To many Filipinos, Tawi-Tawi is a mystery. For marine scientist Richard Muallil, it is home. “Tawi-Tawi is largely water, composed of more than 300 islands. The livelihood of the majority of the people is sea-based,” Richard shares. “Being a marine scientist here is perfect.”
Richard initially wanted to be a medical doctor because he wanted to take care of his family, especially his grandmother’s health. The pursuit of marine science only began during his PhD, where he chose to focus on providing valuable scientific insight to improve social-ecological conditions of coastal communities. At the University of the Philippines (UP)-Marine Science Institute, Richard received the Most Outstanding Ph.D. graduate award and the Edgardo Gomez Excellence Award. In 2016, he was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men and one of the 12 Outstanding Young Scientists by the National Academy of Science and Technology.
Now, Richard serves as a Professor Marine Science and Director for the Office of Continuing Education and Extension Services (OCEANeS) in Mindanao State University (MSU)-Tawi-Tawi.
Tell us about what led you to do your work.
I took BS Zoology as my pre-med course at the MSU Marawi City. I even got in to the College of Medicine of MSU in Iligan City after I graduated. Unfortunately, I stopped med school after one semester and joined MSU Tawi-Tawi as college instructor teaching basic biology and chemistry courses. I was sent by MSU Tawi-Tawi as a faculty scholar to the UP Diliman for my MS Biology degree. When I returned to MSU Tawi-Tawi after graduation, I still ended up teaching basic subjects simply because MSU Tawi-Tawi does not offer BS Biology or related courses.
I wanted to become more “useful” to the people of Tawi-Tawi so I decided to pursue my PhD in Marine Science in UP Diliman.
Tell us about your current work.
Currently, I am a professor and designated as the director for the Office of Continuing Education and Extension Service (OCEANeS) at MSU Tawi-Tawi. As a college professor who is deeply engaged in research and extension works, my schedule is very unpredictable. Typically, I go to my office, teach my class, advise students and do my regular research and extension works. However, I am also working and actively participating in the activities of the local government units and other agencies/organizations here in Tawi-Tawi.
I also often serve as a “default” local coordinator assisting friends and colleagues from other areas who come and do research and conservation works here in Tawi-Tawi. I also have to participate in scientific meetings/workshops outside Tawi-Tawi and this is really time consuming because I have to spend days just travelling to reach my destination and back to Tawi-Tawi. Tawi-Tawi is a very remote province and transportation in and out of the province is very limited.
At night, I have to stay up late especially after midnight when internet access is good enough to catch up with my emails.
What’s the best and worst parts about your job? How do you overcome the negative parts?
The best part is when I’m out in the field gathering data, observing nature first hand and immersing myself with the community. The worst part is, to be honest, writing and analyzing my data especially without good internet connection. To overcome the negative parts, I motivate myself, keeping in mind, that I have to formally write my findings, otherwise, everything I’d say (to quote the national scientist Dr. Edgardo Gomez during one of our conversations) “would be merely anecdotal”.
What can people do to help your cause?
We have few technical experts in Tawi-Tawi, and here, you really have to be a jack of all trades because everybody expects you to know everything about marine science simply because you are a marine scientist. This is really difficult for somebody like me who specialized on a specific discipline and is used to working collaboratively with many other specialists.
I’ve always invited as many friends and colleagues to come here to Tawi-Tawi and help us do our research and conservation advocacies. I hope big universities continue to consider Tawi-Tawi as their project site and collaborate with us to mentor and capacitate us. I also hope that the government and other organizations would provide many capacity building and mentoring programs including scholarships for graduate and advanced education.
What 3 pointers would you provide for people who'd like to start pursuing an environmental lifestyle?
Learn to coexist harmoniously with people and nature
Be efficient in everything you do. Avoid wastage.
Time management is crucial but I hope you will not end up with something like “strictly no-work related stuff” schedule.
Fun fact about the environment or a species that you think people should know.
It is not possible to effectively manage the marine resources without effectively managing the people.
What is your why - why you do what you do?
Human population continues to increase exponentially considering that a female can give birth to only one child per year for a limited time and despite all our efforts for population control. Why is it, then, that fish populations continue to decline, drastically in many cases, despite being able to produce hundreds of thousands to millions of eggs several times in a year? Even if about 99% of juveniles eventually die of natural causes, recovery of fish stocks in depleted fishing grounds is more than possible if only we can manage our fisheries well. Unfortunately, recent studies show that fish stocks continue to decline, so there must be something wrong, or lacking, in what we are doing.
I do what I do because fishing is a major, if not the sole, source of livelihood for many Filipinos. Further depletion of fish stocks and deterioration of marine resources will have serious implications to poverty and food security in many fishing communities, especially in Tawi-Tawi where livelihood options are lacking.
Most importantly, Tawi-Tawi is a very remote province which is wrongly perceived by many “outsiders” as chaotic and unsafe, so few experts come here. I am a marine scientist, and Tawi-Tawi, with its more than three hundred islands is my home. I could not think of a perfect place to practice my career and live my life but here.