April to June 2006

 

special report

 

Dr. Gina Dedeles, Dr. Cristina Binag, Dr. Maricor Soriano, and Dr. Elaine Tolentino

The making of a scientist

Are scientists born or made? Or are they born to be made?
Four young women scientists allowed us a glimpse into their lives, particularly on how they developed and nurtured interest in science.
One had a chemistry teacher whose “magic tricks” sparked her curiosity on the elements. Another was a self-confessed probinsiyana who thought she would never make it to the concrete jungles of Manila.  The other one had an UPCAT score that did not qualify her to enroll in the pre-med courses of her choice, so she had to settle for a non-quota course.  And the last one was aiming to be a doctor of medicine but was prodded to become a doctor of philosophy (major in chemistry) instead.

Dr. Cristina BinagThat it was the day before Women’s Month may have prompted the invited male scientists to give the floor exclusively to their female colleagues.  But to their advantage, these women scientists earned the respect, interest, and admiration of participating high school students who flocked to the Benitez Theater of UP Diliman’s College of Education last February 28, just to hear them talk.
The unlikely forum, dubbed “The Making of a Scientist”, was sponsored by the Philippine Association for the Advancement of Science (PhilAAS), in collaboration with the Department of Science and Technology’s Science and Technology Information Institute, and Science Education Institute, and the UPD-COE.

Q:  When did you start getting interested in science?

Dr. Christina A. Binag (Graduate School, University of Santo Tomas):  It all started when our chemistry teacher performed “magic” in our class. I was really amazed when the elements started changing colors, especially when she made an explosion just by mixing chemicals together.
Dr. Gina R. Dedeles (Department of Biological Sciences, UST): Ever since I was a child, I was already curious about so many things. For instance, I wondered why the moon kept following me wherever I went.  So I asked my teacher about it.  Her answer got me interested in earth science.

Dr. Maricor SorianoDr. Maricor N.Soriano (National Institute of Physics, UP Dliman): It’s really funny but the comic character in a Grade 2 Science textbook named Noynoy got me interested in math. I was a B.S.Math (bobo sa math).  But “meeting” Noynoy when I was in grade 2 was the turning point in my life.

Dr. Elaine Tolentino (Department of Chemistry, De La Salle University): I have always wanted to be a doctor, a physician to be exact. And I was lucky enough to be surrounded with people who encouraged me.

Q: Who influenced you to be a scientist?

CB: My parents influenced me by giving me the freedom to choose the course that I liked and not imposing on me the course that they liked for me.

GD: My parents also had a big influence on me.
MS:  Just like Christina and Gina, my parents also had a big role in my chosen career. I wanted to be a doctor. It was serendipity that I got into physics.  When I took the UPCAT, my first and second choices were both pre-medicine courses. I passed the exam, but didn’t pass the quota, so I just chose a non-quota course which I enjoyed in high school which was physics. When I told my parents I was going to take physics instead, they agreed right away.  My father was working then at DOST’s Philippine Nuclear Research Institute, so they were aware of the country’s need for more physicists.

Q: How was your interest in science nurtured?

CB: I only got serious in my studies when I was in college. When I enrolled in chemistry, I thought I was going to study pure chemistry.  So I was greatly disappointed when I found out that my course was actually major in chemistry and minor in math and physics.  I was an average student because I wanted to have a normal life. One day I observed other girl students putting on make-up and I asked myself,  “Why can’t I be like them?” After that I joined some extra-curricular activities and had a normal student life.

Dr. Gina DedelesGD: What nurtured my interest was my regular participation in science contests. My parents, and even our neighbors, gave their full support whenever I participated in science fairs.  I think that helped a lot in enhancing my skills in science.  Later, I enrolled in a college which was not so popular.  But I kept getting fielded in science bees, even competing with contestants from popular schools, such as UP and UST. Perhaps because of this keen interest, I was able to get a Monbusho scholarship.
MS: Becoming a scientist takes years and years of dedicated work.  When I was in 2nd year college, I wanted to shift to other courses because I was having difficulties.  But when I reached third year and we were required to do a thesis and join research laboratories, I was able to work with Dr. Caesar Saloma.  From that point, I discovered the inspiration one gets out of the creative process in research work.  So when I took my MS, with Dr. Saloma as my adviser, we explored other exciting applications of physics, such as chromosomes classification, etc.  I found it exciting to do helpful researches.  Later, my adviser challenged me to take my PhD from UP to show to the world that indeed we can produce world-class scientists in the country.

Dr. Elain TolentinoET: One of my mentors encouraged me to take my PhD first before going to medical school.  He told me, “Look, there are already so many medical doctors, but very few PhDs.  Why don’t you try to have your PhD first?” And, of course, DLSU also helped and supported me to pursue a career in research.

Q: Did you have a chance to work as a research assistant?

CB: Yes, but it was a routinary kind of work where we analyzed samples and all that stuff.  I was bored! Then I was able to work with Dr. Beatriz Guevarra where we ventured into natural products research.  UST is very strong in this area.  I worked on a research on fire tree (caballero) and it was really worth doing.  Nakakapagod, mabaho (It was tiresome and you would smell awful), but all of these are erased when you finally find out the components.

GD: Yes, but mostly institutional researches.  I worked with microbes.  Though they’re nakakadiri (icky) they look so cute in the microscope.  You can do whatever you want to do with them.  So I focused on microbiology.
MS: Yes, but not as a research assistant with pay.
ET: Yes, at the University of Connecticut, as a teaching assistant and a research assistant.

Q: Did you attend any special programs or schools that nurtured your interest in science?

CB: I went to an exclusive school for girls that nurtured the arts and literature but not science.
GD: I also went to a girls’ school but I had the opportunity to join science contests.

MS: I only joined the Science Club in school.  I took my MS and PhD here but I was sent to Finland to be trained and avoid “in-breeding”, which happens when one is continually confined to ideas within his or her locality.  My adviser wanted me to be exposed to other ideas and experiences, and of course, to show that we can compete with other scientists abroad.
ET: I went to St. Mary Academy which is not a science high school.

Q: If you had children, would you send them to science schools?

CB: No, I would like them to experience normal school life.
GD: No, I would want them to discover their skills themselves.
MS: I failed the entrance exams of the Philippine Science High School.  But I think science high schools are good in nurturing the science skills of students, though they should also have a leeway for the children’s artistic side.  It has always been considered “elite” to study in schools such as the PSHS where one develops his self-esteem.  But it is important for a scientist to be humble and to listen to the criticisms and corrections of other people.
DT: One doesn’t have to attend a special science school.  But it is always best to enroll in schools with quality teachers.

Q:  Of all the science projects you have worked on, which one gives you pride?

CB: The project on the development of a sensor-based conducting polymers because it was only in the late 70s when polymers were developed to conduct electricity, which means I am breaking into a relatively new area.
GD: My project on bioremediation where we work on microorganisms to convert toxic substances into non-toxic and environmentally safe ones.

MS: Mine was done in 1997 when I came back from my Finland PostDoc and started to work on coral reef imaging.  We developed an algorithm that can count the corals in a video taken under the sea.  The detection of corals in the image is based on color and texture which were translated into computer language.  I liked this particular project because it addresses one of the country’s urgent needs, which is saving the coral reefs.  Further, it is locally done but it was picked up in international fora. The international scientific magazine “Laser Focus” featured our project and even advertised it.  This shows that physicists can work with marine scientists to solve some of the country’s problems.

ET: My favorite project is the synthesis of oxidation catalysts, which has an environmental application.  Because of this project, I was inspired to set up my own analytical services laboratory which specializes on diagnostic kits for commercialization.

Q:  What subjects or skills did you find useful in your scientific pursuit?

CB: Math, Science, English, analytical thinking, learning to ask “why?”, ability to work alone and with a team.
GD: Math, English…

MS: Oral and written communication skills are important, along with analytical skills. Also, it is imperative to question even the authorities.  I think it is alright to have a “healthy disrespect” to authorities.  But it should be done politely.
ET: It is also important to hold on to your values- integrity, honesty, patience, dedication.  I think it is important that a scientist should not be an atheist. This is because some people think that you can be a very objective scientist only when you have no religion or a specific belief.

Q: What advise can you give to the Filipino youth who are inclined to science?

CB: Don’t be afraid to ask, to make mistakes.  If you fail in an experiment, then repeat. Always remember that curiosity kills a cat.  New discoveries will always give you a “high”.  There are “lows” also if results are not delivered, but that’s normal.
GD: Discover your potentials.  As the saying goes, “What you are is God’s gift to you, what you will be is your gift to God.”  For those of you who come from the provinces, being a probinsiyana is not a hindrance.  Always remember to set a goal for yourself. Do not be afraid to explore.

MS: The Philippines has 85 million population.  And there are only 80 active physicists in the country.  This means that in the Philippines we physicists are one in a million! The country needs more scientists, so if you are interested to take this path, pursue it.  Do it out of love for our country and countrymen.  There are many problems we need to help solve, such as landslides, stampedes, etc. Further, we need entrepreneurial scientists. Scientists create new knowledge, and out of this come new products and then new services, so we need to be enterprising.  But if you do not like to be scientists, at least help in spreading appreciation of science through donation, legislation, and other means of support.
ET: Before, people thought that there’s no money in being a scientist.  But now we realize that this is not so.  I am able to apply my skills and knowledge in a business I just put up with my family. There are many things you can do as a scientist.  You can be a “problem solver” and be paid for it as a consultant, or can travel to many places for free by just being a scientist.

Q: What advice can you give to science teachers?
CB: Please do not let your students memorize! It is more important to make them understand concepts. You don’t have to make them memorize the periodic table. Instead, help them learn why the elements are arranged that way.
MS:  Science teachers are an endangered species.  They are being siphoned to other countries, and we can’t blame them.  I just want to advise our science teachers to go into higher level of learning and training.
ET: You should not confine students within boundaries, especially if you yourselves are limited (in knowledge and training).  It is a must to improve or upgrade your skills and learn more and new tricks.  Take advantage of free graduate studies for teachers.  Further, for your students, give them the freedom to explore.
(PhilAAS is a non-profit, non-stock scholarly organization of scientists and technologists in the country founded in 1951.  It aims to promote and broaden the base of scientific advancement in the Philippines. It is currently headed by Dr. Fortunato Sevilla III of the University of Sto. Tomas.)