Science in UP: Thriving despite Constraints

| Written by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo

“I expect the Filipino scientist to contribute towards establishing a scientific culture in the Philippines,” Dr. Caesar A. Saloma, director of the National Institute of Physics (NIP), said when he received the first Concepcion Dadufalza Award for Distinguished Achievement in 2001.

Indeed, Saloma wasn’t and isn’t alone in this expectation. In science teaching and scientific research, he’s joined by hundreds of colleagues in UP, long the acknowledged leader in this field of endeavor in the Philippines. But in this new millennium, what is the state of science in UP, and how does UP stand in science against the rest of the best in the region?

 

Dr. Pablito Magdalita shows one of the papaya varieties he is working on in his laboratory at the Institute of Plant Breeding, UP Los Baños. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)

 

High marks

UP clearly leads in science education and research in the country. Science majors from UP consistently win awards for outstanding performance in their research efforts. Just as significant as these awards are the publications posted by University scientists, teachers, and students in internationally refereed scientific journals.

Aside from these, several units of the University have become national centers of excellence by virtue of presidential proclamations. These include the National Institute of Geological Sciences, the Marine Science Institute (MSI), the Natural Sciences Research Institute (NSRI), the NIP, the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (BIOTECH), and the National Institutes of Health. Other departments across the UP System have also been declared centers of excellence and development by the Commission on Higher Education.

 

The National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology building at the National Science Complex in UP Diliman, which was inaugurated in 2012 (Photo by Arlyn VCD Palisoc Romualdo, UP MPRO)

 

Technology and talent

The quality of research done in UP relies on the communion of technology and talent. UP has striven to match the brainpower it has to generate outstanding scientific outputs with the facilities to accomplish them. The University prides itself in being the only university with a DNA Analysis Laboratory (DAL) as well as being the only institution in the country with a Femtosecond Laser Facility and a High-Resolution Picture Transmission (HRPT) receiving station.

Triumph over tragedy

The DAL’s mettle as the Philippines’ own “CSI” was put to the test in a heartrending tragedy a few years ago. In December 1998, a fire gutted the orphanage run by the Asocacion de Damas de Filipinas, a social welfare institution in Paco, Manila. The fire killed 25 children and five adults, whose remains were charred beyond recognition. Three months after burial, the bodies were exhumed, and the DAL used painstaking DNA analysis to identify the victims; eventually, 18 bodies were given names.

 

One of the laser facilities at the National Institute of Physics (Photo from UP NIP)

 

Lasers and oceans

In the field of physics, UP’s NIP boasts of its P18-million femtosecond laser—one of a handful around the region. Lasers have played a major part in research and NIP, in fact, owns several types. Its latest acquisition, however, is a huge step forward in the study of physics because it emits high peak powers of light energy in short intervals—one-quadrillionth of a second, too fast for the naked eye.

In marine science, UP is proud of the MSI’s HRPT. The remote sensing facility receives pictures taken by satellites at least twice a day. The images are processed by determining the amount of chlorophyll detected in the water. This is important because areas with the most chlorophyll are those with the most plankton. And where plankton is abundant, fish are plenty. The resulting images pinpoint potential fishing grounds for Filipino fishing fleets.

 

Protein Enriched Copra Meal (left), a product developed by Dr. Laura Pham and her team at the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, UP Los Baños, was originally intended as feed for swine and poultry. A team at the Institute of Aquaculture, UP Visayas led by Prof. Valeriano Corre Jr. and Dr. Rex Traifalgar found the feed promising as well for tilapia, milkfish, and shrimp aquaculture. (Left photo from Dr. Laura Pham, right photos from UPV Institute of Aquaculture)

 

High-value products

In UP Los Baños (UPLB), BIOTECH has done some impressive studies of its own. The Environmental Biotechnology Program undertakes activities like evaluating the potentials and environmental impact of distillery waters, effective waste management, utilization and recycling of waste materials as fertilizers, and the deodorization of livestock waste.

The UPLB College of Veterinary Medicine has a Virology Laboratory that studies in-depth molecular biology in the areas of animal vaccine, animal biotechnology, and animal disease diagnosis. Also being undertaken is research on Multiple Ovulation-Embryo Transfer to hasten the genetic improvement of livestock, promote the conservation of animals with superior or unique genetic traits, and provide an alternative to the importation of cattle.

UP Visayas leads in the study of fisheries and aquaculture so it’s no wonder that many of UPV’s research efforts have been recognized here and abroad. UP Manila, meanwhile, leads in the medical sciences and public health. It is looking forward to the completion of the Sentro Oftalmologico Jose Rizal this year, among its many projects. It will serve as a specialized facility for ophthalmology and will become the field’s research center in the University.

 

A researcher at the UPLB Institute of Plant Breeding dissects a banana stem. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)

 

Money and manpower

Despite all these achievements, UP still faces formidable obstacles—mostly financial—to the growth of science education and scientific research. Its annual subsidy from the national government has never been enough, especially given the pace of developments in science and technology around the world. UP cannot afford to lag too far behind.

Of course, money matters in research, but so does manpower. Lured by better pay and better labs, some scientists and researchers have taken their talents elsewhere. Despite those who have left for greener pastures, NSRI Director Ernelea Cao stresses the value of those who have remained, the ones who have stuck with UP because they love their work and appreciate their mission as the avatars of science in a developing country.

 

The latest batch of UP Diliman scientists and researchers receive incentives for invention disclosure in December 2018 (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)

 

The path to excellence

Dr. Edgardo Gomez, former MSI director, has this vision of the path to excellence:

“Everything considered, UP is not a bad home for science, especially in a developing country context. We have relatively free rein on directions to take, the only major limitation for some being logistical support. But for creative scientists who have the drive and vision, there is scope for progress in the international arena, making contributions to specific fields of research that are of interest globally. The recent surge in the marine sciences and in physics attests to this.

“I continue to hold the position that the support services that should make the life of scientists (and of other academics) more pleasant and productive are sorely inadequate, although there is a slow progress in some areas.

“It’s the intellectual assets that are the salient strengths of this university. We manage to capture some bright minds every so often, but it’s sad to note that we also lose a significant percentage of them because of the weaknesses I mention above. The leadership should face this situation squarely, and it should consider being elitist rather than populist in its approach if we are to make real headway in the intellectual world.”

Making that kind of headway is a tough challenge for UP’s scientists and administrators—but one which, against all odds, UP has been surmounting, bravely and boldly.


Condensed from the original article published in the UP Forum January-February 2004 issue

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