6 Filipino scientists who are changing the world

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You hear about Filipino singers and actresses making waves around the world, but what about the doctorate student looking to end tuberculosis, or the researcher surveying an African region that could soon be an ocean? Illustrations by ROSS DU

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Reina Reyes has been across the galaxy and back.

An astrophysicist, data scientist, and renowned for confirming Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, Reyes has since returned from her travels and studies abroad to teach and lend her expertise in the Philippines.

One of her passion projects is Pinoy Scientists, a blog that features mostly young Filipino scientists across different fields and from across the world. The scientists talk briefly about their work and education — applied chemistry, material sciences — often accompanied with other footnotes: the sports they play, or the names of their dogs.

Sometimes their photos feature them in their natural element: donning lab coats, or safety goggles and headgear, or standing next to an invention or research exhibit at a fair or conference, juxtaposed with their wackier shots of climbing mountains, doing yoga, or goofing around with friends and family.

The blog first opened in 2012 and was revived in 2016 after a two-year hiatus. Pinoy Scientists is Reyes’ way of giving science in the Philippines the face — or faces, in all their diversity.

“We don’t even think about science as a career… When I was younger, I didn’t dream about being a scientist, even if I really liked science,” says Reyes. “I wanted to be an architect ... I wanted to be a lawyer ... I wanted to be a business person. But all this time I was devouring astronomy books.”

“Clearly, I was already a young scientist,” Reyes says, “[But] because [there was no] role model … it it didn’t occur to me to become a scientist. The idea here is to collate different profiles to show that we exist ... you can be one as well.”

Reyes says that science is not given much emphasis in the Philippine context, and the conversion rate of science enthusiasts to practitioners and professionals is low.

“It’s not — for example, basketball. Basketball is part of the culture, even if it’s an American sport,” she explains. “What that means is, if you’re good in basketball, you will be discovered … We have a lot of young, talented, scientists-to-be in many places in the Philippines, pero ang daming dapat mangyari for them to become a scientist.”

“I’m optimistic that we’ll become bigger. We’ll have a bigger role to play in the international community,” Reyes continues. “What we’re doing is we’re contributing to international knowledge … We become part of the community of nations that contribute.”

One of the surprising themes the blog puts forth is the internationality of Filipino scientists. They are all over: studying in Europe, researching in Africa, or teaching in Asia. They study everything from atoms in our cells to the stars.

So often we hear about Filipinos conquering the diaspora — in music and theater, in pageantry and culinary arts — but a silent movement, one steadily growing and gaining traction, is that of Filipino scientists and their invariable contributions to the knowledge of the world. Here are a few of them.

 

Irene Crisologo Irene Crisologo. Illustration by ROSS DU

Irene Crisologo, radar meteorologist

Irene Crisologo is a radar meteorologist based in Potsdam, Germany working on open source methods for processing weather radar data.

“I hope that someday the methods can be used operationally to aid in weather monitoring and forecasting,” she says. “The possibility to customize the methods to suit the local conditions can improve weather monitoring and forecasting.”

Crisologo believes science is one of the foundations of nation-building, calling it “the enemy of short-term band-aid solutions.”

While she praises the Department of Science and Technology’s Balik Scientist Program, a brain gain initiative that encourages scientists to return to the country, Crisologo also hopes that there will be more opportunities for scientists to work outside of the university setting.

“I am also concerned about those scientists who wish to pursue their careers in the industrial path,” she says. “I know some people who, after finishing their Ph.D.’s abroad, have no possibility to go back home and work because there is no market for them.”

 

Julius Sempio Julius Sempio. Illustration by ROSS DU

Julius Sempio, scientist specializing in geoinformatics and remote sensing

Julius Sempio is a scientist who stayed home, although his assignment takes him out of this world.

Sempio, who specializes in geoinformatics and remote sensing, is helping develop an effective archive and database for images coming from Diwata-1, a Philippine microsatellite launched into orbit last year, and the future Diwata-2. The system ensures data from the Diwata satellites “will be readily accessible for applications such as mapping, monitoring the environment and detecting changes in land features and land usage,” he explains.

He stumbled on the field almost by accident. He did not meet the retention grade for Computer Engineering at UP, and somehow ended up in Geodetic Engineering — which to his surprise, he found he liked.

“If it is because the theories are applied in field activities immediately after, or because I need to prove that I am worthy of a second chance as a UP Engineering student, I probably would not know,” he says.

Whatever the case was, Sempio got a license, worked on watershed modelling for Sendong-affected cities Cagayan de Oro and Iligan, and is now preoccupied with the satellite image database. His master’s thesis used such images to assess the vulnerability of farming communities to drought.

Sempio lauds government efforts like Project NOAH and the DREAM Program, and urges them to build on the Balik Scientist program to let scientists share their experiences with public school students.

“Most Filipino laymen have this tendency to cluster scientists as some sort of an unreachable cultural elite, made worse by a self-imposed false impression of intellectual incapacity to achieve the same level of knowledge,” he says. “This feeling of inferiority, however, can be negated by an education system that encourages scientific and critical thinking from childhood.”

 

Andreia Carillo Andreia Carrillo. Illustration by ROSS DU

Andreia Carrillo, astrophysicist

Andreia Carrillo is an astrophysicist from Bulacan, now based in Austin in the United States, where she is finishing a doctorate degree at the University of Texas. Her previously published paper characterized a dwarf galaxy 15 million light years away, including the kinds of stars it had and their implications on the environment.

She admits while astrophysics may be difficult to relate to the general public, she maintains that it’s important “to always be wondering about these things, asking questions, and doing steps to be closer to an answer — and possibly more questions.”

“It's an important human skill to be critical. That's not exclusive to research,” says Carillo. “We're studying astrophysics because we want to fill in the huge void in mankind's origin story.”

“Isn't it extremely mind-blowing that 13.7 billion years ago there's the Big Bang, and a series of things happened and now we're here?” she adds. “It's an amazing feeling, knowing how vast the universe is and we're quite literally, an insignificant part of it, and yet we're able to probe it and understand it with whatever technology we have.”

 

Kamela Ng Kamela Ng. Illustration by ROSS DU

Kamela Ng, molecular epidemiologist

Kamela Ng is a molecular epidemiologist who splits her time between the Institute of Tropical Medicine at Antwerp, Belgium, and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Her current research is focused on the early detection of drug resistant-tuberculosis transmission.

The goal afterward is to implement a drug-resistant surveillance tool in the Philippines, where tuberculosis remains a deadly disease despite it being treatable. Particularly worrisome, she notes, is that rising cases of multidrug resistant-TB in our country are driven by transmission. After an initial test in three regions, they hope to implement the tool nationwide.

“Information generated from it will be channelled to appropriate stakeholders to prevent further transmission in the community and identify patients who need to undergo further testing and immediate treatment,” says Ng.

She noted that scientific discoveries improve Filipinos' lives in the aspect of healthcare, particularly in the “prompt detection of disease and timely initiation of treatment.” Ng hopes the government can “provide adequate support for scientists” to “reverse brain drain” and sustain a mutualistic ecosystem through collaborative projects across different disciplines.

 

Migs Canilao Migs Canilao. Illustration by ROSS DU

Migs Canilao, anthropologist and archaeologist

Migs Canilao is an anthropologist and archaeologist specializing in environmental and urban geography. He is completing his studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago, where his research involves using high resolution satellite imagery to track ancient gold trading trails and settlements in Northwestern Luzon.

“What is interesting to study in terms of Luzon gold is how the various settlements are interconnected and organized in terms of efficiently moving … this metal from interior mines to coastal jump-off points before their journey across the sea,” Canilao explains. “Corresponding ... data will in turn show which settlements had a locational advantage in the system.”

By “advantage” Canilao means: Who controls the trade and the trails?

He also noted that some data pointed to how the trade could have extended to parts of the Indian subcontinent and early East Asian states.

“Applied anthropology helps us integrate postcolonial voices, indigenous voices in development planning and execution,” Canilao says. “Applied archaeology ... allows us to identify and protect archaeological sites that are part of our national Filipino identity.”

The inclusion of indigenous voices helps, Canilao adds, in aspects such as historiography and planning. He also hopes that local government units, the academe, and stakeholder communities support the National Museum in its protection of archaeological sites.

 

Sarah Oliva Sarah Oliva. Illustration by ROSS DU

Sarah Oliva, geophysicist

Sarah Oliva is a geophysicist based in Tulane University in New Orleans, United States. Hailing from Naga, Oliva had a background in physics and material science but returned to a childhood love, geology — one that was partially nurtured by having a geologist for a dad.

“I like seeing the world in terms of forces and particles, deformation and material properties,” says Oliva. “But even as I happily pursued [physics and material sciences], I would fondly recall another childhood interest of mine — geology … And when a fire like that burns and stays alive over many years even without being tended and fed, it has to mean something.”

She says the urge pushed her to switch tracks in graduate school “despite not having taken a single geology class up to that point.”

Now, she is digging deeper — literally. She is working with datasets from East Africa, a region “pulling apart to perhaps form an ocean basin millions of years from now.” Her research is aimed at understanding the rifting and informing hazards assessment in the area.

“Think about it as x-ray imaging the layers of the earth,” she wrote in her Pinoy Scientists profile. Instead, you use seismic waves instead of x-rays.

Oliva says that while applied science and technology seem to be “more appealing economically,” they are fueled by fundamental science research. She hopes for continuous support for science high schools, maintaining the quality of the science curriculum, and for students to get more opportunities to meet Filipino scientists to know that yes, “this is a feasible career option.”

As an international student, she observed many scientists consider “being abroad [as] part of the job — whether it's only for a few days for a conference … or much longer for research and faculty positions.”

“When you're working in science, trivial things such as nationality, gender, religion, and cultural background are less important,” says Oliva. “Ideas and concepts transcend borders.”