Respect and gratitude
03 Jul 2023 | Zomesh Maini PhD
Read the message on behalf of the 2023 graduate students delivered by Zomesh Maini, Doctor of Philosophy in Biology, during the 2023 Loyola Schools Commencement Exercises on Friday, 30 June and Saturday, 1 July 2023.
We started on this path to higher learning for varying reasons. There are those of us who began with a profound amazement at the fields we are enamored with, full of righteous, larger-than-life ideas. Then there are those who pursued a degree primarily out of necessity. After all, education is the great equalizer for those of us who have little capital beyond ourselves. Obtaining our degrees, we imagined, would help us fulfill our dreams and aspirations.
In my case, both were true.
My parents were scientists who once worked in the agricultural sector. Going with them as a child to the places where they worked sparked a love for science that pointed towards a future in biology.
Unfortunately, I lost my father when I was just eight. After the long hospitalization, we had close to nothing; his illness chipped away at whatever meager resources our small family had. For most of my college life, we had to do without electricity at home and with water seeping from our roof whenever it rained heavily. I thought I needed to change all this, not just for myself, but for the people I valued. I am sure that many of you have faced challenges that have similarly pushed you to work steadfastly, fueled by both love and necessity, towards some vision of personal progress.
What I loved and what I needed to do found form in studying science. I have always believed that science is at the core of the human experience, that it fundamentally intersects with every aspect of life and all other disciplines. At the heart of various issues we face, there is almost always a science question that can help illuminate a path forward.
For me though, science is also practical and ideal. Getting a degree in this field was a pragmatic life plan for a very limited person such as myself. I have no shame in saying that I saw it as a means of emancipation from my financial struggles. At the same time, science for me is a home as I see it through a rose-colored lens – the same one I use to view the larger world.
That said, the experience of pursuing a PhD is as far from “pragmatic” and “practical” and even much farther from “rosy.” Let me share with you two short stories that I hope encapsulate my journey of the last seven years.
This first story is one of respect.
My dissertation is about how the process of fermentation using microorganisms worked to make virgin coconut oil or VCO, a high-value economic commodity that we export to many countries in the West. This product and the process used to make it have a long history and significance to cultures of Asia and the Pacific. In fact, the Philippines is the second largest producer of coconut oils in the world with total sales worth millions of dollars in 2022.
Part of the work involved going to places that used decades-old traditional fermentation practices. The sampling led me to a commercial producer in Palawan who employed indigenous peoples and used a conventional method of making VCO. To say that I was surprised at what they were doing is an understatement. While mechanization and the imprint of technological use in the process were evident, some of the steps were done manually.
“Gumagamit sila ng tabo at balde para gawin yung ibang mga hakbang sa proseso. Ni hindi ko alam kung naiintindihan ba nila nang buo kung paano gumagana yung ginagamit nila, pero gumagana, kaya patuloy nilang ginagawa.”
I never knew that a top commercial export commodity was made this way, let alone that the people making it were using a process the science of which was not completely understood!
After the initial shock came a moment of revelation. In any field of study, there is that remarkable possibility for the unraveling of some mystery and the shaping of human understanding. But often, our view of how our disciplines work is confined to institutional wisdom and limited by technicalities perceived to be foundational to what we do. We tend to forget that there is also wisdom outside orthodox methods.
The experience was a reminder that technical progress is deeply grounded and embedded in historical, social, cultural, and political realities. I gained nothing but respect and admiration for what they were doing and this kind of science -- by people and for people – a science that transcends established boundaries. It is up to us to figure out how we can draw inspiration from voices outside the academe and weave their wisdom into the fabric of what we do, all the while embracing the innovations and developments of this technological age.
That was the first story - this second one, is a story of gratitude.
We each have our own narrative of how the COVID-19 pandemic affected us. My experience was one of disorientation as my dissertation-in-progress got caught up in the middle of the lockdowns. To say that COVID ripped apart my well-laid plans is an understatement. The bacterial cultures I had been cultivating for the good part of a year died in the months that we were not allowed to do experiments. The data I had became statistically invalid and irreproducible. My scholarship ended, and I lost the drive, the excitement, and the desire to work that I had managed to maintain since I started my PhD. I did not enroll for two semesters, and I was technically out of the program. I was lost. I had no idea what to do.
At the peak of this situation, people came together and gave me hope. Every time I hit a roadblock in my studies, someone came and pushed me forward. When the research was due and I could not deliver, Dr Espiritu and the Ateneo Research Institute of Science and Engineering gave me an extension. When I found it impossible to balance full-time work and full-time study, our chair, Dr Ragaza, gave me a work schedule that would allow me to repeat experiments continuously. When my paper was rejected twice for publication, my adviser, Dr Lopez, and other friends from the Departments of Biology and Environmental Sciences staunchly believed that it would eventually be accepted. When I was about to do my final defense and could not understand the many mathematical and technical aspects of my own work, friends and colleagues from other departments, and even former students, all came to my rescue.
Perhaps what I remember best is my mother tidying my laboratory backpack while I was AWOL. I asked what she was doing. Sabi niya, “Niligpit ko yung bag para handa na, pag balik mo.” She is here today, and I am sure is very happy. She could not finish her own PhD because she had to take care of three children on her own.
Nanay ito oh, nakaisa ka na!
We are here today because of the generosity of all these people. Look to the front, and to the back, and to your sides. These are the people who had much hope for us when we kept none for ourselves. They never stopped believing in what we could accomplish.
I hope that somehow, all of you can resonate with these two stories because these are illustrations of how embracing humility and the help of others can enrich us. Knowledge and human advancement are not only acquired through the books we read, lectures we listen to, and conferences we attend. They dwell in the wisdom of lived experiences, the diverse perspectives we encounter, as well as in generosity of spirit and the interconnectedness of our lives.
Today, as we celebrate the culmination of years of our dedicated work, I hope that you are not yet tired, because this is just the beginning. Whether you labored out of love or out of necessity, it is now, when we are well-equipped, that we can push the boundaries of what is known and work to make an impact on the lives of others. We can now begin to meld our past and our vision of the future and create opportunities for sharing progress and pursuing justice.
We can strive to become Lux-In-Domino: agents of light, of peace, and of hope.
On behalf of all the graduate students of this batch, it is with immeasurable gratitude for all the grace we have received that we look forward to giving back. We celebrate this momentous occasion, when we go out into the world as its architects, a world where the timeless knowledge of the past converges with the boundless potential of the future.
Thank you, and may everyone’s journey be filled with purpose and passion as we continue to seek the truth, fight for our advocacies, inspire others, and engage with the world.
Congratulations Batch 2023. We have fought the good fight - we have finished the race.
Patnubayan at gabayaan nawa tayo ng panginoon!
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