6 Filipino female scientists who are improving the way we live

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These women have committed their careers to their enthusiastic desire for continuous discoveries and developments, proving that science is not limited to the four walls of a classroom. Illustrations by MIKA BACANI

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The field of academia is an intimidating and largely unfamiliar one, especially in the Philippines, where science is viewed as something learned in the primary to tertiary educational levels, but uncommonly taken up as a career onwards.

Our parents would rather we become professionals in the medical field or be an engineer — to pursue more “lucrative” careers in applied sciences. However, the country’s science community is catching up and thriving. It might be small but half of them are comprised of women who are at the helm of important scientific research and technological advancements.

These women have committed their careers to their passion and enthusiastic desire for continuous discoveries and developments, proving that science is not limited to the four walls of a classroom.

Illustration by MIKA BACANI

Aletta Yniguez, marine science professor and researcher

Dr. Aletta Yniguez was always curious as a child. In high school, she became concerned about the global environment and the detrimental effects of pesticides. She took up BS Biology in UP Los Baños and majored in Ecology, and eventually focused on marine environment and coral reefs. She became a research assistant at the UP Marine Science Institute and completed her PhD in Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, Florida, before coming back as a faculty member.

Now, Yniguez is an assistant professor and researcher at the Marine Science Institute at the University of the Philippines – Diliman, and she currently specializes in biological oceanography.

She, along with a team of other scientists, came up with an algal bloom (red tide) model using toxic phytoplankton, to be able to provide insights into the relevant factors affecting the formation and decline of the harmful algal blooms.

“I’m leading the program to develop a decision-support system that can integrate information on water quality, other environmental conditions and the organisms involved in an organized and more updated fashion that would help BFAR [Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources], LGUs [Local Government Units], and the aquaculture industry,” she says.

“Folded into this program are key researches that would provide a better handle on the historical trends on harmful algal blooms, and the development of tools and products that can pave the way towards more efficient, automated, and real-time monitoring.”

She is also studying ocean acidification, sometimes known as “climate change’s equally evil twin,” while pursuing her long-term goal of developing infrastructure that would keep the country’s fisheries sustainable.

She acknowledges the gender bias in her field (i.e. biology for women, physics for men) despite its absence in her chosen institute, and believes that women should simply “follow your interest, no matter if it’s in a field that [is] dominated by men. There is support to pursue science if they really want to.”

Illustration by MIKA BACANI

Reinabelle Reyes, astrophysicist and data scientist

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes was always fascinated by the cosmos — the planets, black holes, and the universe at a young age. But she wasn’t aware that one could pursue science as a career until she attended Philippine Science High School. She then pursued being a physicist, and finished her PhD in Astrophysics from Princeton University. She is now headlining how she “proved Einstein right,” when she performed a test of the latter’s theory of General Relativity in a cosmological scale by analyzing observations of 70,000 galaxies from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Her research showed that the observations she gathered matched the predictions of Einstein’s theory, confirming it in a scale larger than our own Solar System. “It also demonstrated that future observations can potentially distinguish between alternate theories of gravity,” she says.

Being known for this used to make her uncomfortable. “But I’ve since accepted it as a powerful way to demonstrate that science is alive and accessible — an active field that anyone can pursue.”

She has now shifted her focus from astrophysics to data science, where she uses statistics to analyze different aspects of Philippine society to gain unique insights that may be useful to point society to a more scientific national discourse on socially relevant issues.

Included in her topics of research are market-basket analysis of national election results to find out how the Filipinos chose senators, and a network study of infrastructure that makes use of two or more modes of transport to gain insight on what can be done for disaster relief.

Reyes is transforming data into tangible information for further development of different areas of society including psychology, disaster control and relief, economics, engineering, and trends.

Reyes also moderates the Pinoy Scientists blog, which aims to provide role models for young Filipinos who are interested in science. Like their tagline “Yes, we exist. Get to know us,” she encourages everyone, especially women to “go for it! We need more women scientists, simply because we need more scientists.”

“There are many ways to pursue, practice, and utilize science — so don’t get caught in the trap of thinking that there is a certain required path to follow,” she says. “When I pursued physics in college, data science did not even exist, and now it is what I do. The future is wide open — and yours for the taking.”

Regine Berba, clinical epidemiology researcher and internal medicine specialist

Dr. Regina Berba is a practicing internal medicine specialist and educator at the Philippine General Hospital and The Medical City, as well as a researcher in clinical epidemiology, with focus on infectious diseases.

Last November 2017, she and her colleagues submitted their work — a national framework and curriculum that details how Philippine healthcare facilities can reduce the risk of infections and epidemics — to the Department of Health. It is also now the benchmark material for teaching infection control to all public hospitals in the country.

Her current work involves researches in tuberculosis, dengue, infection control, influenza, and HIV. She is writing a paper about a new dengue diagnostic test called dengue LAMP (Loop Mediated Isothermal Amplification) invented by a group in the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in UP Manila NIH led by Dr. Raul Destura.

This test uses gene amplification to identify dengue early and at a low cost, with good accuracy measures. If dengue is diagnosed early, she says that “there is a better chance that complications are avoided, [there will be] less deaths and more lives saved.”

They are also finalizing the study on a new HIV subtype that is circulating around the country. The knowledge of the changing epidemiology of the HIV virus means the anticipation of the patient’s clinical outcomes, which can be used to choose one kind of therapy versus another. This study is also part of a bigger collaboration with Duke University in the active search and development for an effective HIV vaccine.

Berba is satisfactorily navigating through a government-supported scientific academe thanks to her colleague, Dr. Jaime Montoya, who transformed the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development to encourage competitive studies in their grant program.

“The limiting factor is really the availability of researchers,” she says. “Many of us researchers assume many roles at the same time — always multitasking. Young women must follow what their heart feels and what their mind tells them. [Their chosen careers] must have programs, subjects, and projects which will make them constantly excited, curious, challenged, and of course, happy.”

Illustration by MIKA BACANI

Cynthia Saloma, molecular biology and biotechnology professor

Dr. Cynthia Saloma is currently a professor of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology and Principal Investigator at the Laboratory of Molecular and Cell Biology (LMCB) in the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in UP Diliman. She pursues research towards embryonic organ formation. She, together with three other women, established what is known today as the Philippine Genome Center.

Her proudest moment as a scientist is starting the DNA Sequence Core Facility where she, along with collaborators and students, successfully sequenced and analyzed hundreds of genomes of bacteria affecting shrimp health, soil quality of rice, and parasites affecting the Philippine carabao, among others. Having knowledge of these genome sequences can advance our understanding of animal diseases and plant development to help our fisheries and agriculture sectors using biomarkers and diagnostic tools.

The molecular biologist didn’t set out to become one when she was younger. “I first wanted to become a CPA-lawyer or … an economist,” she says. She sidetracked when she was granted a scholarship in BS Fisheries, and finished her degree in three and a half years before going to Japan on a Monbusho scholarship to focus on either fish genetics or nutrition for her Master's. However, she was advised to take a second degree due to her youth. She finished her MS degree in Medical Science and then her PhD in Physiology.

At present, Saloma and her team is hoping to create neuroactive drugs (anti-pain, antispasmodic) by sequencing the genes found in the venom ducts of poisonous marine snails.

“I think the Philippines is a good place for women to be employed in, particularly in the academic field,” she says. “In my experience, we do not have the male-dominated situation in academia that we find in Europe, Japan, or in the US. In that sense, the Philippines is a much easier place for a woman to be engaged in academic life while also nurturing a family.”

Saloma believes that engagement in the field of science is a privilege, and if one’s passion is in finding meaning in pursuing answers to scientific phenomena, she adds: “By all means, be a scientist.”

Illustration by MIKA BACANI

Mary Suzette Angeles, molecular medicine specialist

Mary Suzette Angeles is a research specialist at the Molecular Diagnostics and Cellular Therapeutics at the Lung Center of the Philippines. She is part of the team that provides Immune Cell Therapy and other molecular tests that patients with cancer and other degenerative diseases have to undergo.

She began her research career after finishing her degree in Biochemistry from the University of Santo Tomas and landing a position at the laboratories of Globetek Science Foundation, Inc. where she met her mentor, Dr. Samuel Bernal who worked on cancer research, which inspired her to pursue a related field.

Together with her team, she has established a non-invasive sensitive test for detecting residual cancer cells in the body called Circulating Tumor Cell Analysis (liquid biopsy). The goal of the team is to help clinicians provide the best treatment for patients using this diagnostic method. They are also studying more molecular assays that can determine patient suitability for targeted chemotherapy to treat cancer, a treatment which is less likely to have damaging side effects. It has the potential to eliminate deaths from adverse effects of chemo drugs commercially used.

“Sad to say [these drugs] are not quite affordable,” she says. “On our end, we are trying our best to lower the cost of the tests, so that the bulk of the patient’s budget will go to the treatment rather than the tests.”

Angeles believes that, to some degree, there are still stereotypes labelled on women in the field of science. “I have travelled to other countries, visited different laboratories, and have spoken to head scientists and CEOs. In my personal experience, most of them are surprised [to know I] was the team leader,” she recalls. “I guess they think I do not look like the typical bookworm.”

She explains she takes the time to look presentable, condoning the prejudice that “typical scientists” can’t also wear lipstick or heels. “Your look should not be a factor in judging the work you have put in,” she explains. “Do not try to always please others or resort to become what they think you should be.”

Illustration by MIKA BACANI

Pierangeli Vital, environmental biologist

Dr. Pierangeli Vital believes she found her niche as a learner, and the “academe and research as my habitat.” She began as an instructor in biology while taking up graduate studies where she realized that staying in the academe is what she wanted to do.

She is currently an assistant professor and head of Environmental Microbiology Laboratory at the Institute of Biology in UP Diliman and teaches Microbiology courses to undergraduate and graduate students, and is actively doing research involving microbiology. One of which is her completed study on microbial contamination of fresh produce.

Together with her mentors, students, and associates, she has shown that sources of contamination can be traced, and that there are means to reduce this contamination — a national importance in food safety as well as agriculture.

She is presently doing different research projects on Environmental Microbiology, focusing on the microbial quality of fresh produce, soil, agricultural irrigation waters, and air. She uses different microorganisms to perform the research, including bacteria and viruses (for food safety), microalgae (which has potential biofuel applications), and fungi (with potential organic acid production).

Vital’s foray into environmental microbiology has steady impact in the way we consume produce and how we live healthfully. “In particular, the research microorganisms I use and topics I do in my researches are parts of the broad themes of food safety and environmental sustainability,” she says. The importance of discoveries in this field, she explains, will provide solutions to difficult issues such as poverty, hunger, and diseases, and continued support from the government is essential to maintain this momentum on progress.

For Vital, education is the greatest foundation of an individual’s development. The path may be challenging and full of roadblocks, but she says, “This road will never [lead to a] dead-end as research is perpetually continuous.”

She advises to work under three principles, 1. to learn (from experts, friends and colleagues), 2. to teach (the next generation), and 3. to look/give back.