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A research assistant’s notebook

By Mark Windell B. Vergara (Star Science)

Even before the the May 2004 elections, our country has been undergoing “economic
depression” and since then, more and more people have been losing thieir jobs or
have been on overqualified or underpaid jobs. Since then also, I have been asked a
lot of times if I have a job, followed by what my job is.

To describe what a science researcher is, I often tell stories of my adventures,

or should I say, my misadverntures in the field. It could be the time when I was
confronted by a drunken policeman in Palanan, Isabela, holding a rifle and asking
for my cedula (residence certificate) because he wasn’t sure I was a Filipino. I
sure had a hard time explaining why I didn’t have my cedula with me in my wetsuit.
It could also be when I had to wait for sea snakes to leave the transect line
before I could proceed with my seaweed surveys in Polillo, Quezon, and I had to
stop and wait from time to time whenever they would decide to return. Another one
was when we were told by our boat tender that he had just asked a fisherman to
postpone throwing excessive dynamite in the water because we accidentally chose to
survey on the tiny island where they were storing and mixing the dynamite they
used for catching fish. Still another one was when we were told by a fisherman in
Hinatuan, Surigao del Sur just before a survey that sharks no longer existed in
their waters — because the crocodiles had eaten them all!

I usually crack jokes about my job but when the discussions become more serious, I
start by saying, “… But seriously, I love my job!” and that’s when I start getting
those little smiles from people that I know really mean “Yeah, right!” It is a
fact that compensation for science researchers, especially in government
institutions, is what one would call “very disappointing”. But I do enjoy this
job. I love how I learn a lot in the laboratory and in the field, and how the
janitor, secretary, administrator, cash officer, market person, cook, dishwasher,
muscle man, utility man, technician, liaison officer, writer, public speaker,
scientist, and supervisor all fit the job description of a research associate like
me. I love learning new things every day and knowing that what I’m doing is
contributing to scientific knowledge and to an improved quality for my fellow

Conducting marine research definitely has its difficulties, but the rewards
absolutely far outweigh the difficulties. I was a fresh graduate freom UPLB when I
joined Project 1 of the four-year Pacific Seaboard R&D program funded by the DOST
back in 1999. Project 1, entitled “Assessment of reef resources of eastern
Philippines,” was implemented by the Marine Science Institute of the University of
the Philippines (UPMSI). One of the highlights of Project 1 was going on research
cruises on board the UP Visayas’ TR/V Sardinella during the summer. I can’t
explain how excited I was on that journey. We were scheduled to be at sea for 21
days to survey the upper half of the eastern side of the country. Imagine doing
two to three dives a day in areas which most people only dream of only see in
postcards or magazines, or more often than not, have not been explored by divers.

For the four-year duration of the project, the macrophytes study alone (seaweeds
and seagrasses) was able to establish 141 seaweed survey/collection sites along
the eastern Philippine coast and we discovered a new species of seaweed in
Sorsogon. We also found a seagrass species previously thought of as rarely
occurring, to occur in 15 more sites around the country. We were always working
very hard but we were also diving in pristine sites, and had great encounters wit
dugong, dolphins, sea snakes, seahorses, large fishes and the like.

One of my most unforgettable experiences in the field, however, was when we

conducted a reconnaisance survey on Calagua Island in Camarines Norte in
preparation for a research cruise in the summer of 2001. What was supposed to be a
three-hour boat ride took six hours due to bad weather. The swells were so high
that during our lunch stop the boatman hd to tie his boat together because it was
breaking in two. From there the almost unbearable journey lasted for another four
hours. This time we (another research associate and I) were even hungrier than
before we had our lunch because we threw up more and faces after throwing up
because the huge waves that were getting into the boat would wash it off for us

Upon reaching the island, the locals immediately gathered around us and asked us
if we were the ones sent by the government to help them find a cure for the new
disease that was damaging their crops. It turned out that a new disease, other
than the common “ice-ice disease”, was infecting their cultivated seaweeds. The
collapse of the seaweed farming industry to poverty. The people on the island
could no longer pay their electricity bills (a big generator provided electricity
to the whole island) because their source of income was either reduced or totally
lost due to the new disease. The whole island had been without electricity since
the outbreak of the new disease. We regretfully had to inform them that although
we did work for the government, the most we could do for them was to bring samples
of the infected seaweeds to someone who might be able to help them. That night we
slept with a heavy heart, not because we slept on the floor, but because we pitied
the residents of that poor island. This experience just made me my love even more,
knowing my work could somehow help improve the lives of the people who depend on
the marine environment — say, 50 percent of the Philippine population at the

Three years after that experience, I’m still with the UP Marine Science Institute
as a graduate student and part-time research associate. I keep telling my friends
that there is hope in what I do — that I will not become part of the statistics of
people who have chosen to forgo their dreams and passions for “more comfortable
lives” by migrating to Australia or Canada or by joining well-paying call centers.
I’d like to prove to people that there is hope for science researchers and do just
like what Confucius said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never had to work a
day in your life.” Since I love my job, I don’t consider it work!

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