MANILA, Philippines – Science can’t get any hotter than this.
With fellowship grants worth P400, 000 each, two young Filipino women scientists are bent on making their dream science projects a reality, with their hopes of contributing to the Philippine society.
Dr. Ma. Cecilia Conaco and Dr. Aletta Yniguez are the recipients of the 2011 For Women in Science (FWIS) L’Oreal-UNESCO awards. As the 2011 FWIS National Fellows, Conaco and Yniguez will use their prize money for two years and work on their winning science proposals.
In 2010, L’Oreal Philippines, in partnership with UNESCO and the Department of Science and Technology, launched FWIS National Fellowships – Philippines – a program that aims to empower and promote excellence among women scientists by recognizing their achievements and rewarding them with grants. FWIS accepted research proposals related to the Life and Material Sciences from applicants who held or pursued Master’s or PhD degree in any field of science and were not more than 45 years old.
“FWIS is one of the strongest programs L’Oreal has globally today, mainly because it values key components in our company DNA – science and women. Through this program, we have been able to create a community of women who move science forward in the hopes of making the world a better place,” Luc Oliver-Marquet, Managing Director of L’Oreal Philippines, said at a press conference and awarding ceremony held at the Edsa-Shangri-La Hotel last July 3.
Christian Cayaba, Scientific and Technico-Regulatory Affairs Manager at L’Oreal Philippines, for his part, said that they decided to reduce the age bracket limit from 45 years old to 35 years old in 2011 to open the search for younger women scientists. Conaco and Yniguez were chosen after judging by a jury chaired by Professor Lourdes Cruz, the first Filipino and first ASEAN Laureate of the FWIS L’Oreal-UNESCO awards.
“FWIS is not just about identifying exceptional women and giving them rewards. There’s also a sustainable effort because when you identify an exceptional woman then a lot of young women would look up to them so they will serve as new models,” Cayaba added.
Conaco, a 34-year-old Balik-Scientist who is also a post-doctoral researcher at the Neuroscience Research Institute in the University of California, received the grant for her research proposal entitled Dynamic Gene Regulation in Marine Sponges. With her research, Conaco aims to identify and sequence genes from sponges and use these to better understand how the organisms monitor and adapt to changes in its environment.
Conaco describes sponges as the oldest, very special, economically, and ecologically important marine organisms. She said that because of the changes they undergo during their different stages in their life cycles, sponges have become physiologically and chemically complex.
She said that her strategy is to use recently developed sequencing techniques to identify and measure the sponges’ genes – “a gold mine that we can look at to better understand how to better protect marine organisms.”
“We hope that by studying how the sponges’ genes are used during each of these different stages, we’ll be able to contribute to the improvement of methods for resource monitoring and conservation. Because when you know which genes change the most in response to environmental changes, then we can design better ways of monitoring the health and condition of our marine organisms,” Conaco said.
Conaco said that she also aimed to study sponges’ genes that are involved in chemical production, saying that sponges are known to be drugstores or pharmacies of the oceans because they make so many different kinds of chemicals.
“The identification of sponges’ genes involved in the production of useful substances will also help to design better ways of producing drugs or synthesizing different types of materials that will be useful for all,” Conaco said.
Conaco shared that she found ‘promising’ and interesting genes in her sequencing of an Australian sponge during her post-doctoral training, and that she hoped to take her studies further and would look into indigenous Philippine sponges. With the grant, she planned to focus on the amphimedon, a blue sponge that can be found in Bolinao.
She said that sequencing genes was a really expensive undertaking so she was collaborating with other groups, particularly the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP MSI), so that they could share the work and results involved with the research.
Yniguez, an Assistant Professor at the UP MSI, received the grant for her proposal entitled Enhancing robustness of plankton models and monitoring systems by understanding fine-scale biophysical processes. She said that she aimed to better understand how phytoplankton contribute to production of fisheries or turn into harmful algal blooms (HABS).
She described phytoplankton as the bases of the marine food chain that “ultimately leads to the productive fisheries that many in our country rely on for their livelihood.” But, she cautioned, there were many circumstances that led these microscopic plants to become harmful to us and that’s what you call the harmful algal blooms or HABS.
She described HABS as genetic term for the phenomenon leading to red tide or fish kill. She said that these HABS cause poisoning, fatalities, and economic losses for the country.
Yniguez said that her project aimed to compare changes in the phytoplankton types and the environmental conditions accompanying those types in two areas: the productive fisheries area – where there are no HABS; and the HABS site.
“So we are trying to figure out what are the mechanisms going on as the different phytoplankton types are changing in two different sites but one is leading to HABS and one is actually a productive fisheries area,” she said. She said that the first site would be the Lamon Bay in Bicol, a productive fisheries area; and the other site would be the Sorsogon Bay, which she said has been experiencing red tide for several years and have been the subject of shellfish banns.
Yniguez said that the information she would get would then be used to help validate and increase the reliability of real-time monitoring platforms and remotely sensed-data that would be part of a bloom forecasting system in target sites in the country.
“We’re developing computer models so we’re taking that knowledge that we would obtain from this project and other complimentary projects to develop robust computer projects that can be used for management and mitigation of harmful algal blooms (HABS),” she said.
Conaco and Yniguez shared positive outlooks for women scientists in the Philippines, saying that there were very “promising” opportunities for women to expose themselves with and explore the field of science.
“It’s a very exciting time to be in science because things are moving so fast and it’s no longer a solitary effort so I think there’s really a lot of room for women to come in and pursue what they’re passionate about,” Conaco said.
Both also shared that finding funding and support for science projects has always been a problem for the industry, not only here in the Philippines but also in abroad, but that there are better opportunities and more encouragement from the government and members of the science community.
“It’s always competitive to find means to get funding but I don’t think there is an unequal or unfair gendered bias. You just need to encourage from the start that women enter the scientific field and I think if they do well they and build their track record in what they do, then they will eventually find funding for their projects,” Yniguez said.
Conaco and Yniguez also said that the country needed to pay attention to encouraging and giving support to the younger generation of budding scientists, saying that it would be a great idea to open the search to high school students who they described as “very enthusiastic and curious” people.
“I believe we have a very strong female community of scientists in the Philippines but it’s really getting the young ones to keep going with research and I think that’s where we really need to focus on,” Conaco said.
“It’s a great idea to push FWIS even further down to the high school level because if we start giving that kind of encouragement to young girls, and start nurturing that seed and push them to pursue careers in science, then we would have more scientists who could contribute to the country,” Yniguez added.
Meanwhile, FWIS continues its search for the next FWIS National Fellows as it is now accepting research proposals related to the Life and Material Sciences from applicants who hold or are currently pursuing Master’s or Ph.D. degrees in any field of Life and Material science and are not more than 45 years old. Two fellowship grants worth P400,000 each will be given to the two who will be chosen by the jury composed of representatives from L’Oreal Philippines, UNESCO and DOST. Deadline for submission is on March 2013.