An Interview with Dr. Kendra Gotangco Castillo, Program Manager of Klima Climate Change Center of Manila Observatory

by Quirino Sugon Jr.

Dr. Charlotte Kendra Gotangco Castillo

Dr. Kendra Gotangco Castillo

Charlotte Kendra Gotangco Castillo, Summa cum Laude and Class Valedictorian of Ateneo de Manila University batch 2004, with the degree of BS Physics minor in Philosophy, has finished her Ph.D. in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in Purdue University, Indiana this 2011 and is now back to the Philippines working as Program Manager of the Klima Climate Change Center of Manila Observatory. Kendra’s work centers on the climate change science-policy nexus and human-nature dynamics. Her most recent research focused on modeling different tropical forest deforestation rates, analyzing both the carbon and non-carbon or physical impacts on climate, and exploring the policy implications, particularly with regards to REDD. She has also worked on the co-benefits aspect of managing climate change, such as synergizing climate change adaptation with disaster risk management, and integrating climate change mitigation into sustainable development. She is interested in the concept of “science management,” approaching complex environmental problems with a big-picture perspective and harnessing interdisciplinary knowledge, methods, and skills.

Below is a transcript of an interview with Kendra by the Ateneo Physics News:

1. How were you able to go to Purdue University?

I applied through the PAEF (Philippine American Educational Foundation) for the Fulbright grant. This grant is simply a mechanism to allow students to study in the US, if you make it through the selection process. The Philippine Fulbright Commission will assist you with GRE, TOEFL, and application fees. They will help you identify schools to match your needs and interests. After coming up with a short list of academic programs, they will send applications to the schools. It’s very centralized—just one application package. They will also source out other funding opportunities and grants for PhD because Fulbright support is only for 2 years. Beyond that, you are responsible for your funding with the help of your adviser. Unfortunately, for hard sciences and technology, this traditional grant doesn’t apply. They have another Science and Technology Fulbright grant but the competition is worldwide as far as I know. For the typical grant, though even I am from hard sciences, I was still accepted because my interest was in environmental studies. I value both competencies – the science side and the management/policy side. I want to be able to help translate research results into something usable in other fields such as in the governance, in crafting better policies. That is why I wanted an interdisciplinary program. So I went to Fulbright and applied for environmental studies, which was an eligible category under the heading of “International Issues”.

2. What is life like in Purdue University?

Purdue University is located in West Lafayete, Indiana. It’s really a university town. If someone asks who is the biggest employer in the city, it is Purdue. It is very unlike studying here where we are very urbanized and cosmopolitan. West Lafayette is a conservative city. It is heteregenous only because of the international students that Purdue brings in.  Businesses cater to student population. What is nice about the community is the influence of the university in its development as a learning community. For example, there is a “Spring Fling” every year that caters to families in the community. It is an outdoor event where the different departments post exhibits, the most popular of which is the “Bug Bowl”. There’s also an organization called Purdue Convocations who bring learning and culture to the community by bringing in Broadway shows, concerts and other musical artists. . These events are accessible via a short walk from your apartment. That was how the community was like.

Regarding access to resources, I was blown away. It’s unlike anything we have here. Perhaps it’s a standard for American universities. But for me coming from here, it makes us see how far behind we are. Every student has an alloted space in file servers. Just login any terminal on campus and you pull up your desktop settings and documents. Computing clusters can be accessed for free. Journal articles can be downloaded off-campus. Software is discounted. There are a number of grants available to students for travel and conferences, which we do not have here. Because of the amazing access to resources, there were times that I was tempted to stay. You could do so much more with these resources at hand. But what would happen if everyone thought that way and not go home? Nobody would try to establish these here in our country. It may be though that some things like developing what is the equivalent of Oakridge National Labs is really out of reach for a developing country. So we must do the best with with what we have. It’s a different kind of challenge.

The downside about life there was that you miss your support system. If you are an international student, it is hard enough to leave your loved ones, but then you also have to deal with a totally different culture and climate. The winters are so cold and dark unlike anything that you have ever experienced here. Times like that, depression is a real thing. Before I left, I said, “Mind over matter lang ‘yan.” When I got there I realized it was not that easy. It is a serious issue that any student thinking of studying abroad will have to contend with at one point or the other. Because it was in Indiana, it is not like East Coast or West Coast with many Pinoy favorite foods, with venues where kababayans come to do a cultural thing. We are a small Filipino community there, so we try to help each other out. We have one rule there: Pay it forward. People help new people coming in. This year, there are three new Pinoy grad students at Purdue. So we passed on things to them like our celphone plans, furniture, etc.. We met with them to tell stories about life there and answer their questions. Life abroad is just so difficult for an individual. We evolve a second family. Support systems are needed so that you can survive grad school.

3. Describe your adviser.

My adviser was Kevin Robert Gurney. He was one of those people who juggle a lot of balls in the air. He is involved in both science and policy . He was very good in both. Maybe that is why he wanted to get me as his student, because in my application I said I am interested in interdisciplinary studies. My program was Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. But even if it was a “Science” degree, because my adviser had an interdisciplinary bias; and because we had leeway to design programs, we put together courses in science and other fields, such as Communicating Climate Change, public policy, and a course integrating models in Climate Science and Policy. I am happy that he gave me that leeway. In this way I did not let go of my other interests. He let me be independent. It so happened that I was the only person working on my particular topic. Other labs have many people doing parts of one project. In my topic we were not yet successful in getting more funding. I finished without us getting the grant. So I worked independently compared to other students who were working together. But it worked out for me. It gave me the flexibility with my time and the ability to come home during Summer and Christmas breaks. I could take my work home with me. For his part, he made himself available for consultation. I was working with a model that he was not himself using. So he gave contacts of people that could help me. That is why I was able to spend three months to NCAR Colorado—three months to better learn the Community Climate System Model version 4. So I really appreciate his making opportunities available to me.

4. Why did you come back to the Philipines?

It is part of the Fulbright contract. But I really intended to come back anyway, because I felt I may be more needed here. There are more things that I can accomplish here. I can make a difference. I do not know if that is being arrogant. I prefer to call it being optimistic. Besides, all my loved ones are still here. You never know how deeply rooted you are until you uproot yourself. I wanted the opportunity to be independent and define my own rules on how to lead my life, but in the end I realized how much I was still tied to my home. So it is a balance, I think. And I guess, it goes for all international students. You have to have sense of being anchored to something. It doesn’t mean you are being tied down. It is like being a kite – you can fly as far and as high as you can without fear of being cut off and floating aimlessly. It is like being a tree – the ones with the deepest roots are those that can grow the tallest.

5. What is your current job?

I am the program manager of Manila Observatory’s Climate Change Assistance Program, which also houses the Klima Climate Change Center.

6. What is your vision and mission for this program?

That is still in the process of being defined, as we are still in discussion as a group. I do not want to be dictatorial. There is value in considering different perspectives. It allows me the opportunity to work with the science but to situate it in a bigger context. Now we are taking hard science and channelling it to generate results that matters, so the efforts of scientists also don’t go to waste. We would like to be able to work in the science-society and policy nexus. I find that there is a lot to learn here, especially in dealing with governance issues. Again, it is a different challenge. If we don’t vary our challenges, we dont grow. I am stepping out of my comfort zone but hopefully also expanding it in the process.

7. Are you teaching?

I am applying to teach part time in the Physics and Environmental Science Departments, because I like to teach, to have a chance to mentor someone, to pay it forward. The challenge is to juggle the MO and Klima duties with the teaching duties, because Klima is in a transitional stage and moving in new direction right now. It takes more work to get the ball rolling. I am hopeful that I would be able to handle one or two courses. I don’t want to let go of teaching aspect.

8. What do you want to say to physics students?

Physics can open doors for them because of the way they are trained to make connections and understand at a deeper level. Their analytical, critical, problem-solving, and trouble shooting skills will be crucial in continuously learning and exploring, in the sciences and beyond. They can try interdisciplinary work. I know that here in the Philippines people often ask where will you going to end up. If you’re in physics, it is true that compared to business, we do not make as much as we would in other countries. But one thing that I like about what we do is that we address really fundamental questions about existence spanning different contexts, cultures, and time. So there is always an opportunity to something relevant to the world. But the challenge is to translate the science into something usable that is beneficial to the community. This is the next step a scientist should take. Ateneans are men for others. If you love what you do and you do it well, the money will follow. So for me, in making career decisions, it is personal fulfilment over money. Again that is probably being too optimistic. But I know people who live that way so it is possible.

Ateneo Physics News: Thank you, Kendra, for the wonderful interview.

Kendra: Thank you, too. For me, it was cathartic.

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About ateneophysicsnews
Physics News and Features from Ateneo de Manila University

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