By Eden E. Estopace, 04/12/2015, The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – In a 21.9-hectare lot within the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman, Quezon City, a new hub for science and technology education and scientific research is envisioned to be the home of the country’s future scientists. The vast space with few buildings and big dreams called the National Science Complex received a P1.7-billion budget from the government when it was unveiled in 2011.

Soon, the sparse facilities and infrastructure within the dream science nerve center will be teeming with activity. In one of these vacant spaces will rise the Philippine Genome Center (PGC), currently housed at the UP Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (UP-NIMBB), to further advance basic and applied research for health diagnostics, therapeutics, DNA forensics and drug discovery.

Cynthia Palmes-Saloma, director of the UP-NIMBB and program director of the DNA Sequencing Facility of the PGC, says in a recent media tour that the study of genomics for health and agricultural research is vital in ensuring Philippine competitiveness.

Ethnicity, she says, plays a big role in disease susceptibility and resistance. Thus, there is a need for Filipinized personal medicine through a country-specific database of Filipino genome sequence variations.

“This would be helpful in rapid response to epidemics and pandemics, biogenomic surveillance and forecasting of emerging and re-emerging infections like AH1N1, AHF5N, SARS, and tuberculosis,” she says. “We also use genomics in revolutionizing forensics, agriculture, drug discovery and diversity.”

The lady scientist, however, emphasizes that the greater advocacy of the PGC and the scientific community in general is to develop more men and women of science, who will take the study of science to the next level and who are willing to undertake advanced research to fulfill the NSC’s dream to fast-track scientific breakthroughs.

“We need to expand, the money is there, but we are so few,” she says. “We are actually overstretched, we really need to fast-track training our next-generation genomic researchers. We have a home for people who choose to specialize in genomics and bioinformatics.”

The government, she attests, is generous with grants even for practicing researchers, with funding for researchers averaging about P900,000 to P2.5 million, especially for returning scientists under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST)’s Balik Scientist and Balik PhD programs.

“In 1998, when I came back to the country, my research grant was P67,000,” she says.

Palmes-Saloma has an MS in Medical Science and a Doctorate degree in Science major in Physiology from Osaka University in Japan. She holds two Bachelor’s degrees, one in Molecular Biology from Nagoya University and the other in Fisheries from UP Visayas.

A Monbusho scholar as an undergraduate and MS student, she became a research fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) while pursuing her PhD degree. In 2004, she was awarded the Outstanding Young Scientist (OYS) Award in Physiology by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST), Philippines.

DOST’s Balik Scientist program has been gaining traction and has been quite successful in attracting highly trained overseas Filipino scientists and technologists like Palmes-Saloma to return to the country. More are needed as local private and public institutions need to tap industry experts through the government’s brain gain initiative.

The decision to return, however, is not always an easy one for the brightest of Filipinos now living in other countries. Luckily for the country, Palmes-Saloma’s return has been paved by a different narrative.

“I met my future husband (Dr. Caesar Saloma, former Chancellor of UP Diliman) while I was an undergraduate student in Japan and he was a post-doctoral researcher in Applied Physics,” she shares. “My former research adviser in Japan, Prof. Hisato Kondoh, once invited him as a visiting professor for six months at the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Osaka University, where we collaborated on imaging gene expression in mouse embryos using the confocal laser scanning microscope. This also started our future collaborative work on other modes of analyzing biological material. After finishing my PhD in 1998, I went home to the Philippines and joined MBBP (Molecular Biology and Biotechnology Program) of the College of Science, UPD.” MBBP became a National Institute in 1999.

Figures released recently by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics show that the gender gap in science and technology still persists. According to the study, just one in five countries has achieved gender parity whereby 45 percent to 55 percent of researchers are women. Worldwide, the average is only 30 percent, in East Asia and the Pacific, it is even smaller at 20 percent.

On a welcome and surprising note, the Philippine Genome Center was conceptualized and established by an all-women team – Carmencita Padilla, executive director of the Philippine Genome Center; Amelia Guevarra, DOST undersecretary for Research and Development; Gisela Padilla-Concepcion, of UP’s Marine Science Institute and now UP vice president for Academic Affairs; and Palmes-Saloma.

“Based on my own personal experience and observations, if one is a woman and one wants to pursue a career in science, the Philippines is an ideal place,” Palmes-Saloma stresses. “I do not see any gender inequality in science here. In general, I think science in the Philippines is very meritocratic. There are so many Filipino women who are movers and leaders in science. I think women here in the Philippines do not feel any impediment to pursuing the science they want to pursue.”

The challenges we face as a country, she adds, are mostly structural – and legal. Our Philippine procurement law, for one, makes it so hard for us to acquire cutting-edge equipment, import reagents and kits.

“While we can make fast decisions, we cannot acquire materials fast enough to stay competitive in the competitive world of genomics research and services, for example. We cannot also easily hire foreign teachers or research assistants or post docs and in science, these kinds of barriers to mobility and hiring talent need to be addressed ASAP,” she adds. Still, she emphasizes the need to encourage the youth to pursue careers in science and technology.

“With a population of 100 million people, I reckon that the number of active molecular biologists in the country today is less than a 100, so per capita, we have one molecular biologist per one or two million Filipinos. We need more scientists to develop and test treatment options on our patients, to work closely with our doctors in incorporating knowledge in genetics and genomics in the diagnosis and treatment modalities given to the sick, in developing diagnostics kits for detecting diseases early,” she says.

“We need more research scientists to develop better crops, to breed better plants and animals, and detect diseases early in these organisms. We also need to have more scientists to help guide our politicians and policy makers to make science-based decisions.” she adds. The list goes on.

We can dream big and in the vast science space that the government has envisioned to be the home of Filipino scientist, the career options are numerous. However, Palmes-Saloma says it also takes a lot of resources to mentor and train molecular biologists and scientists. Government support is of critical importance.

Today, students who want to pursue a career in genomics could apply to the BS MBB program during the UP College Admission Test (UPCAT), but it is very competitive. The program accepts only 60 applicants per year. But students can also study biology, biochemistry, computer science, chemical engineering as well as other fields and later pursue genomics or bioinformatics researches in graduate school.

The College of Science in UP Diliman has the highest concentration of faculty members with PhD degrees (totaling 159) and within the college, an enabling and stimulating environment has been created where students have access to some of the most cutting edge equipment in science and where they can find mentors to guide them in their science careers.

It is one thing to have opportunities, but completely another thing to be able to take advantage and maximize the possibilities they present. Filipinos have yet to fully embrace this green field.