Sci-Pinoy

Published May 13, 2021, 7:00 AM

by Rom Mallick

These Filipino scientists are striving to make a mark in their respective fields

Most people aren’t aware that science as a discipline and, to a certain extent, as an industry is very much alive in the Philippines. Over the years, we have had some notable scientists, including Fe Del Mundo in the field of pediatrics, Maria Orosa in food technology, Eduardo Quisumbing in plant taxonomy, and Gavino Trono in tropical marine phycology—the latter two should come as no surprise, given how the Philippines is a country with rich flora and fauna and a thriving marine ecology.

But beyond these established names, Filipino scientists continue to strive to make a difference in their respective fields. Here we feature four of them, Pinoy scientists who are involved in continuous research and study.

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JAE RUSSELL RODRIGUEZ, molecular anthropologist

Combining forensics, molecular biology, and anthropology, Tawi-Tawi-born Jae Rodriguez is studying the DNA of Filipinos in order to determine our origins, our ancient migration routes, and our overall place in human history as a people. He is currently an assistant professor at the Institute of Biological Sciences of the University of the Philippines–Los Baños but is on study leave as a doctoral candidate of the Molecular Anthropology program of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, where he is finishing a thesis on the DNA of indigenous communities in the Sulu Archipelago. His study includes various groups such as the Tausug, Yakan, and Sama, as well as the traditionally sea-nomadic Badjao.

What made you decide to pursue a career in science?

As a child, I have always been fascinated with maps, living organisms, and anything about the ancient past. I tried to balance my interests with the prospect of a more practical career as a medical doctor, so I took BS in Biology at UPLB. While being a physician is, indeed, a noble profession, taking courses in college made me realize that I wanted to pursue a career in teaching and research. Studying more about DNA, the genetic material that links us to our ancestors, made me realize that I could combine my fascination with geography, biodiversity, and prehistory.


How would you describe the state of
 science and research in the country? 

There is immense potential for scientific research in the country, especially because of our rich biodiversity and unique environments. There is just so much to learn and plenty of brilliant young minds who can become scientists. But we still have a long way to go to be at par even with our neighboring countries in terms of government funding as well as in the number of our science PhDs.

‘I think a truly enlightened society values intellectual pursuit that asks and finds answers to big questions, those that pertain to our identities and origins as a people and as a species and to our unique position in the universe.’


How did you choose the field you are currently specializing in?

I came across a piece of fiction written by Harry Nimmo, an American anthropologist who in the ‘60s spent many months of field work among the Sama Dilaut or the Badjao of Tawi-Tawi. Inspired by the stories and the rigor of ethnographic work, it became clear to me what I wanted to do, and so I wrote this PhD proposal focusing on the Sulu Archipelago.


How do you see your study benefiting the country?

Characterizing DNA variations in human populations indeed has practical impact on health and forensics. I would like to highlight, however, that studying our origins and prehistory has significance beyond just the immediate economic and medical. Indigenous communities, such as the Badjao, are threatened of loss of culture and identity because of poverty and conflict. Studies of their unique culture, adaptation, and prehistory can help regain that unique identity. The DNA, a thread that connects us all, will contribute, with hope, to this narrative, which is very well our own story too as Filipinos.


Is there local support for science in the Philippines? What is your wish for the local scientific community?

There is indeed some support available to researchers and the situation has vastly improved since a few decades ago. But the current system of research funding often compels scientists to justify their work in terms of immediate economic or medical benefit. Don’t get me wrong, we absolutely need more innovations in medicine, agriculture, and disaster management. But there is too little incentive for doing basic research or pursuing science for the sake of expanding human knowledge. Researches on astronomy, anthropology, and archaeology thus face challenges in obtaining local funding. I wish that, in time, it will be different. It is important that we emerge as survivors from food shortages, epidemics, and natural calamities. But what do we live for? What do we continue to survive for as a nation? I think a truly enlightened society values intellectual pursuit that asks and finds answers to big questions, those that pertain to our identities and origins as a people and as a species and to our unique position in the universe.

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JULIANE VILELA, computational biology/bioinformatics

With UPLB, Juliane Vilela worked on computational biology to determine how Big Data could be harnessed to produce more resilient agricultural crops and livestock, and promote biodiversity.

What made you decide to pursue a career in science? 

Since I was a child, I have dreamed of science and wearing lab coat. While others see biology, chemistry, and science projects as a chore, I only see and feel excitement. Even as a child I constantly sought it, first on television with Sineskwela, then later at science museums and in books. Science in all its forms fascinated me, but laboratory experimentations were a special joy that only grew with time.

It was this continued fascination for hands-on science that influenced me to take up Agricultural Biotechnology at UPLB as my undergraduate degree. It was the unique combination of agriculture and biotechnology that caught my attention. Just the thought of doing laboratory experiments in class at this level of rigor made my heart skip a beat and I spent the first day in the lab class eagerly examining every piece of equipment and reagent.

Although the days were long and hard, my undergraduate journey filled me with pride. That pride confirmed and reinvigorated my love for science.  I felt more alive, more engaged, in the lab than anywhere else, and I was committed to returning. I returned as a master’s student and then as a researcher in my chosen field. I am again determined to take another step forward to follow my passion, as a PhD student. After all, to follow your passion is, literally, a dream come true.

Growing up and, in the course of your studies, how was your experience with the Filipino scientific community? Is there one to speak of, to begin with? 

My first experience with the Filipino scientific community was during my undergraduate research at UPLB, and having stayed at the university for more than eight years since then I can say that it is a nurturing community. The community encourages career development to the fullest and the culture of research provides a collaborative platform involving faculty, researchers, and students.

How would you describe the state of science and research in the country? 

As I see it, the state of science and research in the country is continuously improving. There is a steady increase in research and extension output, science majors (BS, MSc and PhD), Balik Scientists, and fund allocation both local (through DOST) and international (through USAID, British Council, private sector, to name a few). Although even with this increase, we are still lagging behind our ASEAN neighbors like Singapore, Vietnam, and Malaysia. According to a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report in 2013, there are only 189 researchers per one million people in the country, far from the standard of at least 380 researchers per one million inhabitants in a country. I am hopeful that through the continuous efforts of the government and research institutions the scientific sector will continue to progress.

‘There are only 189 researchers per one million people in the country, far from the standard of at least 380 researchers per one million inhabitants in a country. I am hopeful that through the continuous efforts of the government and research institutions the scientific sector will continue to progress.’

How did you choose the field you are currently specializing in?

While studying for my masters in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at UPLB, I developed a particular interest in the molecular mechanism underlying the complexity of host-pathogen interaction. I constantly asked myself from then on, how does a virus or bacteria or fungi infect its host?

While doing my master’s thesis, I became a part of the UPLB Abaca genomics team led by Dr. Antonio Laurena, whose enthusiasm and innovative experimental approaches to the study of genomics, disease susceptibility, and resistance were an inspiration to my work.

After finishing my master’s, I was given the opportunity to implement projects that focus on viral pathogen infecting plants (i.e. Bunchy top virus or BTV), Mosaic virus (MV), and human (i.e. Hepatitis A, B, C, D and E). While implementing these research projects, I recognized the gaps in this particular research area in the Philippines, which inspired me to pursue and further my knowledge in this field.

I am now given the opportunity to continue my academic career with a PhD in Biomedical and Life Sciences specializing in virology at the Lancaster University in the UK.

How do you see your study benefiting the country?

The goal of my study is to reduce the impact of viral pathogens on poultry production through the development of new and improved vaccines. To achieve this goal, this study will play a critical role in improving in-country resources and capacity for disease control systems. Achieving these objectives will prove a step-change in poultry disease management and increase in poultry productivity, which directly drives economic prosperity of farmers and allied communities. Economic development in the animal production sector will create new job opportunities, enhancing the sustainability of the sector, and improve animal welfare, food safety, and security, as well as safeguarding the economy and the environment.

What is your wish for the local scientific community?

I hope that the Filipino scientific community continues to serve the people by extending scientific results to its respective beneficiaries, to communicate researches to farmers, funding agencies, government offices, industry and other stakeholders, and to ensure that any product and application outcome these research interventions produce will be beneficial to farmers and the Filipino people.

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CHARLES JOURDAN REYES, neurogenetics

Currently at the Institute of Neurogenetics of the University of Luebeck, Germany, Charles Reyes is working on his PhD and studying the genetics of Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders. Specifically, his study focuses on the so-called X-linked dystonia parkinsonism or lubag, which is a type of neurological disorder that is very specific to males whose roots can be traced to Panay Island.

What made you decide to pursue a career in science?

As a child, I was always fascinated with how seemingly complicated things work, and I wanted to deconstruct them to know how simple parts contribute to the complex whole. In high school, I took my biology classes under Dr. Arturo A. Tolentino, who had an extreme passion not only for the life sciences but also for personal development. He was (and continues to be) an excellent role model and mentor. He taught me that I could achieve great things and be of service to the country if I was willing to pour in the necessary time and effort to develop my craft. Without him, I probably would not have decided to pursue a career in biomedical research. 

Growing up and, in the course of your studies, how was your experience with the Filipino scientific community? Is there one to speak of, to begin with?

There is a strong and supportive scientific community in the Philippines. I was fortunate to receive the best quality of mentoring as a student at Caloocan City Science High School, Ateneo de Manila University, and the University of the Philippines. We have self-effacing yet highly competent scientists and educators in the country. Back then, there were not many well-funded biology laboratories in Manila. But we had inspiring teachers and professors who exposed us to the wonders of science, the excitement of pursuing graduate studies abroad, and the challenges of adjusting to new cultures. 

How would you describe the state of science and research in the country?

The progress of science in the Philippines may not be as fast compared to developed countries. But we are still on the upswing given developments like the establishment of the National Science Complex and the Philippine Genome Center. Some of the research projects conducted in these institutions is even at par with first world countries. Also, more Filipinos are starting to pursue further scientific training abroad. I hope they choose to come back and serve as role models for the next generation of Pinoy scientists. We still have a long way to go, but the situation is starting to get better.  

How did you choose the field you are currently specializing in?

I chose to specialize in neurogenetics because this field was where my passion for biology overlapped with “the world’s deep hunger.” My father’s side of the family comes from Aklan province on the island of Panay, where a rare brain disease called X-linked dystonia-parkinsonism (XDP) is endemic. Neurogenetics is also one of the hottest fields in biomedical research where dogma-shattering findings are being made year after year. It’s an exciting time to be at the forefront of change.   

‘Neurogenetics is also one of the hottest fields in biomedical research where dogma-shattering findings are being made year after year. It’s an exciting time to be at the forefront of change.’

How do you see your study benefiting the country?

I am currently part of an international consortium of scientists and medical doctors searching to find a cure for XDP, a disease found only in Filipinos. Our collective effort over the past few years suggests that XDP is not as mysterious as it seems. It appears to behave like more common degenerative brain disorders like Huntington’s disease (HD), the most common inherited form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and more than 40 other diseases caused by expansions of repetitive sequences in our DNA. There has been tremendous progress in the development of targeted gene therapies for these diseases and clinical trials now underway for HD and ALS. I am realistically optimistic that similar approaches can be applied to XDP once we get a better understanding of what causes the disease at the level of cells and molecules.

Is there local support for science in the Philippines?

Yes. The Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD) provide grants and scholarships for local scientists and graduate students. DOST even has a Balik Scientist program to attract Filipino researchers abroad to return to the Philippines and share their expertise. The Movement Disorder Society of the Philippines (MDSP) has also been very supportive of our research on XDP.  

What is your wish for the local scientific community?

I hope that the local scientific community finally receives the visibility and support it deserves. The long-term problems that plague our country can only be solved by investing in scientific research. We also need more support to develop homegrown researchers who are not only technically competent but also aware of the unmet needs of the nation. By making these strategic investments, I believe we can move forward as a nation.     

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AIMEE YVONNE AMAN, human genetics

A medical doctor by training, Aimee Yvonne Aman has done research that looks at the genetics behind cardiovascular diseases in Filipinos. She was part of a big, government-funded program that studied variations in Filipino genes that may indicate disease susceptibility, as well as medication response, which is one of the pioneering studies of its kind in Southeast Asia. She is currently with the UP Manila National Institutes of Health, working as a senior research specialist at the Institute of Human Genetics.


What made you decide to pursue a career in science?

My mom is a medical technologist and my dad is an engineer, so early on my siblings and I were exposed to their work. They cultivated our curious young minds, answering our questions, making sure that books were always available for us to read. My mom’s work in public health initially became my inspiration to become a doctor. As a student at Philippine Science High School and later at University of the Philippines – Manila, I realized that my calling and true passion was in research. I got accepted as a medical resident in one of the more popular, prestigious private hospitals upon graduating from medical school. But I realized that what I really wanted was a career in research.  It was a difficult decision to leave the program, but I think it was one of the best decisions I made for myself. Not that what I chose to do was easier… doing research can be very challenging. But I really love what I do, and that makes the challenges more bearable.

How would you describe the state of science and research in the country?

I am optimistic about the state of science and research in the country. People should visit the next National and Regional Science and Technology exhibits that the Department of Science and Technology puts up yearly. Nakakatuwa, minsan mapapaisip ka: Uy, meron pala tayo nyan sa Pilipinas? Uy, ginagawa pala yan dito sa Pinas (It’s good to realize we have these things and do these things in the Philippines)? Like early last year, our scientists from the Philippine Genome Center and the National Institutes of Health were able to produce kits for the diagnosis of COVID-19 infection. That is government-funded science right there, to be used by the Filipino people.

‘Our scientists from the Philippine Genome Center and the National Institutes of Health were able to produce kits for the diagnosis of COVID-19 infection. That is government-funded science right there, to be used by the Filipino people.’

How did you choose the field you are currently specializing in?

Honestly, when I started working for the NIH, I was just thinking, gusto ko mag-research, kahit anong research. But really, I was partial to doing research on non-communicable diseases like cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, mental health, cancer… It just so happened that there was an opening for a medical doctor in their cardiovascular research program. I supervised research nurses who were enrolling participants into our study and handled administrative matters while doing my masters in clinical epidemiology. Eventually, after all the data collection was through, I moved on to data analytics. I found myself in that sweet spot between the clinical and the basic sciences, translating findings from the lab into data useful in the clinics. That was very rewarding for me. A running joke between me and my colleagues whenever we find something interesting: ‘yung kilig na dala ng bagong finding, kilig na hindi madudulot ng lovelife (The giddiness you get from discovery that is akin to finding love). A lot of us are single, by the way! (laughs)

How do you see your study benefiting the country?

Cardiovascular diseases remain to be a top cause of death in the Philippines and worldwide. We want to be able to understand the role that genetics plays in the development of these diseases, and the way it affects how medications are utilized by the body. Since genetics varies between different populations, it is possible that there may be differences in how our Filipino genes affect our susceptibility to diseases and how drugs are metabolized. With hope, with our findings we can tailor-fit management based on the genetic findings of the patients we see in our clinics.

What is your wish for the local scientific community?

Of course there are still a lot of things to improve on. A lot of our younger colleagues still do not have job security, so some of them look for job security outside of the country. Funding for research is also low, especially if we compare our budget allocation vis-a-vis what our fellow ASEAN countries allocate in their country’s budget. I also wish for more inter-agency, inter-institute collaborations. Lastly, more opportunities for our local scientists. I know we have our Balik Scientist program to entice our foreign-based Filipino scientists to deliver lectures and foster partnerships with their host institutions and their home institutions, but maybe we can also raise support for early-career, local-based researchers.

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CHRISTIAN DEO DEGUIT, human genetics, molecular biology

A senior science research specialist at the Institute of Human Genetics of the National Institutes of Health, Christian Deo Deguit formulates genetic and immunology research, such as for HIV, that are of clinical and public health relevance. 

What made you decide to pursue a career in science? 

Science broadly is just trying to understand why things are the way they are. It’s that pursuit of discovery and wonder that I find so exhilarating in the field of science. If you’re a naturally curious person like me it would be hard not to imagine yourself asking questions or understanding more about the world as a career. Despite the financial and logistic realities of a career in science in the Philippines, the fact that what you’re studying would have an impact on society in the future was also a reason for me in choosing this career path.

Growing up, and on the course of your studies, how was your experience with the Filipino scientific community? Is there one to speak of, to begin with? 

I would say I was pretty lucky to have had experiences witnessing Filipino scientists in action. My mom used to work with a lot of marine biologists in her developmental work and I remember her bringing me to work trips where I could see these researchers at work. I guess it was the early realization that scientists are people (and not the ones we see in movies with the lab coats and crazy hair) that made the idea of me wanting to be a scientist more realistic. Also, having gone to a science high school made me more aware that there was a scientific community in the country. It’s an unfortunate reality that not a lot of kids get to have the experience I had, which potentially could have given them a false notion that being a scientist is an unattainable goal. I guess it is pretty important for the Filipino scientific community to be more visible to inspire more children to consider science as a viable career in the future. 


How would you describe the state of science and research in the country?

I feel scientific research is still pretty much undergoing a sluggish revival, which is coupled with a lot of growing pains. In the past few years, there have been increased efforts to set up the groundwork for an exciting revolution in Philippine scientific research. But we still have a long way to go. Inefficient bureaucracies, scarce inter-institution collaboration, limited regional inclusivity, and lack of effective mentorship toward early-career researchers are just some of the roadblocks that we have to hurdle to make Philippine research internationally competitive. I could go on and on about the issues that plague our research institutions, but I feel we are going in the right direction, albeit at a slow (and sometimes) frustrating pace. 

‘I guess it was the early realization that scientists are people (and not the ones we see in movies with the lab coats and crazy hair) that made the idea of me wanting to be a scientist more realistic.’

How did you choose the field you are currently specializing in?

I currently dabble in the fields of molecular biology, immunology, and bioinformatics to understand the impact of infectious diseases on human health. This interest started in high school as just a basic fascination with biochemistry and how small molecules in our body define who we are as people. So it was one of the things that I genuinely enjoyed reading about. Progressing into college and grad school, I realized the value of turning this fascination with biology into a sense of discovery and innovation for biomedical research to improve the lives of people. Through funding by DOST, I had the chance to do my master’s thesis on HIV in San Francisco, which has a very patient-centered and collaborative approach to scientific research and healthcare delivery. The opportunity to witness that sort of approach to scientific research, both in terms of big-picture strategic goals and the actual tactical and administrative implementation, which produced many exciting results, was really what cemented my passion to do biomedical research to, with hope, provide therapies against different diseases. 

How do you see your study benefiting the country?

As with all clinical and biomedical researchers in the country, we see the value of trying to understand how the body works and how diseases occur in that it would have far-reaching implications into how we diagnose and treat the disease in the future. In the study that I am involved in, which my supervisor is heading, we try to determine genes that would be associated with worse clinical outcomes in infectious diseases such as sepsis and leptospirosis. We have already identified some genes, and, with hope, if we’ve clinically validated these genes, we could have a way of potentially identifying the patients most at-risk for complications. Thus we can allocate better resources for them and effectively manage and treat their disease. 

Is there local support for science in the Philippines?

In terms of funding, of course, agencies such as the DOST have been active in trying to bolster scientific research here in the country. International aid agencies are also doing their part by providing scholarships and grants to further stimulate the cultivation of science in the country. But there is still a lot of room to do more. Funding is still pretty scarce and competitive. To be fair, the current scientific institutions that we have are trying their best to maximize the funding that was given to them by producing results that have a broader and more tangible impact. But to have a culture of innovation, there must be freedom to make mistakes and there must be room to have more people and institutions on the receiving end of those grants. There is a clear need to increase R&D expenditure by the government to make strides in improving the research culture in our country. In terms of support through the public, I might have to bluntly say that we are still lagging on that end. In this current climate of disinformation, large public distrust toward experts, and with governments focused on priorities other than scientific research, it is challenging to gain general support from the populace. A lot of convincing and fellowship still need to be done by experts for the majority of the Filipino people to believe in them, which shouldn’t be the case. 

What is your wish for the local scientific community?  

We are currently on a slow-paced approach toward a cusp of a more vibrant, collaborative, and exciting scientific community. All we need to focus on now is to hasten this pace and keep the momentum going forward. I can cite multiple ways at which we could achieve this, but I’d like to share three strategies that I think would help us improve the research culture in the country.

First is that there should more investment on young researchers and investigators. Our research culture right now is still largely conservative and does not provide opportunities for early-career researchers to come into terms as full scientists. There is a lack of conscious effective mentorship as the young people who first enter the world of scientific research are often relegated to temporary project-based positions and/or required to perform administrative tasks for the project. This is dangerous as work involved in science is a continuous process and should not be segmented into research projects, which largely puts the research assistants at a disadvantage, career-wise. Most research institutions, as of now, don’t have mechanisms to train entry-level RAs to effectively transition into a faculty position. Most of the time, due to lack of funding and limited inter-department collaboration within institutions, early-career scientists are not given a chance to start research on their intended field.

Second, is that there should be a shift in understanding what a grad school should be. Graduate school should largely be seen as a career track for scientific research and not as a way to just boost up one’s credentials. Grad school shouldn’t be seen as a part-time endeavor just so one could get a promotion in their current job. It should be seen as a viable career choice involving actual work, and this should be reflected in the curriculum of graduate school programs, along with an increased number of scholarships.

Lastly, it is to optimize the administrative procedures in place, particularly at government research institutions, in releasing funds and accounting for all expenses associated with research. Although there is a need for checks and balances, the redundant administrative paperwork and communication that has to be done are extremely disruptive to the progress of scientific research. Proving the funds won’t be mishandled in activities such as procurement of reagents, reimbursement of expenses, and release of travel grants are extremely slow that it sets up the research projects for hardships in implementation.

Currently, there is a feeling of complacency with these problems, thus the lagging progress when it comes to scientific research. But I guess, my ultimate wish for the local scientific community is that we are respected with the work we do—“respected” in the sense that the professional, educational, and administrative systems and policies we have in place should serve as stalwarts and not obstacles to our scientific progress and innovation.   

 
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