Dok Z: The Educator and the Engineer

He was an early-bloomer. As young as four years old he already knew that one day he would become a civil engineer. Though at first he thought of becoming an architect, he reconsidered because he wanted something more than art. He loved science.

As a young boy, he only had a handful of friends. Very often his parents forbade him and his siblings from playing with other children their age. They were even expected to be home at 5 p.m. He said this happens when you have a sociologist for a father, especially if he specializes on deviant behavior among adolescents.

But at 41, Dr. Mark Zarco maintains a wide and healthy sphere of friends—both young and old, online and offline. And of course, he is now a full-fledged civil engineer with a PhD attached to his name.

It was a typical Tuesday afternoon in the College of Engineering. Several students were waiting for Dr. Zarco inside a medium-sized lecture room. They could hear him coming because of his distinct accent and his powerful voice. He would greet several people as he navigated the corridors of Melchor Hall.

“Hello, how are you?” his Indian-like accent boomed at a lady who was obviously his former student. The clinking of keys followed him as he beamed to almost everyone he met. From afar he looked like a schoolboy because of a giant lunchbox he was carrying around.

“Aha! I have a pasalubong for all of you,” Dok Z, as he is commonly known, announced to his class. He just arrived over the weekend from a seminar in Thailand. “But I’ll bring it out later. It’s a surprise.”

The landslide engineer

A true-blue Iskolar ng Bayan, Dok Z took up his preschool to doctorate all in the University of the Philippines. Both his parents also taught in UP, and he himself is now a faculty of the Department of Civil Engineering.

He specializes in Geotechnical Engineering. This is a branch that studies different materials from the earth like soil and rocks, including their mechanical properties. He also thinks of ways of using them to build structures.

“What specifically do I study? Landslides,” he said. “There are very few people in the Philippines who study landslides... It is a field that is not yet explored,” he added.

Dok Z said this baffles him because next to flooding, landslides kill more people in the country—even more than earthquakes. In fact some of the worst disasters in recent history were the landslides in St. Bernard and the Cherry Hills Subdivision.

As a civil engineer, he develops not only structures to prevent landslides but complete systems and action plans. In Sorsogon, for example, he and his team employed a system that dealt with three aspects of the disaster.

First, they assessed and quantified the likelihood of landslides near a geothermal plant in the area. Then, they installed early-warning systems that notified residents of impending landslides, giving them enough time to evacuate. Lastly, they introduced mitigation schemes like the greening of mountain slopes with specific plants to decrease the possibility of disaster.

“Very often when you have volcanic areas, the volcanic ash that is deposited becomes very prone to landsliding because of rain and weathering…The problem is that's also the place where you have all the sources of geothermal energy,” he explained.

Besides the geothermal plant, they are also concerned with the residents living in danger zones. Most often they choose to stay even if they know they could get buried alive under loose soil and rocks.
“We also have to understand that volcanic soil is also fertile soil. It is their livelihood that’s at stake,” Dok Z added.

Just last year, he became a panelist of a collaborative effort to create landslide sensors. The project started as a thesis and it is now used by geologists and even the government in their disaster-mitigation programs in the Bicol region.

“We develop systems that are low cost and easy to do and do not require a lot of technical expertise so that even non-scientists can use them,” he said.

Lessons from a teacher

This is Dok Z’s life on the field, but inside the classroom he goes back to the basics, teaching even general education courses to undergraduates.

That afternoon, he was in his Engineering Science 12 class, a core subject of engineering students that dealt with the mechanics of rigid bodies. He had quite a reputation in his college. Every enrollment period he is among the top picks of students. He is also among the most recommended.

“We are going to solve three problems today,” the professor said as he moved around the room giving out sheets of paper. “But there are several similar problems in your handouts. I expect you to answer them on your own.”

One by one he gave his students the questions, calling most of them with their nicknames. Then, he carried the lunchbox to the center table, opening it for the first time since he entered the room.

“I promised to give you pasalubong. I couldn’t think of any so I just bought you chocolates,” he beamed. He handed everyone at least two pieces of Hersey’s Nuggets, jokingly scolding those who hoarded the treat.

Dok Z employed the Socratic Method of teaching. Moving around, he threw questions at students—some were easy and others tricky. At one point he sat opposite three sophomores and grilled them one after the other.

“Is the bowling ball moving clockwise or counter-clockwise?”

“Is the force against the ball?”

“Is there friction involved?”

“Will it continue to move indefinitely?”

His students are used to his style. In fact, they engaged their professor, and also asked him questions.
After about an hour, they finished answering all three problems. Before letting his students go, Dok Z reminded them to study in advance for their fourth long exam.

“When I began teaching I thought it’s just a matter of teaching well and your students will learn. But now I know that there are so many things that happen outside the classroom that affect the ability of students to learn,” he said.

Dok Z had had several students who frequently absented themselves not because they were dull but because one of their loved ones was terminally ill. Having witnessed his own mother suffer from cancer, the professor knew exactly how they felt.

“You also have to understand that this student doesn’t do well because he's worried about a loved one who’s sick…we have to figure out how to motivate them, inspire them to study,” he said.

Living away from home

When he took up his PhD in Virginia Tech, he experienced how it felt to be unmotivated first-hand. It was his first time to be away from home so the adjustment was difficult.

He said there were times he would go to the shower at three in the morning and cry for two hours until the hot water ran out. Of course he only laughs about it now, but the experience taught him to look beyond students’ scores and attendance, and actually get to know them as individuals.

“What happened was that I found a [Christian] church and people there were very very supportive… they were also very caring. If you did not show up in a meeting, they would immediately call you and automatically assume that you were sick. And if you were sick, they’d cook for you,” he said.

At Virginia Tech, Dok Z’s once limited social sphere exploded. He gained many friends and most of them he still gets in touch with even today. Some already passed away, especially those who were much older than him.

He learned to stand on his own and to cope with the difficult curriculum. He said his classmates were brilliant and admitted that sometimes he learned more from them than his professors. But he also had equally inspiring teachers there.

Dok Z also learned to cook and bake well while in America. Whenever there were potlucks in school or in their church, he would bake bread as contribution. There was even a time when he volunteered to cook for a friend’s wedding. From the bridal shower down to the reception, Dok Z was the chief chef of the whole event.

Then, he had to come back to the Philippines largely because of the prodding of his parents. They did not want him to stay in the United States forever.

“It’s not the opportunity. I believe you can always engineer opportunities. But the people are difficult to leave behind, especially if they’ve become a family to you, ” he said.

Dok Z packed his things after his afternoon lecture. When he stepped outside the room some students greeted him. He beamed back at them. As the professor walked back to the faculty room, the clinking of keys followed him again. He was still carrying his lunchbox.

From the way he walked, his smile and countenance, it was obvious that Dok Z is at home as an educator and an engineer.
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