Writing about science after a long hiatus

In an effort to find additional meaning in my life (ha!) and curb AKA shut away my anxiety, I did my best this past month to write more. Write anything! The end result was an article for Nerd Rageย on a recent study that showed that Tawi-tawi has more commercially important reef fish species compared to Palawan or Cebu. The study was conducted by a team from the Mindanao State University-Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography (MSU-TCTO), the University of the Philippines-Diliman, and the University of the Philippines-Mindanao.
Why this study? First, because the author offered me a copy of the pre-print article so that I couldย  read it and start working on my article before the fianl published work came out (hai Richard!). Second, because I find Tawi-tawi fascinating ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ve only been there twice – both for work surveys – so I’m always game to learn more about the area.

A glimpse into Bongao’s “tabuh” (wet market):

Researcher Ting Nanola surveys the Bongao “tabuh” for commercially important reef fish species
Read my article and Richard’s journal paper! They’re fun ๐Ÿ˜„
As I anticipated, the headline caused a good-natured argument/trashtalk among the local fisheries scientists. Richard Muallil is the study’s lead author and is based out of MSU Tawi-Tawi, while Rodulf Balisco is based out of Palawan State University.
The article’s getting good traction, mostly because of Richard’s network, but also because it’s a study on Tawi-Tawi. We really ought to pay more attention to the Philippines’ southernmost province.
Here’s to writing more and promoting the critical work of Filipino scientists to fellow Filipinos.

Why I walked away from research

A month ago, Mantle Magazine published another article of mine: The travels and trails of a marine biologist in the Philippines. AKA Why I gave up on being a researcher, it was originally titled “Wanted: Perfect Scientist” but yay for editors fixing it.

All in all, this was a very difficult article to write and something a long time coming. Writing was difficult because it forced me to organize my thoughts and put into words the jumbled mess of emotions that came with putting aside a childhood dream. How do you reconcile working so hard for so many years and then giving it up?
Me during happier times

Sometimes, things don’t work out the way you want them to. Sometimes due to things you can control, sometimes due to things you can’t.

Sometimes, you find another path. Sometimes the new path works, sometimes it doesn’t. Then you have to go find a new path.

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Macy goes to ICRS 2016

I attended my first-ever International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) last June 20-24, 2016 in Honolulu, Hawaii (!!!). Basically, ICRS is the biggest gathering of coral reef and reef fish nerds on the planet. I felt right at home ๐Ÿ˜€ <3

Here’s me presenting my study Abundance patterns of coral-dependent reef fish in select sites in the Philippines,ย co-authored with my boss and Denmark [another research assistant]). Fortunately or unfortunately, our session was scheduled in the theater so I presented on a sizable stage with a huge screen and the attendees had stadium seating. Other attendees said it was a plus because people could go in and out of the theater without the presenter noticing. Me, I was mostly concerned about presenting to a noticeably sparsely populated room.

02 ICRS1

My presentation was scheduled at 9:30 am – not exactly primetime for scientists ๐Ÿ˜› Iris (a fellow Filipino who’s based in the National University of Singapore) joked that she thought of attending my talk but opted not to because of the early schedule. Don’t worry Iris, it’s all good ๐Ÿ˜› I had two people ask me about the study, though I don’t think the second one counts because she was more interested in the aquarium fish trade rather than the coral reef-reef fish patterns. Referred her to my labmate Jem though ๐Ÿ™‚

This is me thanking those who made my study and the trip to ICRS possible: our source of research funding (but not of travel grants) DOST-PCAARRD, my awesomesauce labmates, Dr. Ting Nanola of UP Mindanao of his insights, and Pinky’s Goodiesย bakery for the travel grant <3 Actually, that travel grant thank you should have been Pinky’s Goodies, Bar Pintxos, Alma Javelosa, Virgie Sorita, and friends and customers of Geekerie. THANK YOU!
03 pinkys slide

Before ICRS though, I attended a two-day workshop on coral identification at the Waikiki Aquarium taught by Russell Kelley of BYO Guides. Attending the workshop was more to confirm and shore up my existing coral ID skills rather than learning from scratch. It also showed me how to run a coral ID workshop, which is something I’m likely to use in the future ๐Ÿ™‚ Plus it was fun!

01 coral ID training group pic

ICRS was a great experience. I learned a lot from the different sessions and the sessions reminded me of how much I miss working on corals ๐Ÿ˜› The ones that stuck with me the most were the status reports on the 2016 mass bleaching event in the Great Barrier Reef and the update on the West Philippine Sea scenario (the wholesale destruction of the reefs by the Chinese, the illegal extraction of giant clams, sea turtles, and other endangered species, the arbitration case in the Hague, etc.). It was interesting to hear about the case from Dr. Kent Carpenter (he served as an expert witness for the Philippine delegation), whose testimony included citing a paper that showed that the Spratlys may be a significant source of coral larvae (and by reasonable extension, fish larvae) for Palawan and some isolated reefs in the West Philippine Sea. I also thought of looking out for Dr. Morgan Pratchettย but decided against it because I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to ask him about butterflyfishes and coral reefs, even though they’re my two favorite things. I did get to interview Dr. Terry Hughes (THE Dr. Terry Hughes!) though for an article about the mass bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef, which will hopefully be done by this week.

No word yet on where ICRS 2020 will be as no one bid to host it. ICRS 2012 was in Cairns, Australia, then 2016 in Hawaii, USA. Maybe somewhere in South America for 2020? Let’s see ๐Ÿ™‚

EDIT: The United Nations Arbitral Tribunal rules in favor of the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea dispute.

Around the Philippines in 7 months

Our fieldwork for Year 1 of our research project started in earnest last January then proceeded nonstop until July. In those seven months, I’ve been to 11 municipalities in nine provinces all over the country. My Philippine map is looking pretty good!

It’s been an exhausting seven months, filled with interviews, focus group discussions, market surveys, fish landing surveys, fishery intercepts, fish visual census, and benthic cover surveys. Oh, and report writing. Can’t forget the dreaded report writing.

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So what does a marine biologist do, exactly?

A typical conversation with someone I just met:

New Person: “So, what do you do?”
Me: “I’m a marine biologist.”
New Person: “That’s so cool! So what do you do exactly?”
That question always stumps me for a moment or two. How does one condense one’s job/career into one sentence? In the end, I usually go with “I go diving and count fish”, which doesn’t really help all that much. After six months of relatively intensive fieldwork, I now have enough visual aids to answer that question with! (Thank you to my awesome teammates for the photos. Whee!)
So, what does a marine biologist do, exactly? In my case, being a marine biologist involves:
Diving and counting fish using fish visual census. We then use the census data to estimate the total fish biomass in the area. We also use the list of fish species found to see if the area is overfished or not. Still learning to identify my fish but I’m getting there. The Philippines has over 1,800 species of marine fish so cut me some slack ๐Ÿ˜› Photo by Jem Baldisimo
fish visual census

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And so field season starts.

The last week of January marked the start of our research lab’s field season, AKA the time of year where we spend half the time out on coral reefs, markets, and community groups and the other half preparing for the next trip. Thought it gets exhausting, I love it! ๐Ÿ˜€

Our first trip of the year took us to Bolinao and Anda in Pangasinan. They’re logical starting points because everybody in MSI does research in Bolinao. Working out of the Bolinao Marine Laboratory is the perfect starting point for a new lab because it provides practically everything we need, thus easing us into the hazy maze of logistics, finances, permission letters, and the myriad other things involved in organizing a trip.

Bolinao and Anda basically served as our training grounds. Our lab head and one of the project’s Project Staff demonstrated how to conduct focus group discussions (FGD) with the local fishermen. Since historical data regarding Philippine fisheries is pretty spotty, we rely on the community’s expertise and historical knowledge to fill in the gaps. And since we don’t want to make coming to the FGD difficult, we go to where is most convenient for the community to gather. Whether it’s the barangay hall:

00 fishers at FGD

Or underneath a large mango tree in the Barangay Captain’s backyard, we’re there ๐Ÿ˜€

01 fishers at Pilar FGD

After a day of demonstrations, we were on our own. I don’t think we did too badly ๐Ÿ˜›

03 Carot, Anda_Jan 2015_FGD_001_small

This FGD was done in the middle of the road! We couldn’t fit inside the kagawad’s house so we had to bring it outside. We had tricycles passing through our group every now and then. After the FGD, we got to go around and observe the community at work.

There were fishermen and women beating their nets to remove the fish they caught:

05 fisherwoman_small

And women preparing rabbitfish (Family Siganidae) for drying.

06 preparing danggit_small

Danggit, or dried rabbitfish, is a popular Filipino dish. The most common rabbitfish in the Bolinao-Anda area is Siganus fuscescens.

04 Siganus fuscescens danggit

We also intercepted fishermen at their landing sites and asked if we could measure and weigh the fish that they caught. The fishers were really nice and allowed us to do this.

09 Siganus guttatus caught

We had to wake up before dawn to meet the fishers. We looked pretty happy though.

06 team at sunrise

Aside from the fishermen, we talked to the market vendors too, asking about their prices and where they got their stocks. Two of our labmates used to do this type of work with the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) so they were old hands at charming the ladies. It also helped that we were there during the off-peak market hours and that we bought something from practically every seller we interviewed.

04 market survey

Some dried flying fish:

08 dried fish

And Bolinao’s famous danggit:

07 danggit in market

We have several more monitoring stations to go: Lian in Batangas, Sablayan in Occidental Mindoro, Taytay in Palawan, and Samal Island in Davao. Those don’t include the random areas that we’re going to visit only once for the national assessment project. Here’s to more science and how local communities can benefit from scientific research ๐Ÿ™‚

 

On our way back to BML! #work #sunshine

A photo posted by Macy (@theislandergirl) on

2014 in review

The year 2014 was a particularly big year for me – even bigger than 2013 and so big that I barely got to write about it! The irony pains me because I absolutely love writing but writing for fun (AKA this blog) takes up time and effort that I could be using to write for my job. Anyway, this just means that I need better time management skills.

What went down in 2014:

I learned how to surf! Well, maybe learned is too strong a word. Maybe tried out is more appropriate. Haha. My friends and I went to San Juan, La Union and I climbed onto a surfboard for the first time. I finally caught my first wave by the morning of the second day and limited my falls by the morning of the third. Thank you so much Lea and team for your energy and patience! This 2015 means more regular trips to legitimately learn how to surf.

04 April 03_small

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