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My journey as a scientist (Second of two parts)

STAR SCIENCE - Joyce Altamarino Ibana, Ph.D. (The Philippine Star) - February 20, 2014 - 12:00am

Read Part 1 here

Motivating the desire to learn

My training in the scientific method was further developed when I entered graduate school at the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Microbiology (NIMBB) at UPD. Both my undergraduate and graduate education from the UP system extensively required me to study different courses across various disciplines. The need for continuous acquisition of knowledge was instilled by the demands of my education starting when I was at the PSHS, and continued on to this day as a member of the faculty of the Institute of Biology, UPD. I think that while the cultivation of creativity occurred at an early stage in my life, it was the continuous need to acquire new knowledge that helped me formulate hypotheses and gain insights on new scientific concepts. After all, the skill of “connecting the dots” is only valuable if the “dots” exist.            

Acquiring tenacity and resilience

Between 1998 and 2004, while pursuing my masteral studies at UPD, I also worked as a research assistant at the Marine Science Institute (MSI) and as a visiting researcher at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM). At that time, I was fortunate to be mentored by a very strong-willed woman who deeply instilled tenacity in my character when I started my career as a science researcher. To illustrate some of my experiences wherein I later reaped the benefits of tenacity, I will share an incident that happened when I was an RA at the MSI.

During those years, the importation of a certain biological material to the Philippines was a very stressful undertaking because it was very difficult to monitor where and when the biological shipment, which is a very temperature-sensitive item, had arrived in the country. However, this did not deter my mentor to personally facilitate finding the package at the airport, retrieving it from the customs, and safely bringing it to the laboratory. However, while it had safely arrived at the MSI, we found out that the cancer cell line that we obtained was contaminated with bacteria for unknown reasons and the thought of having to go through the process of importing again and finding ourselves in the same situation was quite daunting. Fortunately, the imbued tenaciousness that we acquired from our mentor dictated that I first make every effort to make things work before giving up. I then injected the cancer cell line in a laboratory mouse, which induced tumor formation, and at the same time via the mouse immune response, sterilized the bacterial infection. I then retrieved the tumor from the euthanized mouse, and used it to establish a primary culture of the cells that were originally imported. This undertaking resulted not only in recovering the cells successfully, but more importantly, it serendipitously led to the establishment of a tumor model that facilitated subsequent in vivo studies on cancer research at the Institute. This is just one of the many occasions when I benefited from one of my mentors in helping me attain tenacity — the will to not give up easily, the resourcefulness to make things work in the face of difficulties, the perseverance to achieve, and the discipline to continue to move on amid harsh conditions.

Related to tenacity is another equally important disposition that I learned as a Ph.D. student at the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Parasitology (MIP) at the LSUSHC — resilience. While tenacity is synonymous to firmness, resilience is synonymous to flexibility. I learned that a delicate balance between these two seemingly opposite qualities is very important. In my experience of working in the laboratory, I found out that modular experimental designs offer flexibility which allows me to adapt to the flow of the pieces of data that I generate. It helps to keep in mind that hypotheses are not meant to be proven, they are meant to be tested. Therefore, while tenacity is a very valuable trait in science experiments, I found that it is also very important to be able to recognize when it is time to give up, and be prepared to do so. In sum, tenacity guides me to be goal-oriented while resilience allows me to be mindful of the circumstances around me and to adapt to these realities in order to achieve my goals.

I think that tenacity and resilience are very important traits to develop as we grow as scientists because survival in this profession sometimes entails being subjected to frustrations and failures. In my experience, I find that one’s ability to rise above occasional failures is just as important as success itself. This is because in science, as in most things in life, failure is inevitable. But for tenacious and resilient individuals, failure could be a rich source of knowledge. In fact, on numerous occasions in the laboratory, I have found that there is always value in learning from mistakes made during an experiment. Therefore, I greatly appreciate that my experiences with many mentors helped me recognize the value of these two dispositions in my line of work.

Training to develop an inclination to be rigorous

In addition to tenacity and resilience, as a postdoctoral fellow in the US, I was fortunate to be trained in an environment that cultivates thoroughness or rigor. For my postdoctoral project, I worked on a research project with my husband, a very good scientist, who has a very critical mind. Because of his strong intellectual and mathematical rigor, I learned the skill of providing solid and multiple evidence for every observed biological phenomenon that I claim.  During this time of my career as a science researcher, I was exposed to a very high demand of thinking accurately. This exposure developed my keen sense for logical consistency and helped me to be meticulous in always considering possible differences in the interpretation of data, all of which I realized are a very important part of my training as a scientist.

Conclusion

I can conclude from my personal experience that an individual’s passion for science should be nurtured and sustained in order to make and keep science research an enjoyable task. A passionate scientist is usually a productive one. Also pertinent to my reflections is the realization that the first four traits — passion, creativity, being methodical, and the desire to learn — can be nurtured or taught early during one’s academic life. Therefore, I think that these qualities can be acquired even prior to entering tertiary school with the new K-12 educational program. However, the latter practical dispositions — tenacity, resilience and inclination to be rigorous — require a dedicated mentorship. These practical dispositions are products of experience and are essential to surviving the demands of a career as a scientist. Gaining these qualities may require guidance from a more experienced science researcher. I can attest that I have benefited from the mentorship of many scientists and educators, to whom I am very grateful. The lessons I learned from my mentors sustained my happiness and enthusiasm to continue to strive to be a better scientist and a good mentor to my students. Therefore, I think it will be very valuable to the cultivation of excellence in research in our country if we develop a systematic and deliberate mentoring program for all scientists at different stages in our career. I recognize that I too still have a lot to learn from others. Nevertheless, by sharing my experiences in my journey as a scientist, I hope that in my small ways, I can also contribute in helping our younger generation of science researchers find joy in their chosen careers.

* * *

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. Email her at joyce.ibana@gmail.com.

INSTITUTE INSTITUTE OF BIOLOGY MARINE SCIENCE INSTITUTE RESEARCH SCIENCE TENACITY
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