The Road Less Taken

  • Written by  Casey Anne C. Cruz and Regina Mae C. Ongkiko
  • Published in Features
The Road Less Taken © Camila G. Meneses
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Excerpt from The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

James DV. Alvarez lives by his motto to “take the road less taken” and indeed, it has made all the difference.

At only 26 years old, he has already been recognized as one of the Outstanding Researchers of the university—a feat most researchers dream of. In a span of three years, he has published five journal articles, all of which are either Web of Science or SCOPUS indexed.

He goes on month-long expeditions for his fieldwork in various provinces around the Philippines. Definitely, he is traveling a road that not many would even dare to.

The Journey Begins

James was born on 21 April 1991 to a family of farmers. Growing up, James had his daily routine revolve around school and home while his siblings helped his parents. He could not help in the farm because of a medical surgery. In fact, James could not engage in extreme or tiring activities during his childhood. Because of this, he focused instead on studying. In high school, he became really interested in biology and excelled in that particular subject. Even though he found genetics a bit difficult, he still pursued a bachelor’s degree in Biology in the hopes of becoming a doctor.

But during his freshman year he was introduced to sub-fields of biology such as wildlife and plant biology. He realized there was so much more he could do as a BS Biology graduate besides pursuing medicine.

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.”

As James continued pursuing his degree, he became more and more exposed to wildlife biodiversity. He joined several field trips and observed plant and animal specimens in laboratories. He enjoyed listening to the stories of his professors. Soon, he found himself thinking more about wildlife biology and less about medicine.

It was in 2011 when he embarked on an internship at the UPLB Museum of Natural History. As an intern, he joined field activities with other researchers from local and international universities. One of the highlights of his internship was being a part of the Philippine Biodiversity Expedition, which had on board scientists from the California Academy of Sciences and University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute.

Although James was not really physically active during his childhood, he surpassed the adventures and challenges that the internship provided. He didn’t just conquer steep and rocky terrains, but he was also able to conquer his fear of heights. “Fear of heights? It’s constraining,” James recalls. “I find it hard to explore high or steep places but I overcame that fear through time. In short, the difficult terrain will not stop me from exploring.”

Exploring mountains led James to know more about the rich biodiversity of animals and other wonders of nature. Even though he had health problems when he was young and he had a history of getting tired easily, that did not hinder him from pursuing an adventure beyond his comfort zone. He felt calm and assured to continue on this road.

Among all the species he got to know, James was most interested in bats. In fact, while most people have favorite colors, favorite animals, and favorite food, James has a favorite bat species—the Myotis rufopictus or the orange-fingered myotis. It’s a relatively small bat with black wing and tail membranes. The bat’s body and skin over the wing bones are a bright orange, which makes it unique and extraordinary among Philippine bats.

James loved bats so much that even his thesis was about them. His thesis on ectoparasite diversity and host-parasite association of bats in Mount Makiling won 2nd place during the undergraduate poster presentation of the 21st Annual Philippine Biodiversity Symposium in 2012 at the National Museum of the Philippines. He continued on this road less taken, and was able to publish his undergraduate thesis in a scientific journal.

Until now, as a permanent extension associate of the very institution that nurtured him, he facilitates fieldwork activities, demonstrates museum activities, and delivers talks about wildlife biodiversity conservation, and of course—bats.

“And be one traveler, long I stood.”

“I wasn’t expecting anything,” James recalled when asked about being awarded as the Outstanding Researcher for the Junior REPS/Natural Sciences Category during the 2017 UPLB Foundation Day Celebration. He shared that when he submitted the documents for deliberation, his colleagues were the ones confident that he will be chosen.

In fact, he was off on another fieldwork during the deliberation period. When the selection committee requested additional documents, it was hard to reach him but he was able to deliver.

According to James, the decision to apply for the award was an act of desperation—he was looking for additional funds to be able to pursue his planned fieldwork in Sibuyan Island, Romblon.

Now with this recent recognition, James feels a bit pressured to produce outstanding outputs. “I have to maintain the prestige,” he noted. At the moment, James doesn’t see himself exploring a different field other than wildlife biology, and sees himself getting involved in biodiversity conservation and education campaigns in the future.

“I can start with bats and pursue their conservation in the long run,” James explained. “After all, they are very important when it comes to balancing biodiversity.” James has found his passion in studying bats so he is really motivated to get training on how to communicate the conservation of the little flying mammals that he loves.

“And looked down one as far as I could”

From someone who got tired easily as a kid, James now spends most of his time outdoors. He is not your typical lab scientist—the outside world is James’ laboratory. In place of test tubes and chemicals, James’ working environment is full of rough and uneven land.

His adventure along this road has led him to learn more things, making him a well-rounded individual with many talents. He learned photography as well as writing news and feature articles for online and print media.

When James received his first International Publication Award, he bought his very first camera so he can pursue a new-found passion—wildlife photography. He joins bird photographers once in a while as they capture unique moments in the life of birds. He is looking forward to studying night photography, and of course bat photography.

It started with choosing biology as a degree, and then deciding to pursue wildlife biodiversity. What used to be a simple goal to finish a degree soon branched out into even more opportunities. Along the way, James even learned basic Photoshop and he also took time to write stories about his explorations.

He used his new found knowledge to produce communication materials such as brochures for the Museum of Natural History. His work has led to more people learning about the museum’s activities, services, and training programs on biodiversity conservation.

“Yet knowing how way leads on to way”

Despite all the tiring adventures, James remains inspired and passionate in pursuing his career as a wildlife biologist. One of the things he enjoys most during field work is talking to the locals. He likes hearing about their experiences as well as exchanging discussions about traditional and modern knowledge.

Aside from seeing animals and plants that are not usually seen by many, the stories of the locals are the highlight of James’ travels.“Everything I learned is supplemented by the locals’ stories,” James says fondly. “I am even more inspired whenever I hear their stories and whenever they say that they appreciate our efforts.”

On a side note though, James has realized early on that people in the field of wildlife biology don’t really earn much.

“But what’s the point of getting money if I’m not enjoying what I’m doing?” he says. For him, the path he chose was definitely a pleasant surprise—after all, this is where he found his passion, commitment, and determination to continue his journey.

“Not a lot of people pursue this profession,” James adds. “This is my way of giving back to the people who gave their time and effort to mentor me—by pursuing the same field that they helped enrich.”

If James were to go back to the start and choose between the direction he took and the others he did not, he will still make the same decision. After all, it led him to so much more.

He had to walk long hours, walk on muddy terrain, climb steep hills, and even swim across rivers. He had to endure strong rains and raging rivers, but he kept going.

He was able to discover a lot more about the outside world—and in doing so, found himself. His heart as a researcher continues to lead him to endless adventures and greater heights.

Yes, James took the road less traveled by—and now he is making a lot of difference. ■