Young scientists: Thrills, throes, and thoughts

Sen. Ramon Magsaysay (3rd fromleft) and Sec Estrella Alabastro
joins S&T scholar Joselette "Joy" Reyes.

Four young scientists involved in various research projects supported by the Philippine Council for Advanced Science and Technology Research and Development share their thoughts about the joy of discovery, lab work, interest in science, and state of S&T in the country.

The days when scientists were stereotyped as older people with balding or graying hair, bespectacled, generally unkempt, and holed up in their laboratories are giving way to a new, refreshing image.  In the country’s relatively emerging field of advanced science, young scientists dominate and contribute more than baby steps to its development.

The thrill of discovering new things in the laboratory fascinate these twenty-somethings that they have made scientific quest a way of life.

“I really get excited during experiments when I discover new things along the way,” Joselette Reyes, 25, gushes.  “If I get good results, I am inspired to go on with my work. Nawawala ang pagod ko.”

Joy, as she is called by friends, is a university research associate at the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (BIOTECH) in University of the Philippines Los Baños.  Joy says her biotechnology projects are new and pioneering, particularly in a developing country.  These involve looking at DNA level of microorganisms along with some cloning experiments to find out their potential practical use.  Should she find any, she starts rolling up her sleeve for long hours in the laboratory.

Joy works with BIOTECH Director Teresita Espino in several projects that involve production of enzymes, high-value products, and diagnostic kits.  Currently, she takes charge in product development of medium chain triglyceride (MCT), a tailored fat developed by her team in a project supported by the Philippine Council for Advanced Science and Technology Research and Development.

By catalyzing coconut oil with BIOTECH-produced lipases, Joy’s team came up with other high value products such as a fruit and vegetable protectant caled beta monoglyceride (â-MG), and natural pineapple and banana flavorings.

Childhood dreams

Jelda Jayne Miranda dreamt of becoming an astronaut but found herself fascinated with the world of physics instead.

“Astronomy was not offered in UP, so I took up physics instead, consoling myself that the two are somewhat related anyway,” says Jelda.

In college, she became a member of the Instrumentation Physics Laboratory at the National Institute of Physics in UP Diliman.  She developed interest in optics and electronics.

A breakthrough came last year when her research team, led by NIP director Caesar Saloma, developed advanced but less expensive technique of identifying failure sites in integrated circuits. The combined powers of reflectance laser confocal microscope and single-photon optical beam-induced current (1P-OBIC) imaging enabled the group to see through 3D layers of transistors and spot the damaged areas. The research was published in some foreign technical journals and carried by some local journals and newspapers.  It won third place in PCASTRD’s 2003 Outstanding R&D Awards.

Jelda’s skills and potentials caught the interest of microchips giant Intel Philippines.  Upon graduation last March, Intel gave her a post as a failure analysis engineer.

“What is so exciting about lab work?  The lively discussions!  In the lab, you have to be up-to-date. If you discover something that others haven’t, it gets you excited.  If you successfully replicate what others did, it also makes you excited.  What maybe stressful at times are research meetings.  But those are the things that keep the lab working,” Jelda says.

It’s in the DNA

Henry Perdigon

Henry Perdigon, a university research associate at UP Diliman’s National Science Research Institute, could be Sherlock Holmes’ next best friend.  Working with a team specializing in DNA forensics, Henry’s daily fare is to check on the accuracy of procedures in drawing out DNA from various body samples such as bloodstains on clothes and pieces of wood for forensic caseworks.

“Actual samples recovered from crime scenes are usually in small quantities and sometimes subjected to environmental stress,” Henry explains.  “Thus, procedures have to be validated first to ensure that they conform to the standards accepted by the international forensics community.”

Quite ghastly, this job.  “But it really makes me excited whenever our study findings are used in helping solve unanswered questions,” Henry stresses.

Indeed, there are some questions that only DNA analysis could objectively answer.  One example is the identification of the children who perished in the 1998 Paco fire tragedy.  UP-NSRI’s DNA analysis laboratory led by Dr. Ma. Corazon de Ungria, where Henry works, figured prominently in the uneasy and exhaustive work. The victims were charred beyond recognition and DNA testing was the only way to identify the remains.

“As a human being, it was so heart-touching to see the victims’ relatives finally find peace of mind as their children were properly identified using the science that we promote,” Henry says.

His team is currently working on the establishment of the Philippine population genetic database, another project that PCASTRD supports.  This project has taken his team from Batanes to areas in Mindanao to collect samples from living Filipinos.  The project seeks to understand genetic variations in the Philippines, with about 67 major groups, each with own culture and history.

Thriving in analysis

Armando Jerom de Jesus

“Getting new results drives me,” says Armando Jerome de Jesus, who spends most working days analyzing polymer and other samples.   Arjay operates a machine called Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectrometer, which is housed at the National Chemistry Instrumentation Center in Ateneo de Manila University.

NMR is a powerful method of analyzing the structure of chemicals contained in various natural products, herbal medicines and plants, food samples, and even polymers used as raw material for plastic products.

Arjay’s typical day involves observing peaks generated by NMR’s magnetic waves as it scans samples.  These peaks, interfaced in a computer, look like seismogram, only the waves are thinner, vary greatly in height, and appear closer together.  These peaks actually represent elements present in the sample such as carbon.  This is what Arjay analyzes.

NMR analysis validates the quality control and quality assurance of products and can test and verify contents of raw materials and imports.

“Imagine a polymer sample as a string of beads.  When you look closely at the beads you can see if it is made up of the same materials, or if not, you can see how many are pearls, how many are semi-precious stones in there.  Similarly, in the analysis of polymers, we try to find out what materials are present, such as ethylene and propylene, and determine their proportions,” Arjay discloses.  “This information is particularly important to the Bureau of Customs, for example, because the tariff for polymers with same materials is different from those with varied structure.”

“Our most frequent client is actually the BOC and members of the academe,” Arjay adds.  “We also do profiling on herbal drugs to assure the public that they are buying effective and unadulterated herbal medicines.”

Currently, the NMR spectrometer is used in the structural analysis of the seaweed extract carrageenan, a project supported by the Department of Science and Technology that PCASTRD monitors.  This project plays a vital role in understanding the structure of carrageenan, which could guide other scientists in developing high-value products out of it.

Aside from carageenan’s present use as stabilizer and enhancer in food, toiletries, and cosmetics, it is also being developed as wound dressing, industrial suspension, ceramic coating, liquid cleanser, and many others.

Source of interest and inspiration

Joy, Henry, Jelda, and Arjay’s common interests in science stemmed from childhood curiosity .Says Joy, “Hindi ako nerd ha, but reading became a hobby of mine.  I read a lot of science books.”

“My parents influenced me to become a scientist,” tells Arjay.  “They’re not in the natural sciences but their constant support spurred me to follow my interests.”

Jelda says that since childhood, her interest shifted constantly—from dinosaurs, then cells, microscopy, extraterrestrials, astronomy, geology, and finally, physics.

Shifting interests also hounded Henry as a young boy. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a pilot, then I wanted to be a doctor.  Soon enough, I discovered I knew how to sing.  I wanted to be a singer.  So here I am, a scientist,” he jokes.

But the four agree that, foremost, their families inspire them in their scientific works.  “Their unwavering support has always sustained me as I continue to pursue my dreams,” Arjay pondered.

He recalls that in grade school, his parents were consistently supportive and “very proud of me” whenever he joined science quiz bees.  From then on, he felt sure that he has all the encouragement and support to pursue whatever field he chose.

He also credits his former teachers in Ateneo who “did not only teach me science, but also how to be a scientist—how to think, work, and live like one.”

In Jelda’s case, tough times in research and academics always made her think of the taxpayers who paid for her education. “I have resolved in my mind to never disappoint them,” she said.

“Dr. De Ungria inspires me and has greatly influenced me,” Henry said frankly. “But above all, the Lord is my source of inspiration.”

Their kind of “gimik

With the rigorous demands of a life dedicated to scientific pursuits, spliced with the natural free-spirit of youth, do they ever have time for some fun?

“Yes, I do go out with friends a lot.  But nightlife for me means simply eating out, having long talks, and seeing a movie,” Arjay says.  He swims thrice a week and does some thinking and reflection while doing the laps.

Henry says that he also goes out and satisfies his cravings to eat the “most delicious lugaw” with friends who are “not scientists”.

Unlike Henry, all of Joy’s friends are into science.  “But they work in private companies.  I’m the only one working in a government research institute.  I’m just a simple person, a homebody even, so when I go out with friends, we just go malling and window shopping,” she says.

Jelda confesses that as a student she hardly had a night life.  “It was my choice. I could go out if I wanted to but I have set my priorities straight.  Now that I have graduated, pwede na,” she smiles.  Her circle of friends is also wide, spread in the corporate world, government, industry, and academe.

Difficulties of young scientists

Discoveries may send them to cloud nine.  But these young scientists have a firm grasp of the reality that surrounds and affects their lives and works.

Jelda speaks of the chief difficulty facing young scientists nowadays as the scarcity of mentors dedicated enough to train young scientists.  “I am one of the few lucky ones who had the opportunity to work with established scientists.  But I am not sure if there are other scientists who are willing to pass on their knowledge to the younger ones,” she notes sadly.

Funding is another major difficulty.  Says Arjay, “Young scientists are often very idealistic, they want to do a lot of things.  But they are saddled by the fact that science research is really expensive and that the country could not, at the moment, satisfy the demands of all our research needs.”  However, he clarifies that this difficulty actually encourages scientists to be more creative in designing research projects.

He also points out the Filipino’s lack of appreciation for science as a difficulty. “Science is still not popular enough among our people to at least know how to look at the world around them in a scientific manner,” Arjay reflects.  But he quickly adds that this dearth of interest should be a challenge for scientists to be more vocal about their work.

“We should continue to tear down our ivory towers so people will see and appreciate our work as an integral part of our life as a nation,” he adds.  “That is why it is heartening to see our local television programs tackle science and mathematics.”

Henry, on the other hand, zeroes in on the lack of opportunities for young scientists to exercise their professions.  “Because they could not find permanent positions in both government and private companies, young scientists tend to leave the country with high hopes of finding better opportunities abroad”.

“The sad thing is that these young hopefuls find other professions completely unrelated with their expertise back home.  Result?  Braindrain.  They should have been tapped and developed to contribute to national development.”

S&T in the country

“I admire Filipino scientists,” Joy remarks. “However, it seems we are not growing because the government does not give attention in developing S&T.  There should be enough funds for S&T so that we will no longer import products from other countries but produce our own.  If we could just use our natural resources as raw materials in making other products or high-value products, the Philippines would prosper.”

Arjay also thinks that S&T in the country needs to be improved.  “We are not lacking in people.  But the major problem, really, is funding.  Being a third world country that we are, it is simply hard to compete with other priorities,” he says.  “That is why I believe that we should intensify our efforts in popularizing science so that the them a common road strewn with dreams and hopes to someday create an impact to the Filipino society.




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