STAC-J’s Mudjie Santos: Looking Ahead!

Mudjie.jpgThey say that the stars determine one’s destiny, that one’s success or failure in life is written in the palm of one’s hands. But man, too, is endowed with the free will to wriggle with or against his star, to choose his own destiny. In the final analysis of a person’s life, it is often this wriggle that counts.

From humble beginnings in Floridablanca, Pampanga, Mudjie Santos, the incoming president of the Science and Technology Advisory Council – Japan, has wriggled his way through the ups and downs, the triumphs and disappointments of life, emerging with the stern resolve to control his own destiny.

After earning his BS Biology degree from UP Baguio, where he also became a reserve officer in the Philippine Army and thus became a member of the UP Vanguard Incorporated, he proceeded to UP Diliman for his MS Biology degree. Along the way, he worked for the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, climbing the career ladder to his present position as chief of the Pelagic Vertebrate Resources Section of the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute.

He was also a member of various government and nongovernment committees and inter-agency task forces, among which is the National Committee on Marine Science (NCMS) of the UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines. He was also project leader or collaborator of various government-funded research projects that focus on fisheries resource assessment, conservation and management, including the ongoing National Stock Assessment Program (NSAP). As a former visiting scientist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center of the U.S. NOAA in La Jolla, California under the UNESCO Short Fellowship on Biotechnology, he worked on extracting DNA from old bones of a possible new species of pygmy Bryde’s whale that is probably found in Philippine waters to elucidate its taxonomy. He also worked on determining the population extent of a small species of tuna believed to be shared by countries in Southeast Asia. He has conducted research and conservation work for and with fisherfolks, local governments, with fellow workers in the Bureau, with the academe, with NGO’s like the World Wildlife Fund, and with renowned international institutions such as the International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM), Smithsonian Institution, Chicago Field Museum and the Australian Museum. These are just a few of the countless project involvements, workshops and conferences that he attended while in government service.

Mudjie Santos has already been in Japan for the past five years, quietly toiling to earn his Ph.D. in Applied Marine Biosciences from the Laboratory of Genome Science of the Tokyo University of Marine Science and Technology. He finished his MS in Aquatic Biosciences from the same university in 2004. Now that he has completed almost all of his Ph.D. requirements with flying colors, he has decided to embrace a more active role in STAC-J by taking the helm as president. While he was also actively involved in STAC-J’s various community projects in the past, he feels that he is most ripe to lead the organization of Japan-based Filipino scientists, engineers and technologists this year.

In this exclusive interview with Mudjie Santos for Philippines Today Online, we ask him about his plans and visions for STAC-J. We also ask him about his experiences as a Monbusho scholar and what challenges a Filipino graduate student faces in Japan. We also wanted to know his personal philosophy in life, and truly enough, his apt answer is what would be expected from an authentic life wriggler: “try to do your best in everything that you do and let God take care of the rest.”

Read on.

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The STAC-J Executive Committee for FY 2007. (l to r) Marish Madlangbayan (secretary), Melba Ortega (P.R.O.), Mudjekeewis Santos (President), Stephanie Pimentel (Treasurer) and Karl Marx Qiazon (Vice President; Not in the photo – Jim Madrigal (Auditor)

PT Online (PTO): Filipinos in Japan often hear of STAC-J, but can you tell us what it really is?

Mudjie Santos (MS): STAC-J or the Science Technology and Advisory Council in Japan is an organization of professionals and students in Japan or those who have stayed in Japan with the vision of advancing science and technology as an important tool for Philippine development. It actually started as an advisory council on science and technology organized by the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1995 to support Philippine embassies. This program however, was later discontinued by the Department but STAC-J remained and has been advocating and implementing projects ever since. In March 2006, it has been cited as one of few innovative and existing Philippine initiatives for knowledge exchange among migrant workers by an ADB report entitled “Harnessing knowledge exchange among overseas professionals of Afghanistan,People’s Republic of China, and the Philippines”. For more information about STAC-J, you could visit our website at http://www.stacj.org/.

PTO: What were STAC-J’s major activities in the past?

MS: STAC-J has always been a partner of the Philippine embassy and the rest of the Filipino community in Japan and has undertaken numerous projects benefiting the Filipino community here in Japan and the academic sector in the Philippines. Its specific projects include the Tuloy Aral Center-Kompyuter (TAC-K) courses where computer skills are taught to our interested kababayans in Tokyo and its vicinities; the Unlad Kabayan (UK) or seminar-workshops on entrepreneurship; the Undergraduate Research Program (URG) where grants are sourced out for research proposals made by undergraduate students in the Philippines; the yearly Graduate Research Forum where graduating students are given the opportunity to present their research thesis; the Mushroom Project, a joint “learning while earning” project between STAC-J and the Mushroom Center in Central Luzon State University, and the Confab, a real-time videoconferencing event on pertinent issues on technology and business. The activities of STAC-J in the Philippines, particularly the Confab and URG are being coordinated by its partner, the STAC-J Foundation Inc., which is now a legal entity.

PTO: What activities do you intend to launch this coming 2007?

MS: We, at the Execom, intend to continue some of the traditional projects of STAC-J including the Graduate Research Forum, TAC-K, Unlad Kabayan with the Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO), and if funds permit, the Undergraduate Research Program, Confab and a duplicate model of the Mushroom Project in other schools. We will also continue to support the activities of the Philippine embassy in relation to science and technology, as well as those of the other organizations of the Filipino community.

Aside from these yearly projects, we are likewise putting in place other activities geared towards the revitalization of STAC-J including the re-launching of the website with a venue for more interaction among members, focusing more onmembership affairs, raising additional funds and initiating more social events. And, as a main plan for the year, although this is still in its conceptualization phase, we are thinking of organizing a major conference-workshop that would assemble the STAC-J members here in Japan, as well as interested parties, and come up with some sort of policy recommendations for the benefit of migrant workers involved in science and technology, and how the expertise of these highly skilled sector be fully tapped for nation building.

PTO: What are your plans for maintaining and increasing membership?

MS: We have the usual strategies such as the successful implementation of plans and projects, reaching out to more of the professionals working in Japan through media and networks, providing a means for the members to interact more such as the planned S & T web forum and initiating more social activities such as after-activity parties and sports.

But perhaps, the more important aspect to encourage membership is to change the perception of STAC-J as an “intellectual” all-work-no-play organization. Because of this, most of the people tend to inhibit themselves from active involvement. We want STAC-J to become a serious-but-fun organization. We are starting this among ourselves in the Execom by maintaining a “family” atmosphere where one could joke around whenever he or she wishes. Also, a member would cook “sinigang” and a wife of a member would cook “sisig” and the whole gang would feast while approving the minutes of the previous meeting. We believe that if such atmosphere starts among us, then it would eventually rub-off on the members and would-be members and make them more active.

PTO: After your term as STAC-J president, how would you and STAC-J like to be remembered?

MS: Right now, our plans and activities are geared towards the revitalization of STAC-J in terms of project activities and membership involvement. Thus, we would say that we would like to be remembered as the “gang” who has rekindled the spirit of STAC-J and allowed it to be a better player/partner in the community and hence became a model for other organizations, here in Japan and/or in the Philippines.

PTO: What is your long-term vision for STAC-J?

MS: As of now, we wish that STAC-J will continue to be “alive” and do what it has been doing best. To borrow the words of Consul General Claro Cristobal, “STAC-J has a long standing record of true service and partnership with the rest of Filcom in Japan”. Years down the road, we may perhaps see STAC-J evolve into a full-fledged NGO type of organization, complete with a structure and office facilities, carrying out the mission and mandate that it set out to do in 1995.

PTO: On the personal side, I heard thatyou are a PhD student on Japanese government scholarship. How did you get this scholarship and when are you expected to graduate?

MS: I have been hearing about the Japanese government (Monbukagakusho) scholarship in college and during my master’s course in U.P. but it was one of my co-workers at the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources who really encouraged and showed me how to apply. She was herself a Monbukagakusho scholar who has just arrived from a postdoctoral stint in Japan at that time. I am an incoming 2nd year doctoral student so I am hoping I could get that piece of paper with the word “graduate” on it by March 2008.

PTO: In your opinion, what are the major challenges that a Filipino graduate student faces in Japan?

MS: Well, at first I thought it was the language barrier. This may be true with the students whose sensei (adviser-professors) required them to report in Nihonggo, but in my case it wasn’t because my sensei encouraged us to use English in the laboratory more than Nihonggo. And, besides, almost all of our references for our work are in English and so are our would-be publications.

Then I realized that it was actually our Western style attitude brought about by our scholastic training in the Philippines. We like, or should I say, we were trained to voice out our opinion and to be critical of things. As a graduate student in Japan, this type of attitude is somewhat “prohibited” because of the senpai-kohai system, or senior-junior relationship. And so, you are supposed to not ask questions and just follow what your professors want even though it is entirely different or in contrast to what you think is correct or have set out to do. It is like an obey-first-before-complain thing. I was used to an atmosphere like this because I was in a military organization before, having spent 4 years with the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC). But in graduate school, it is different – it was difficult.

PTO: How did you hurdle these challenges?

MS: I tried to calm myself, tried to understand their culture, and never lost sight of my goal which is to finish my course. Once I was able to see things from their perspective and understand how they get things done (and I ultimately became effective at that), then following and doing things became easier. My life as a graduate became easier and I even got the all out support of my professors in the work that I do.

PTO: How do you spend your leisure time?

MS: When I am with my family (they are in the Philippines as of this writing), we would usually go out to the malls and eat or sometimes see a movie, and while at home we would always tease each other and have fun. I would tell my daughter stories about my past adventures and read to her books before we go to sleep. Alone, I would just watch movies, and sometimes play sports like basketball. Whenever we are available, my friends and I would meet, party, talk, tease and do crazy things for hours, sometimes overnight. And sometimes, I go SCUBA diving if there is an opportunity.

PTO: What is your personal philosophy in life?

MS: You are talking about a guiding philosophy right? It is quite funny this question on one’s personal philosophy in life if you are to ask me because I think my philosophy depends on the situation. So, in a sense I have no guide… just kidding. I guess of all the philosophies I could think of, this is the first that comes to my mind: try to do your best in everything that you do and let God take care of the rest.

PTO: What is your personal advice to those in the Philippines who would like to apply for a Monbusho scholarship?

MS: As the cliché goes “nothing beats hard work”. If you feel that you have worked hard enough in thepast, in yourself, in your family, in your academics, in your work, in the community, then go ahead apply. There is no harm in trying, and besides, the application is free.

PTO: Anything else?

MS: Timing is everything, so plan ahead. Life is very short, so make it count. To put it in another way, let me repeat what General Maximus (of the movie Gladiator) said when the Roman Army was about to attack the barbarians of Germania. He said to his fellow soldiers “Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity”. *

Interviewed by Philip Nemenzo for PT Online