Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Studies on phytoplankton

(A speech given to students with honors at Negros Occidental National Science High School’s recognition rites)

I OFTEN start my talks as a naturalist with the following exercise, and I figured this would be interesting for the excellent students of a science high school.

I invite all of you to sit with your spine gently straightened, both feet planted firmly on the earth, shoulders relaxed and free from tension, back of your neck relaxed, forehead relaxed, and face relaxed. There, that’s better.

Now the next thing I’ll ask of you is to simply enjoy three full breaths. Inhale deep, and exhale slowly. Repeat two times. Smile when you breathe out.
Good morning. Please don’t forget to keep breathing as you listen. You know how oxygen helps your brain. Smile, too, because you are enjoying your breath while you are enjoying your success today. You made it through another year of the rigorous program of Negros Occidental National Science High School. Congratulations!

This breathing exercise is an opportunity for me to ask, in scientific terms, where does the oxygen we breathe come from? I, of course, expect graduates from a special science curriculum to know.

When I was a student here, I was taught like everyone else that oxygen came from trees through the process of photosynthesis. That remains true, but now with updated science, we estimate only one of three breaths came from trees.

The two other breaths? They came from the ocean and other bodies of water – specifically, from microscopic photosynthetic organisms called phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton comes in different sizes and shapes but they’re very small that most cannot be individually seen by the naked eye. But they are so many that their cumulative energy fixation in carbon compounds is the basis for the vast majority of oceanic and freshwater food webs.

In other words, phytoplankton rules the world.

I know not all of you will end up as scientists or doctors, and maybe one or none will specialize in phytoplankton studies. Some of you will become lawyers or government leaders, some will be engineers or nurses. Some of you will be teachers, some will even come back here to teach at their alma mater.

Some will drop out of college to start working, or maybe start a company, go back to school, or maybe not. Who knows? Some of you will be writers, artists, photographers, mothers, fathers, dancers, housemates in Pinoy Big Brother or contestants in a talent reality show.

How will research studies of phytoplankton affect you? What does this mean for all of us?

Today, I was invited by the faculty, some of them my former schoolmates while I was a student here, and some of them were also my teachers whose guidance and patience I grew up with. They invited me to speak about “Making a Difference.”

Here are three points I have in mind about making a difference.

1. Practice compassion every day. Compassion may be a spiritual term, but if you want to be scientific about it, it is truly realizing the interdependence and interconnectedness we learn in ecology. It is empathy with wisdom and gratitude, discerning that all beings on this planet matter, even the smallest phytoplankton. In fact, these microorganisms matter a lot. We have oxygen because of them. We are an infinitely linked web, so whatever we do to others (people, plants, and animals) affect us too. Compassion makes a difference to how we live our life – because with it we understand how we are able to breathe air, how we are able to drink water, and how we are able to eat our food.

2. Use your knowledge and skills to make a contribution to society, no matter how small. What you know and what you can do will only be valuable if they have served their purpose. I would like you to meet Kim Casipe, who’s here with me today. She graduated from science high school in 2012. She is part of the team who study and protect a small pod of 9-19 critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in the coastal waters of Bago and Pulupandan.

She and her colleagues have made me understand that this pod of dolphins represent a bigger picture of many other ecological and economic issues. I now work with her in conservation and environmental education projects, and I continue to be inspired by how she uses science to advocate for better environmental policy and to engage people of all ages to connect deeply with nature.

She is also a fellow advocate for reducing carbon footprint and our waste in daily life – through small acts of refusing plastic straws or bottled water. The phytoplankton I have spoken about is facing a decline because of ocean warming and acidification, and our generations are inheriting a world of anthropogenic climate change, biodiversity loss, and plastic pollution. Whatever your roles and professions you take in the future, you can and you will make a difference if you choose to.

3. For my last pointer, I invite you all to think about excellence. Is it a high score, or a fat paycheck? When you someday get any job, you will be asked to report on measurable outcomes. You use the scientific method to measure performance – and assign a data range for categories of poor, fair, or excellent.

Then you will see this performance has a corresponding reward (or punishment) – you get a promotion and a raise when you are excellent, or you get reprimanded or fired if you didn’t do your job.

It is pretty much the same today when you got honors for your grades. But today I ask you to think about the culture of excellence with the image of bioluminescence, one characteristic of plankton and other animals. When disturbed, plankton can emit a light. It is in the darkness they glow. To me, excellence is how we respond to external and internal challenges. Stephen Hawking also says true intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.

Every species on our planet have different ways to respond to stress, and so do individuals of any species, especially humans. I describe excellence as an expression of resilience. If there is one thing I have carried on to my life from science high school, it is resilience. You will only be able to gauge your own resilience when you find yourself in times of difficulty.

So to be excellent, continue to journey - with the curiosity of a scientist, the creativity of an artist, and the contemplation of a philosopher. To be excellent is also to be collaborative with others in learning and bouncing back when we fail, to keep trying, and to make a difference.
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