Crossing a New Frontier

I love science. So, moving out of the mainstream of scientific endeavor was not an easy decision for me. My ambition had always been to become an "established" scientist and to be the one who outshines the rest. But after getting my master's degree in science in 1992, I struggled for several years in research laboratories, looking for that elusive discovery that would represent my breakthrough finding. As are many young scientists fresh out of graduate school, I was highly motivated and full of enthusiasm and hope. And I was literally on my feet 12 to 15 hours a day, 7 days a week....

In fact, the laboratory was almost my second home. There I slogged my wits out day after day. At the end of my first contract 2 years later, I had gathered enough research data for my mentor to publish a peer-reviewed paper in an ordinary journal, but the undeniable fact was that I had found nothing truly novel. I gathered that this was not unusual and, perhaps, was just the beginning. Encouraged and convinced by my mentor that better things would be forthcoming if I would only persevere and pursue the research further, I signed up a new contract to work for a further 2 years.

It was a lot of hard work, monotonous chores, and repetitive tasks that would wear out any hands. Nothing impressed me anymore. After all, biological variability had answered all the odds and confounding data that I observed, or at least that was what I was told to believe. Towards the expiration of my second contract, our research fund was almost depleted, and so was my enthusiasm. We were nowhere near our breakthrough. My mentor suggested that I take up a Ph.D. studentship from there on so that I could continue on the project. But I was mentally exhausted from having put in the best of my prime years on that "noble" research. I wondered, "How many more years do I need?" After much thought, I politely declined my mentor's offer and made arrangements to push on with my life elsewhere.

That was when fate took an interesting twist and landed me in the career of my life. I bumped into a botanist who was looking for business partners to start an orchid-breeding business. I had studied botany as an undergraduate, and the beauty of the myriad variety of orchids had always fascinated me. I thought, "Why not? I have little to lose anyway." With more than 25,000 species, I figured it'd be enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life. Although I had never gone further than being barely able to identify the common species, I was confident that I could pick up more knowledge on the job. Without further thought, I decided to move into this new frontier where the sky was my limit.

I was thrilled to become a partner of the company. With an extremely capable and entrepreneurial business partner, I needed only to play second fiddle. Within a few months of forming our partnership, we got a tremendously good offer--an existing orchid farm with full greenhouse facilities just across the causeway in Malaysia--and at a real bargain. We snapped it up immediately. However, it was not just merely orchid farming that we were interested in; what we wanted to do even more was to introduce some high-tech orchid culture and hybridization to intercross species of specific genera in order to produce new, complex, and even rare hybrids and propagate them. To do so, we needed a dedicated laboratory of our own.

We got a loan and almost 6 months later got our laboratory set up and operational. Pristine, clean, and all ours! The feeling was indeed very different from being in any other laboratories. There we started our first orchid cultures. Initially, our success rate was very low and it was quite frustrating. It was only after we adjusted the artificial climate conditions in the lab that things started working better. A year later, with a success rate of more than 70%, we had a bumper harvest. Today, almost 4 years later, we can boast of successfully breeding more than 50 species and hybrids. We regularly propagate seedlings from our stud plants by hybridization and stem propagation, and we supply cut flowers as well as orchid seedlings to hobbyists, retailers, and even commercial growers in more than 10 countries.

Along the way, I learned not just how to culture orchids, but also how to manage a business. Because my business partner is more of a PR person, she looks after the staff while I manage the logistics. When you have customers spread over more than 10 countries, it is really not just plain logic. We have to ensure that all our products reach customers as fresh as they can be. Of course, over the years, we have developed our own network and have found reliable logistics experts to do most of the work for us.

Life has never been more enjoyable for me. Occasionally, I get the chance to join intrepid plant hunters on excursions into the evergreen jungles of Southeast Asia to pick up rare species of orchids to breed and hybridize with other species so we can produce variants with enhanced colors, sizes, and general appeal. The thrill of seeing your new hybrid for the first time is really unparalleled. Breeding orchids has become not only my job but also my favorite pastime. I have come to the realization that in order to be able to enjoy science, you need to know the art of it. For me, it was really that big step out of the academic research laboratory that let me see the boundless horizon and appreciate what science truly means in real life.

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