TURNING POINT: Revising Road Maps: The MSU GenSan Undergrad Thesis Controversy

NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews / 17 July) – In many things we normally do, our purpose, that is, what we want to accomplish, determines the amount of expenditure in time and other resources at our disposal. It is seldom the other way around. There are though rare and extreme cases, often in a situation between life and death, whereby the amount of time in our possession determines our purpose. But these are more of exception rather than the rule in life. The same realities are operational in the conduct of research.

The Mindanao State University in General Santos is currently mired in a controversy when seven students of the College of Fisheries were refused to defend their individual undergraduate thesis last semester and thus were disqualified from the graduation last April.

The decision of university management is viewed by many as unnecessarily harsh, unreasonable, dogmatic, repressive, and inconsiderate to the plight and welfare of the young students and their discomfited parents.

The management of the College did not allow the students to defend their theses because the conduct of the studies fell short of the 60-day regulation period which, apparently, is the minimum duration required of fish culture experiments.

Suffice it to say that to comply with the policy, all the thesis proposals were framed for 60-day duration. All seven comparative feeding experiment studies, however, were terminated 15 days short of the regulation time. The decision to conclude the experiments at day 45 was made to avoid a possible disaster: the collapse of the carrying capacity of the culture medium.

In layman’s language, the growth of the experimental animals and the increasing amount of feeds introduced into the culture medium to meet their nutritional needs spiraled to critical level the amount of pollution, particularly that of ammonia and nitrate, in the medium. It was just a matter of time then when the experimental animals would suffocate and die for lack of dissolved oxygen. And, in the case of shrimp, one of the experimental animals, for them to succumb one by one to death not only because of pollution but also of cannibalism due to crowding or space constriction.

This development, of course, was not foreseen by the students neither by their advisory committee during the thesis proposal defense. Indeed, to continue the experiment for another 15 days just to complete the regulation period may only put to waste the whole enterprise. The most practical and reasonable thing to do was to save the experiments, that is, terminate them while most of the experimental animals were still alive, and come out with a research report on the basis of the hypothesized performances limited to the 45-day culture period.

An undergraduate thesis is not meant to be a rigorous scientific endeavor but more of a guided learning exercise for students in the conduct of a scientific investigation. Its primary intention is to expose the learners to the culture of research. To accomplish this is to usher the student into an actual experience in doing research with the guidance of a main adviser and a review or advisory committee. The overall expectation of the exercise should not be so much in coming up with impeccable research outputs but on sufficient understanding of the concepts and mechanics of doing scientific investigations.

Thus, a student undergraduate thesis may be allowed a wider degree of tolerance for apparent imperfections, otherwise known as limitations of the study. In the case at bar, the extraneous unforeseen variables that shortened the duration of the experiments may be considered as one of the limitations of the studies. As it is, the information generated is new knowledge itself for the young researchers and, apparently, even for their mentors.

The faculty of the MSU GenSan College of Fisheries cannot be totally faulted for imposing a 60-day regulation period for the conduct of theses on the culture of fish and other species. The faculty is likely concerned with maintaining quality and excellence in the conduct of the research exercise. The policy could be a means to preclude the submission by thesis students of roughhewn studies carried out in limited time for one reason or another. This quality control, however, is conceptually and operationally defective.

In scientific research, the objectives of the study determine the methodology, the requisite materials and the time needed to undertake the enterprise. To prescribe a fixed minimum duration for scientific investigations in a particular discipline delimits the expanse of the inquiry in that discipline.

In aquaculture, for instance, the 60-day study duration would not allow the conduct of feeding experiments for the larval stages of the jumbo tiger shrimp, sugpo (P. monodon Fabricious). It is because the entire stage from nauplius to postlarvae 1 (day one) would only take 13-15 days (naplius, 3 days; zoea, 5-6 days; and mysis to postlarvae day one, 4-5 days). Even if an experiment in this regard is extended to postlarvae 15, the ideal stocking age of sugpo in the rearing pond, a research proposal for the purpose will not meet the requisite duration because the total number of experimental days would only sum up to a maximum of 30 days, which is only half of the regulation period. Yet rich, interesting and defining research is possible for any array and combination of variables just, say, for the zoea or mysis stage of the tiger shrimp at the duration of just 5-6 days.

Hence, stringent adherence to the rule may forfeit opportunities and important findings or discoveries of studies which could have been carried out below the regulation period.

By and large, policies in research must be open to public criticisms and change if only to serve the purpose for which they are enunciated as guide in the search for truth, knowledge and understanding.

Thus it is imperative for people in academe to examine and revise their road maps every now and then to bring them closer to reality and to the truth behind appearances.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., was a research and extension worker, professor and the first chancellor of the Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental. He was a British Council fellow and trained in 1994 at Sheffield University, United Kingdom, on Participatory Planning and Environmentally Responsible Development. Upon retirement, he served as national consultant to the ADB-DENR project on integrated coastal resource management. He is the immediate past president of the MSU Alumni Association.)