My three weeks as a sustainability consultant

The end of October marked the end of my three weeks with the Orange ASEAN Factory – a sustainability consulting training program for “young” professionals (yes, I made the cut!) from Southeast Asia and the Netherlands. This run brought together 20 participants from the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Netherlands, grouped us into small teams, and had us work on business cases for real-life sustainability issues from their partner companies. The OAF was initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and is currently organized by TheRockGroup, a sustainability consulting company in the Netherlands. This Manila run was the 7th run since OAF started in 2016.

I applied to join OAF because 1) sustainability-related training is hard to come by in general (and especially in the Philippines), and 2) I wanted experience in other industries. This 7th edition was held in Manila, so fortunately or unfortunately, I didn’t go far. Previous runs were held in Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, Jakarta, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur. Would have been nice to work in another country for a change but there were still advantages to staying close to home.

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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 πŸ˜› 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! πŸ˜€

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 πŸ˜€

01 fishers at Pilar FGD

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

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 πŸ™‚

 

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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What do you do for a living?

My co-workers and I posted “We’re Hiring!!!” notes on our Facebook accounts to help recruit two more Environmental Officers to join our team here in El Nido. Practically all the comments are in the same vein – “Wow this sounds like a dream job!”, “Wow Palawan!”, and “Wow, nice job to get away from the city!”. Now, I’m not saying that they’re wrong exactly. It just seems like people have a romanticized idea of what it is that I do for a living, especially since I only post the good stuff where we snorkel, dive, hike, kayak, interact with scientists, and produce nature videos. Like any other job, there will be good days where we get to do all the fun stuff and bad days where we just want to quit and go home.

Things to remember about applying for a job like this:

1. A degree or background in the natural sciences is a must.

Our boss, Rima, Kring, and myself all have BS Biology degrees from the University of the Philippines-Diliman (biased much? LOL). This was intentional because part of the job description is being the resident “environmental expert” for the guests and staff. I’ve had people ask me to identify a snake based only on the vaguest of descriptions (black, long, and with a pointed head), not realizing that the Philippines is home to hundreds of species of snake. Concerned staff wanted the resident doctor (for humans!) and I to look after a large water monitor lizard that had bloody scratches on its belly.Yes, we really went to Cove 2 and Doc Raymond really brought his rolling medical kit even though we couldn’t do anything for the lizard. People expect you to know why jellyfish abound during a certain time of the year and the name of the bird they heard singing. My co-workers and I don’t know everything of course, but you have to be at least two steps above the non-science person.

2. You must be able to handle long bouts of loneliness.

You are on a literal island, separated from your friends and family for weeks at a time. Unless you adapt, make new friends, or maybe hook up with a fellow staff member, you will get lonely at times. And hooking up with another staff member has its own pros and cons. We stockpile DVDs of movies and TV shows whenever we’re in Manila. On our days off, we go out every single day and try to meet up with as many people as we can. I finish one novel a week when I’m here. I did more work on my masters thesis in the past two weeks than my past month in Manila because there’s really nothing else to do (erm, this would be a good thing I think?).

3. You will meet people from all walks of life and everyone will have something to say. You may not necessarily agree with them, but you will have to be non-judgmental.

4. You will have to do things above and beyond what’s officially included in the job description simply because there’s no one else to do it.

In my short time here, I’ve had to learn how to us Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, Soundbooth, and Premiere Pro, Windows Movie Maker, and Microsoft Publisher to produce videos, short stories, placemats, coloring books, guidebooks, calendars, and other collateral that are not normally within the skill set of a Biology major. EOs also get recruited to host the company Christmas parties. Apparently, EOs don’t move up the corporate ladder – they move across.

Those four things said, I really like my job. Depending on what’s happening when you ask me (e.g. seeing a hawksbill sea turtle while snorkeling in Miniloc), I’d even say that I love my job. This post is intended to temper expectations, not discourage. If you still feel that this is the job for you, then go for it! See you in El Nido πŸ™‚