My journey as a scientist (First of two parts)

STAR SCIENCE - Joyce Altamarino Ibana, Ph.D. (The Philippine Star) - February 13, 2014 - 12:00am

This article describes my peregrinations as a scientist from a young child in the small town of Daet in Camarines Norte, to my current position as a faculty member at the Institute of Biology, University of the Philippines, Diliman (UPD). I now realize that many qualities have contributed to my training as a scientist, including: 1) a deep-seated passion for my chosen career, 2) the capacity to be methodological yet creative, 3) the desire to learn, 4) the tenacity to pursue difficult problems, 5) the resilience to cope with failures, and 6) the inclination to be rigorous. These characteristics were developed at different stages in my life, in multiple ways and places, and were influenced by many others. In this essay, I have shared my development as a scientist, and the qualities that have helped me find great joy in my work.

Nurturing a deep-seated passion for Science

I gained my passion for Science at a very young age. I believe that the major driving force for my passion for science is my inherent harmless curiosity and the drive to satisfy this curiosity. I remember growing up in the early 70s as a child without the luxury of television and computer games to occupy my time. I went out under the sun, walked on rice paddies to catch tadpoles, explored gardens to pick different flowers and leaves, and got my hands dirty to pick up dirt of different textures. I kept a tadpole in a bottle and watched it metamorphose. I monitored the speed by which a caterpillar ate the leaves of my mother’s plants. I dissected a Hibiscus (commonly known in the Philippines as gumamela) flowers, and discovered that if I squeezed it hard, I would get a slimy extract. At that time, I sold these extracts to my playmate as “oil” for which she handsomely paid me for this discovery with a handful of guava leaves. I also molded different combinations of dirt using bottle caps and called them “a variety of chocolates.” Our neighbor bought them for a dozen mango leaves. It always makes me smile when I remember these joys of curiosity and rewards of discovery during my childhood years.

My desire to be a Scientist became apparent at the early age of six. At that time, both my parents worked at the Mabini Colleges which my grandfather founded in 1924. My father then ran the school as the director, and my mother worked as a dedicated teacher. On many occasions, when I was just in the preparatory school, my parents allowed me to tag along with them to the college where I was free to quietly roam around the small gated campus. One day, I discovered the chemistry laboratory. Since then, I frequently spent time outside the room to watch the students perform chemistry experiments fervently. So much so that when I graduated from preparatory school, when every student from our small town declared they wanted to become a doctor or a lawyer when they grow up, when my turn came to be on the stage to speak, I blurted on the microphone: “When I grow up I want to be a Chemist!,” to everybody’s surprise. That early discovery prompted my parents to support my desire to be a Scientist because as a young child I had made it clear to everybody around me that my ambitious dream is to become a Scientist.

Interestingly, my father’s reaction to my declaration was to gift me a series of textbooks in Mathematics. In addition to this, despite the fact that I didn’t show any difficulty in school, he hired a tutor for my extra training in mathematics after school hours all throughout my grade school years. Later in life, I realized that my father’s move proved to be very valuable because observations in science have to be quantifiable, replicable and verifiable, thereby making Mathematics an indispensable tool for a Science researcher.

Passion for Science is an essential element of being a good and happy scientist. The demands of scientific research require a lot of time and energy spent in the laboratory regardless of the hour of the day, the day of the week, and of national holidays observed by most members of our society. For someone in the field of the Life Sciences, where experiments rely on the growth kinetics of cells cultivated in vitro or of microorganisms, it is very common that one’s daily activities are influenced by the growth rate of cells in the laboratory. For example, whenever I investigate a bacterium that completes one round of developmental cycle inside a human cell within 48 hours, this would require that I record data for at least four- to six-hour time intervals. It is therefore imperative that I am prepared to work in the laboratory between midnight and 5 a.m. when most people are fast asleep. This kind of research demands in the Life Sciences makes passion for Science very important. It is passion that kept me awake during the wee hours of the morning as it fueled my burning desire to see what has happened to the experiment that I was working on. As may be true in any field, enjoying one’s job is a key to working hard. When work is enjoyable, it ceases to feel like a meaningless chore. I find that passion for my work is very important for my sustained happiness as a Science researcher, and I consider myself very fortunate because it was discovered and nurtured by my parents at a very early age.

Learning the capacity to be methodical, yet creative

After grade school, I moved to Quezon City to pursue my high school education at the Philippine Science High School (PSHS). One of the high school activities that I cannot forget was an exercise where our teacher asked us to go out of our classroom, stay in the school field, and stare at the clouds. We were then asked to list all the different things we could “see” from the shapes of the clouds. After more than 30 minutes of this exercise, we were asked to go back and write a story using all the things we have in our list. At that time, I did not understand the relevance of this exercise. It is only when I was already writing my Ph.D. dissertation that I realized how this exercise could have contributed in honing a very important skill for a Science researcher — creativity. This exercise may not be directly connected to scientific research, but this exercise is akin to the training of the mind in “connecting the dots.” The ability to create a scholarly work such as a dissertation requires the skill to see relationships between your own data and those of others. Thus, I realized that the creativity training from my high school education might have helped me in acquiring the ability to see connections between what is known in my field of interest, other disciplines, and the new body of knowledge generated from my own experiments.       

My high school education contributed to my ability to integrate published scientific literature with my own data in order to come up with a new scientific work. However, it was my rigorous scientific training at the University of the Philippines Los Baños, where I gained a strong foundation in conducting the scientific method. I obtained my Bachelor’s in Science Degree in Biology at UPLB, where the capable hands of the many Biology and Chemistry instructors trained me to neatly record my data from every experiment in a laboratory notebook. These notebooks were meticulously checked for accuracy and completeness — a practice that I have kept to this day. Furthermore, we were also required to write and submit a “scientific paper” after every laboratory exercise in my Biology courses. It was a formal report of our findings which includes the statement of the problem, background introduction (also called review of related literature), hypothesis, results, conclusion and discussion. These scientific papers constituted a major requirement for all my courses at the Institute of Biology at the UPLB. I am very fortunate that in all four years in college, I was obliged to exercise the scientific method repeatedly and conscientiously. Needless to say, while I viewed it then as a tedious task, I now realize that it was a very valuable training, for which I will always be grateful. (To be continued)


Dr. Joyce A. Ibana, BS Biology, major in Genetics (University of the Philippines Los Baños), MS Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (University of the Philippines, Diliman), Ph.D. Microbiology and Immunology (Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center), is currently an associate professor of the Institute of Biology, UPD. Prior to obtaining her Ph.D. degree, she conducted a research fellowship at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris, France on malaria research. She continued her research training at the Marine Science Institute (MSI-UPD) and the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM). In 2004, she began her training in Reproductive Immunology and Pathogenesis of Infectious Diseases as a Fulbright Scholar. In this essay, she traces her development and shows how her education and research training in the Philippines and the United Sates have enriched her journey as a Scientist. E-mail her at joyce.ibana@gmail.com.

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