When he was younger, UP Integrated School (UPIS) 12th grader Adrian Jeremiah C. Bornilla would make it a point to go over the natural and earth science sections of the almanacs his family had at home. The boy found the topic endlessly fascinating, and it was no surprise that his parents, both engineers, would fill his and his siblings’ younger years with even more books on science and engineering.
Little did Adrian realize years later that his childhood interest would give honor to the country in his final year of secondary school. Together with fellow students Maria Janine Juachon (Philippine Science High School Central Luzon), Eugene Toribio (PSHS Bicol Region) and Mikhail Angel Torio (PSHS Main Campus), he represented the country as the lone UP representative in the 2017 International Earth Science Olympiad (IESO) in Cote d’Azur, France.
When the smoke cleared, the team had won two gold medals, three silvers and two bronzes at the IESO, a competition for secondary students that tests their skills in all areas of the Earth Sciences: geology, geophysics, meteorology, oceanography, terrestrial astronomy and environmental sciences. The competition is both practical and theoretical: participants are tested not only on their Earth Science knowledge, but also on their ability to conduct scientific investigations in the field.
Adrian first got wind of the competition when a letter from Bicol University arrived at the UPIS with the news that after a six-year absence, the Philippines intended to join the IESO once again. “Because France was this year’s host,” he explained, “they were able to waive the entrance fee for the Philippines.” Budgetary constraints had prevented the country from previously sending a team to the competition.
Adrian was chosen, together with another batchmate from the same track, to take part in the selection process, which took place in both Metro Manila and Bicol. As fate would have it, he would end up as the sole UP representative in the historic team of four.
Earth Science boot camp
After being selected, Adrian and his teammates were told to brush up on all pertinent areas of the Earth Sciences. This was the first step in a highly rigorous training process that saw them being taken under the wing of some of the world’s foremost experts in these fields.
“The first legitimate training sessions were held in Bicol,” Adrian noted. Here, the world-renowned former volcanologist and Pinatubo expert Dr. Chris Newhall, formerly of the US Geological Survey, trained the team in field methods. They spent a total of five days in Legaspi City, mastering various Earth Science topics. In addition, the team also received astronomy pointers from famous physicist Dr. Reinabelle Reyes, the Filipina who helped confirm Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on a cosmic scale back in 2010.
The final leg of the training session, however, was held at the UP National Institute of Geological Sciences (NIGS), where UP faculty members such as Dr. Allan Gil Fernando and Dr. Leonila Bron-Sikat gave them intensive training in geology and other topics. Through it all, mentors Prof. Miguel Cano of Bicol University and Dr. Marietta de Leon of the Geological Society of the Philippines, who joined them all the way to France, guided the team through the process.
“It was interesting. I had a subtle attraction to meteorology,” Adrian admits, when asked about his favorite subject among those they studied. He considered geology the most challenging, a subject, he said, that his teammates had a better grasp of. Identifying rocks, for instance, was an activity he had to really work on to master.
Luckily for the team, which Adrian now considers a barkada, each one was willing to pitch in during practice sessions and help the others in the area that person was strong in. “We would use the previous exams as reference for practice because they uploaded it to the internet. Our team dynamics was good.”
A distinct Olympiad
Once in France, Adrian and his friends found the competition to be as competitive as it had been billed. “So far, I think this IESO had the most number of countries—29 countries and 129 students,” he recals. The main selling point of the IESO for Adrian was that, unlike other competitions, there was a very strong collaborative element as well. “There were also competitions that involved groups, but you were grouped with people from other countries. That was what makes the IESO distinct from other Olympiads.”
“As a team, we were also surprised to find that hydrology was included for the first time in our training sessions.” That first in training would be a key to victory for the young Filipinos since, unlike in previous years, hydrology took up a significant portion of the written test. “When our mentors saw the test, even they began screaming ‘Yes!’ because its inclusion in training felt so serendipitous.”
For Adrian and his teammates, doing well in this prestigious competition was even sweeter because of the possible good it would do for young scientists. “At first we never thought that we would medal,” he said. “It matters that we medalled, because the funding for the Olympiad in the Philippines has not received real attention.”
He continues: “So if you get an award or a distinction in an Olympiad, it could be a reason for the government to consider that maybe the Philippines has potential or that the Philippines is good in Earth Sciences. So why not fund the students who get sent to the Olympiad?”
One thing is certain, however, for this international medallist—is future will likely be in the sciences. “My plan so far is to pursue a science-related course,” he said. “I originally planned to take the medical path. But because of the Olympiad, I’m suddenly considering studying geology. But that came very late as I had already passed my UPCAT form! But I’m sure it will be science-related.”