, it happens all the time.”

February 25, 2008

(click here for photos from this trip)

“Totoy Kano” is a nickname the Aytas gave me, roughly translating to “American dude”, and whenever I used this alias, people found it hilarious. One example of this occurred when I was out hiking with my friend Happy (yes, that’s her real name!). We were visiting the Taal Volcano, a geological wonder not far from metro Manila. It is considered the world’s largest island in a lake on an island in a lake on an island! In order to get to the crater, you first drive to the edge of Taal Lake (you are already on Luzon Island), take a bangka across the lake to the island in the middle, then climb up to the edge of the crater, where you can see yet another lake with a smaller island inside! The hike was very dusty, due to the large numbers of horses used to transport Taiwanese, Korean, and (to a lesser extent) European tourists up to the top. Happy and I managed the trek on foot and celebrated with a cool buko (young coconut) drink, freshly cracked open by a machete. On the way down, we swapped book recommendations (mine was The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco). I found out from a local guy that the big lake around the volcano is heavily used to farm Tilapias to be sold in Manila fish markets, an activity not without environmental implications, as the concentration of waste and feed can alter the chemical balance of the lake.
Happy has a pretty cool family (most of whom I got to know later on). Her brother Gino is a hip hop artist known as “Nimbus Nine”, and her sister Twinkle is a designer. Happy herself was active at the time in a fantastic comedy troupe called Silly People’s Improv Theater. Anyone planning a trip to Manila should try to go to one of their shows. They usually perform at places like Mag:Net Cafe.

Feb. 14, 2008

After returning from Coron, I was supposed to start working on a botanical transect on Mt. Makiling, near Los Banos, but was delayed due to red tape. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it enabled me to have some fun around Manila. For Valentines Day, my Austrian friend Florian and I went with Kaycee and Lindsay to this great restaurant called Aioli that Ryan had recommended. It was really a hidden treasure, and I had to go the day before and map out the route to get there! I also sent a cheesy text to a bunch of random friends: “Happy Valentine’s Day! Love is not just about falling for someone, it’s also expressed in simple kindness shared with people we meet everyday. Thanks for being my friend!”