As stated in my Singapore blog, first I went to Singapore, then left to see fireworks for New Years in Kuala Lumpur, then cruised around in Vietnam with my old lab mate Binh Nguyen, and finally returned to Singapore to visit Enrico Marsili at Nanyang Technological University. If you are interested in hearing about Singapore and phosphorous, check out the Singapore blog! Unlike my other blogs where I start with science and move into my thoughts during my visit, this blog starts with my thoughts and ends with my lab visit. For those of you that are here strictly for the science, please skip to the end of this blog where you will find a story and description of my visit to Hanoi University of Science and Technology in Vietnam.
While sitting in my hostel in Singapore, after walking around most of the city, I decided that I was ready to move onto another city. However, having planned very little of the Southeast Asia leg of my trip in advance (other than Vietnam and Singapore), I was left in a bit of a pickle. I could go to the Philippines and visit a farm or a major city; however, I would not have very much time there before I needed to return to visit Vietnam. Also, a plane on such short notice might be costly. To determine where I was to visit for New Years, I took to the internet to investigate which city in Southeast Asia had themost spectacular fireworks show. Much to my chagrin, I noticed that Singapore was on the list so I briefly contemplated the idea of extending my stay in Singapore for another few days.
New Years in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia!
However, determined to explore a new place in a new country, I kept skimming through the page until I discovered that the show in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia is also ranked as one of themost spectacular in the world. As an added bonus, there are so manyprivate bus lines between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore that one leaves practically every fifteen minutes and can cost as little as ~$12USD. The ten hour bus ride is quite practical and is relatively painless when booking an overnight bus since you can leave late in the evening and wake up when you arrive in Kuala Lumpur (and as an added bonus, you do not have to pay for the cost of staying in a hostel that night).
Upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur, I walked a few blocks to my hostel and was greeted by friendly guy from the USA. He was born in Mississippi or South Carolina –somewhere in the south- and allowed me to check-in ‘early’. In other words, he allowed me to check-in at 6AM so that I could make up for the sleep I missed on the bus (I’m no good at sleeping on buses). When I woke up, I had a conversation with him and he explained to me his living situation for the last year.
He had decided that the career he had back home was not satisfying. He was tired of working multiple part time jobs to make ends meet in order to merely maintain the quality of life or standard of living that has been determined is ‘acceptable’ for most residents of the USA. He, like over 76 million adults in the USA (~31%), was living a life in which he worked all day every day so that he could acquire enough sustenance to not die. Until one day he decided that he was finished with that life. He took the little money he had saved and invested it into a plane ticket to Kuala Lumpur. Once in Kuala Lumpur, he started working for the hostel since they could provide him with room and board. Then, he found a job in town teaching English making about $15 an hour. To put this into perspective, it costs about %40 less to live in Kuala Lumpur and have the same standard of living as a person in Phoenix, AZ; or 55% less to live in Kuala Lumpur vs the cost to live in New York City. This person spends four to five months of his life working full-time as an English teacher in Kuala Lumpur, where he has the relatively samequality of life as a citizen of the USA, lives in a hostel, and gets to spend the other seven to eight months of his life travelling around Southeast Asia. He decided to leave the stresses of middle class American life behind and this is the life he found for himself.
This reminds me of a conversation I had in the United States when I was purchasing a cell phone from a store in Mesa, AZ. This was after I had returned to Mesa, AZ and I was telling her about #ScienceTheEarth. She mentioned to me that she could never do anything like my trip because her life always had to have a plan. I told her the story about this man I met in Kuala Lumpur, he had a plan - the same plan that she had - to go to his dead end jobs in the USA to barely scrape enough money together to make ends meet. Then, he walked away from the ‘plan’ to pursue something that did not make him feel like he was working for the sake of survival.
I asked her what her plan was. She asked what I meant. I said, "well, is your plan to work here selling cell phones for the rest of your life?" She said no, not really. So I asked again, what is your plan…
This is our dilemma. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that having a job and paying the bills merely for survival is a viable 'plan'. We have convinced ourselves of this because it is what we have been told our whole lives. Not having a job, not working every day, not paying the bills, that’s what losers do. But you, you’re gonna be a winner, and the way to be a winner is to blindly clock in at multiple jobs every day to make sure you procure enough resources to survive. And how cliché is it to hear someone ask you if you are really ‘living’ and not just alive? Yet, this is exactly what many of us have convinced ourselves is our lot in life. Our purpose, our passion, etc… that’s for some other place and some other time. We are encouraged to not entertain ourselves in the naivety of our dreams, but rather to root ourselves in the harsh reality that is the struggle for a paycheck in a world of limited resources.
KL City Life
And why? Who set these rules? It is not sustainable to dupe ourselves into believing that we have to work for the sake of escaping work- that the activities with which we occupy ourselves on the day to day serve no greater purpose than allowing us to procure the resources necessary to escape that life. Rather, the actions that we do on the day to day, the work itself, that ought to be our ends. Why live most of your life for the sake of the hope that you may one day have the means to escape that life?
It is not nonsense that we ought to enjoy the time we spend on this Earth. It is nonsense that we expect to dislike most of it for the sake of escaping what it is we do not enjoy. This fear of the ‘non-plan’, or really, this fear of what may happen to your mind if left to its own devises, is a false one. You have no greater asset than your mind and there is no greater manifestation of this asset than discovering what it is that is your plan.
Batu Caves, Malaysia
We are not here to hope for a better place; we are here to be in the better place for which we hope. We ought, in every moment, to work to make that better place tangible. For through that work, our hopes will manifest as our present reality.
The next time you think about how much you dislike your job or feel that resentment for not getting the benefits you deserve from your employer, the next time you convince yourself that it is somehow noble to hate your day to day tasks, but perform them anyway merely to acquire sustenance; I want you to remember the story about the dude from the USA. The dude who left it all behind to find a better quality of life, doing something he loves in a place he loves doing it. Not because his plan was to sell a phone or pay a bill, but because his plan was to start enjoying what he did. He found that place and I can think of nothing more noble than that.
After visiting Malaysia, I boarded my flight for Vietnam. In Vietnam, I was to be staying with an old colleague of mine from the Biodesign Institute named Binh Nguyen. After finding my way to Binh’s high rise apartment, I unloaded my stuff and proceeded to sleep on the floor of his living room on a bamboo mat which he provided for me. Before visitingHanoi University of Science and Technology to give my seminar, I had a few days to pop around town. Binh was occupied with his job managing workers in a clothes knitting factory, so I ventured out on my own. He suggested that I visit the Old Quarter since this is the area of town which is most frequented by tourists.
(As an aside, I was in Vietnam on my birthday- January 5. When the day came around I told Binh, “hey, it’s my birthday.” Binh smiled. He responded, “oh, I didn’t know that.” He walked over to his microwave. On top of his microwave sat the only beer in the apartment- dusty and warm from months of neglect. Binh did not drink and this must have been some relic from his move a few months ago. I was the first one to visit the apartment he’d said. He grabbed the beer with one hand and brought it over, “there you go.” The beer can was tepid; it felt chalky as it brushed against the palm of my hand. I blew the dust off the top like you would a book that had been sitting on the shelf of a library or an old bike that had been sitting, sun-bleached, in the yard for the past several months. “Thanks,” I said. And that was my birthday in Vietnam.)
The traffic in Hanoi is absolutely insane (on the level with India), so there was no way I was going to rent a car or attempt to drive myself. Therefore, to reach the Old Quarter I had to take a series of buses which was quite difficult to navigate on account of all of the signs being written in Vietnamese. In addition, Vietnam was one of the only countries in the world in which I did not have cell phone reception so my phone was not very helpful. This is when I learned of the friendliness of the Vietnamese.
All the buses I boarded in the city had two employees working them- one to drive and one to collect money and point people in the direction of their seat. I walked up to the person taking the money and asked how to get to a location which I pointed to on a paper map. He looked a little confused. I pointed to the place again. He briefly glanced back in recognition. He then proclaimed something loudly in Vietnamese so that the whole bus could hear- a nice young woman raised her hand. He pointed at her and said “you follow.” And so I did.
I followed this woman who was going to ride the bus to the same stop as me (two transfers later). When we arrived in the Old Quarter, she pointed to where it was I should disembark the bus. The same thing happened on the way back; however on the way back, I was invited by the person I met on the bus to visit a local village about an hour outside of the Old Quarter. Of course, my phone did not work, so I gave her my card and when I arrived at Binh’s place I had already received a message with a meeting time and place. (This also happened again on my way to the airport when I was leaving Vietnam although obviously I could not go to the other village.)
Đình Bảng Village and the Kindness of the Vietnamese
Nguyễn Hồng Hạnh and her friend Ngô Ngọc Anh had not met many Americans in Vietnam. When Nguyễn Hồng Hạnh talked with me on the bus, she was eager to show me the little village (Đình Bảng Village) where Ngô Ngọc Anh and she were raised. They showed me around a bunch of temples, many of which had been rebuilt since they were destroyed in the Vietnam War. After exploring the city for a few hours, they took me to a eat Che Thai (a Vietnamese fruit cocktail). Together, we all talked about a variety of topics from growing up to eating food and her engagement with her husband to be. Vietnam has a very similar custom to other Asian countries like India and Pakistan in which women often marry younger- her friend was much less traditional and was waiting until she had a more established career before she was to get married.
What I took from this experience was how comfortable everyone was with expressing sentiment that was very personal with one another despite that we had met only one day prior. That everyone trusted one another enough to meet in this city, to share food, and to discuss topics which were of importance in their lives. It started with a simple need for directions and continued through a shared trust and a shared desire to communicate across cultural boundaries. By starting conversations with trust, we enable ourselves to find connections that otherwise would be completely lost. There is no way to plan for experiences like this- this is not a tourist attraction, you cannot pay for it. It’s genuine moments like these that help me realize just how eager the rest of the world is to say hello.
In Old Quarter Hanoi, I found a place to purchase a boat cruise in Halong Bay that was ~$80USD for two days including room, food, kayaking, hiking, swimming, and a cave tour. I took the deal. While sitting on the boat cruise in Halong Bay, I met a Chilean couple that was traveling together. Making small talk, they asked me who I was and what it is I am doing. I told them that I am a traveling scientist that is visiting universities, research centers, and institutions around the Earth to tell the narrative of science as a collaborative force which unites our global community in a quest for knowledge for the purpose of solving the world’s largest societal problems. I informed them that I teach about sustainability concepts, microbial fuels cells, and the quest for human knowledge.
One of them had an instant retort which clearly expressed hostility towards my actions. Pondering the reason for this hostility, I sat and listened. She had a PhD in neuroscience and was convinced that there was nothing I could do to change the world. She insisted that scientists were all helpless to an insurmountable system ran by large oil corporations and private investors. That the corruption in the system was what ran the show and the mere idea of suggesting otherwise was a farce. She mentioned that this belief is what led her to leave the sciences and become a professional party planner where she no longer had to worry about the sources of her funding or fear retaliation from large companies in terms of limiting funding if she discovered certain results. She made it very clear that her attempts at changing the system in the past had led her to an unfruitful conclusion, but did not expand on what had happened, when, and who was involved.
We had a series of exchanges along these lines- nothing out of line or anything like that. She was clearly as passionate about her helplessness and pessimism as I was about my hope and optimism. I understand how it is she feels. I think a lot of us feel this way. Although the election of the current POTUS no doubt exacerbates this feeling of hopelessness, it is by no means its progenitor. We know that large corporations like big pharma and big oil control a lot of the wealth in the world. And we know that there is a lot of political and corporate influence which perpetuates this status quo. And this is precisely why we cannot afford to leave the sciences to encourage lives of complacency and hedonism.
This is the time that we need scientists the most. Science educators have an important role to play in informing the public about how the facts and data we collect influence and enhance their quality and quantity of life. That as scientists, we can no longer afford to be passive observers and that we must use our facts to take political action. To advocate science, we do not only need scientists sitting in a lab- we need to talk to people of all ways of life to encourage our message. There is no reason why a person collecting signatures for a ballot cannot be collecting signatures for science. But to encourage this work, to have this influence, we must choose to persist in science.
As humans, we ought to enjoy our work all of the time. However, this goal is unrealistic- there are always going to be troubled times or rough days. However, I think it is realistic that we can expect to put ourselves in a situation where we enjoy our work most of the time. After all, we cannot expect to feel fulfilled if we seldom or never enjoy our work. And for this, we cannot allow ourselves to perform menial tasks simply to collect a paycheck. For in this instance, a paycheck is nothing more than an empty promise that performing a task we dislike today will inevitably lead to performing a task we do like tomorrow. Rather, the pleasure of our labor ought to come in the day to day task of performing it and we ought to enjoy our tasks for the satisfaction of performing them rather than the satisfaction of escaping them.
Home(Boat)made Spring Rolls
For this sentiment, she accused me of purporting a Marxist philosophy which is not necessarily true. Rather than collecting capital in terms strictly monetary gains, we can obtain individual and emotional capital by discovering who it is we are and what it is in ourselves that we have to offer to ourselves and to others so that we can dictate the direction we take in our daily tasks. I would argue that my philosophies have significantly more to do with transcendentalism than they do Marxism; for transcendentalism is an almost wholly American philosophical construct which holds the triumph of the individual as self-sustaining and self-reliant as its paramount motivation. In this context, we can perceive profit as a self-identified person gaining wisdom from insight and experience.
With this intellectual capital, we can understand ourselves and place as a means to discover our passions and actualize the world as we want it to be. And then we can use our individual passions to generate collective visions and form a community and culture of passionate positive social actors. Certainly, political and corporate actors pull a lot of strings- the real question is, what do you choose to do about it?
Alas, for those of you whom have read the blog in its entirety and for those that decided to skip to the bottom, welcome to the section where I fill you in on the latest and greatest research from Hanoi University of Science and Technology in Vietnam. During my visit here, I gave a presentation about bioelectrochemistry. The students here were eager to learn; unfortunately many of them had great difficulty in understanding my English. Fortunately, Binh chose to give a presentation directly after mine in Vietnamese.
Binh Nguyen is a former research of my former lab that was working diligently on improving and developing a bio-refinery containing photosynthetic bacteria that simultaneously sequester carbon dioxide from the environment while generating lipids which can be extracted to produce fuel. The main focus of the project is to develop a carbon neutral biotechnology which converts the CO2 in the atmosphere into the long chain carbon compounds necessary to create fuel. This would allow humans to continue using a relatively similar fuel infrastructure to the one already in existence. However, since the materials for the development of the fuel are the same as the material produced by burning the fuel (CO2), the utilization of carbon based fuels becomes carbon neutral. He aims to improve this process by enhancing the growth rates and lipid recovery from the microorganisms responsible for the bio-refinery process. You may remember hearing about similar research in previous blogs fromPoland, Germany (why the DSMZ is starting to collect more photosynthetic microorganisms), andIsrael. Jonathan Trent gives a comprehensive overview (using similar but different microorganisms) via a TedTalk below.
For more information about the photosynthetic cyanobacteria based fuel production plant that Joule plans to install in New Mexico, USA, check out Biofuels Digest or their profile on Bloomberg. For more information about the lab of Bruce Rittmann, where Binh conducted his research, visit the lab website.
Dr. Thi Thai Yen Doan is a longtime friend and collaborator of Dr. Binh Nguyen who has also looked at ways to optimize lipid extraction from microalgae based biorefineries. In addition, Dr. Yen is seeking to compliment the production of carbon neutral fuel from photosynthetic microorganisms with the removal of nutrients from agricultural pig and meat farm waste. As discussed in previous blogs from Singapore, Austria, Spain, and Switzerland, nutrients found in manure including carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous can have lasting harmful impacts on the environment since it leads to the growth of unwanted microorganisms and eventually eutrophication.
For this reason, it is important to develop technologies that can either recover these nutrients or remove them. However, Dr. Yen’s research seeks to hijack the process of eutrophication and turn it on its head. Rather than suffer from the consequences of uncontrolled growth of photosynthetic microorganisms in the environment, she exploits the nutrient rich slurry to grow the photosynthetic microorganisms she wants in bio-reactors. In this way, she not only generates carbon based fuel from carbon sequestration, she also develops that fuel while simultaneously performing biological nutrient removal (BNR). Right now, a big challenge is finding the right nutrient balance to consistently grow the photosynthetic microorganisms, but as shown with companies like Joule,Heliae, and OriginClear Petro (to name a very few)- commercialization is very imminent.