Women in Biotechnology

Written by Talia Araña
Edited by Anna Divinagracia
Graphics by Trasy Ipapo

“Listen to the scientists.”

It’s a phrase we hear often — too often, in fact. Why?

“The Philippines ought to invest in research. We should realize that science-based solutions are more reliable and effective, especially in global threats such as a pandemic,” said J-Ann Marie Lego, a Science Research Specialist from the National Institute for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of the Philippines (UP).

BOTTOM LINE UP FRONT!

  • Molecular biology and biotechnology are driven by real-world issues and can do so much for our country, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The state of biotechnology in the Philippines can still be greatly improved through further developing our laboratories and equipment and increasing support for scientists and PhD graduates.
  • We need to expand public awareness on molecular biology and biotechnology through holding events such as the DOST’s National Biotechnology Week, increasing the presence of scientists in the media, reaching out to those outside the scientific sphere, and more.
  • The bias against women in the field of biotechnology is not prevalent in the Philippines; however, younger Filipinas need and deserve more representation in science and more opportunities for networking and experience.
  • Science is driven by critical thinking, passion, and grit. For women who aim for this career path, don’t be afraid of failure, and instead be motivated by the learning experience and the fulfillment from serving the country through science.

One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light is the importance of scientific research and technology. From testing to statistical predictions to vaccine development to information dissemination, science continues to play a significant role in our fight against COVID-19.

“Especially this time in the pandemic, we need to make use of science and technology in order to come up with science-guided policies,” said Pia Bagamasbad, an associate professor at the same institution. 

We can’t just come up with policies just because they’re a ‘good idea.’ We need science and technology to formulate guidelines for this pandemic: to help us combat public health problems, effectively rehabilitate Manila Bay, and come up with ways to better improve government response and predict natural disasters.

Pia Bagamasbad

As a researcher and professor, Pia has positive views about being a scientist in the Philippines. However, she still believes that the research support in the country is not enough for the number of scientists and PhD graduates in the Philippines.

Many of us have probably heard the term “brain drain”: the emigration of scientists and other professionals in the search of better opportunities in other countries. Due to this, the Philippines faces not only a lack of scientists and PhD graduates, but also an insufficiency of research facilities and areas of scientific work. However, there’s one thing that our country fortunately lacks: the bias against women in science.

“The Philippines is a good place to be if you’re a woman scientist,” Pia said. In fact, Pia says that in our country, there might even be more women in the life sciences than men. Nevertheless, she hopes that the absence of inequality would hold true for all women worldwide.

According to J-Ann, the gender gap is narrower for science students in the Philippines, or at least in her experience with molecular biology. However, being a woman in science still entails many challenges.  

There is still a long way to go before women are treated equally in science, but here’s to hoping we get there sooner.   

J-Ann Marie Lego

To celebrate this year’s National Biotechnology Week, here are the stories and advice of two women in biotechnology who hope to inspire the youth and expand the reach of science and knowledge in the country.

Women in biotechnology

Pia Bagamasbad

When Pia Bagamasbad graduated from Philippine Science High School – Main Campus, she applied to the Molecular Biology and Biotechnology program in UP Diliman, intending to eventually pursue a career in medicine. However, she soon realized that she wanted to conduct scientific  research. For one year after graduation, she stayed in UP as a research assistant for a project on antibodies against cancer.

From there, her journey in research had only just begun. She applied as a research assistant in Boston University, where she co-authored papers on rodent models for cardiovascular disease. Through the said research, she and her colleagues worked on determining genes that would help in the identification of cardiovascular diseases.

Pia didn’t stop there. She proceeded to pursue a PhD in the University of Michigan, where she studied transcriptional regulation and the effect of stress and thyroid hormones on gene expression. In particular, she studied these hormones and their effect on organisms at the molecular level, all in the context of preventing problems in brain development. It was also in the same university under the Department of Human Genetics that she studied androgens and their stimulation of prostate cancer for her post-doctorate degree.

Following her research experience abroad, Pia considered pursuing a scientific career in the Philippines, as she had heard that scientists in the country had finally been receiving support for research. Better yet, the Department of Science and Technology’s Balik Scientist Program encouraged her and her fellow Filipino scientists abroad to return to the country and impart their expertise for the country.  

With that, Pia returned to the Philippines to test the waters. If things didn’t work out, she could always go abroad.  

Fortunately, things did work out. “There’s more work-life balance in the Philippines,” she said, comparing her current environment to her experience abroad. “In other countries, you just work and work, even on weekends.” 

The work-life balance provided Pia with more free time for herself and for her family. Here in the Philippines, she was also glad to have the opportunity to “teach very smart students who are motivated.”

However, due to the pandemic, training and education are now limited to computer and bioinformatics work. But for the scientists, the grind never ends: especially for those working in the fields of medicine and biotechnology.  

J-Ann Marie Lego

Around two months into the lockdown, several researchers from the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (NIMBB) began to work long shifts from day to night, setting up COVID-19 testing centers in the area. Here, they helped in processing samples, troubleshooting issues, and improving the overall testing workflow. During their free time, the volunteers would check the latest news and try to combat the infodemic through dispelling fake news and correcting misinformation.

As a Science Research Specialist II at NIMBB and one of the testing center volunteers, J-Ann Marie Lego has seen the applications of her field become more widely known in the current pandemic. For example, the RT-PCR test, a standard technique in molecular biology, has become widely used and familiar to many during the pandemic.

“I hope that we can appreciate that biotechnology is, in fact, driven by real-world issues,” she said.

In 2018, J-Ann was awarded an internship at the Lin Lab in Academia Sinica, Taiwan. She has also worked on various projects in the fields of cancer and neuroscience, as well as assays for DOST’s national drug discovery program. Currently, she is finishing her Masters degree in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, with her thesis being focused on RNA regulation surrounding colorectal cancer. Alongside her lab, she is working on two projects focused on the detection of gene mutations in Filipino colorectal cancer patients.

“Biotechnology and molecular biology can do so much for our country and world. We just need to invest in it, support it, and trust—but also be critical in—the science behind it.”

J-Ann Marie Lego

Biotechnology in the Philippines

“The applications of molecular biology and biotechnology are vast—from food safety and security to biomedicine and health products, and even to environmental protection and other non-food purposes,” said J-Ann.

Biotechnology indeed has a wide scope, encompassing industrial, agricultural, medical purposes, and beyond. Baking bread, washing clothes, planting rice, and developing vaccines, though all seemingly unrelated, are only a few among the many applications of biotechnology.

Similarly, molecular biology has several biomedical applications: from genetic engineering to molecular diagnostics, which all greatly contribute to the improvement of clinical diagnostics, disease prevention, and overall human health. During the pandemic, the relevance of biotechnology has become even more prevalent through vaccines and testing methods—processes which are built upon basic research in molecular biology.

Unfortunately, the state of biotechnology in the country has not yet reached its full potential. “We need to improve the infrastructure and facility for research on infectious diseases,” Pia said, adding that the country is unable to develop vaccines as the Philippines does not have a Biosafety Level 3 or 4 laboratory to carefully culture viruses. Moreover, problems with the procurement of reagents, equipment, and other essentials still remain, since lengthy processes inhibit scientists from spending money at a fast rate. In addition, the government is no longer funding projects unrelated to COVID-19; thus, many of the researchers’ works were pushed to the side.

Furthermore, support for studies in the fields of molecular biology and biotechnology mostly favor output-based research focused on developing products, treatments, and the like. However, J-Ann also emphasized the importance of studies on foundational knowledge and their impact on their specific research fields.

 “Although most molecular biology research[es] do not yield immediate clinical or health products, these studies are just as important and worth investing in since they provide the foundational knowledge by which translatable biotechnology products are developed from,” she said.

“There is much to be desired,” said Pia while talking about the state of biotechnology in the Philippines. 

In general, there is still a lot of room of improvement in the research scene in the country. Hopefully, the pandemic has made it clear that molecular biology and biotechnology play an essential role in our health and safety.

Yet, despite the existence of professional scientific research and knowledge, both the lack of information and the spread of misinformation are still pervasive. Being critical of information, even scientific evidence, is important. J-Ann’s words are something that we should always keep in mind:

Blindly trusting anything—be it the whims of a head of state, or the advice of a ‘prominent’ scientist—is not how it should go. Science is based on critical thinking.

J-Ann Marie Lego

In order to increase the extent of reliable information, public awareness on molecular biology and biotechnology is something that must be ameliorated. On the bright side, the presence of scientists in the media has increased from pre-pandemic times. 

“From interviews about the COVID-19 testing to social media pages dedicated to explaining key concepts and policies and their implications, I think [this time of the pandemic is] one of the loudest that I’ve seen my peers in the field,” said J-Ann.

Unfortunately, the opportunities for the youth to know more about biotechnology are still limited.  “Apart from students in DOST [related schools], we need to increase awareness, especially in the provinces,” Pia said.  “One way to help improve [this] is to have more information oriented TV shows and programs that showcase the accomplishments of local scientists.”

Thankfully, there are also local conferences and activities held by several institutions, such as the Department of Science and Technology’s National Biotechnology Week. Another example is the Philippine Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (PSBMB)’s RevUp, where members help teachers from the provinces perform experiments with household items.  

“We still have a long way to go, but we’ll get there,” said J-Ann.

The learning never stops

Admittedly, being a scientist in the Philippines has many difficulties. Despite those challenges, the grit and passion in their work for our country and the Filipino people motivate them to persevere. 

“Knowing that your work, no matter how small, is contributing to the progress of science in the Philippines gives you a sense of responsibility and pride that, ‘Yes, I am doing my part in helping the country move forward.’ There are also so many brilliant Filipino scientists carrying with them big dreams for the country and for the world that you can’t help but be inspired and excited as well,” J-Ann said.

It might be hard to do things again and again, [to] do the same experiment every day. But you’re never going to learn if all your experiments, all your hypotheses, work out on your first try. Never be discouraged by failure.

Pia Bagamasbad

After all, the best part of working as a scientist is the learning and experience that you gain.  As someone who has studied and worked abroad, Pia’s advice is to make the most out of education and work in another country, and finally bring that experience back to the Philippines.  Hopefully, the knowledge brought back by scientists abroad can help cultivate and grow the research scene in the country.  There is still a long way to go and a lot to learn—that’s what science is all about.

“The learning never stops because there are just so many things you don’t know—and probably never will—about the world. It gets hard and tiring at times, but it’s fun,” said J-Ann.

There’s always a place for women

As women in the field of STEM, both of these inspiring researchers have thankfully not experienced any discrimination in the workplace.  However, the gender gap is still not fully resolved—women still face many challenges such as difficulties in securing positions, poor funding, and even harassment.

“It does worry me sometimes, especially when I’m planning for the next steps after my MS degree. I personally know colleagues who have experienced harassment in the labs that they were in. This has led them to feel more uncomfortable when working in the lab, which should never be the case for anyone,” said J-Ann.

“There is still a long way to go before women are treated equally in science, but here’s to hoping we get there sooner. Younger women need to see more representation in science and more opportunities for networking and gaining experience. I have personally met some amazing, empowered women scientists such as Dr. Eva Cutiongco-de la Paz and Dr. Cynthia Saloma, but also women scientists who do not necessarily hold high positions, but are simply these remarkable women who work with integrity and grace. Just as I was and still am being inspired by my role models, I hope that more Filipino girls can also find some inspiration from these women.

If you’re a girl who dreams of pursuing a career in molecular biology and biotechnology—or any career, really—the advice of these women is to simply go and pursue what you’re passionate about. And when things get tough, Pia’s message of encouragement is this:

Passion develops as long as you put your heart in it.

Pia Bagamasbad

J-Ann also has an inspiring message for those who wish to break gender barriers in whatever field they wish to explore. “If you know what you want, then go for it. We are seeing more and more prominent women figures in society and I hope this empowers you to keep going no matter what path you are on. The place of the woman is wherever she dreams to be. Whatever it is you choose to do, fight for it and do it well. I’m still early in my own journey, so I also keep telling myself these things whenever it gets difficult. In the end, it is your grit that will keep you going as a scientist, so cultivate it.”

Last but not the least, these amazing women have put emphasis on the service that one can do for the country as women in STEM. Whether you choose to study here or abroad, there is always a way to serve the country, and in J-Ann’s words, “be kind and pay it forward.”

“The importance of raising a generation of Filipinos who are persevering, critical-thinkers, and whose love and hope for the country keeps them going is one of the things we can learn from science,” she said.  

Ultimately, each Filipino has a place in the service of the country. This doesn’t mean we follow orders blindly or do whatever we are told we are limited to—we have the capability and can empower one another to think critically, speak out and break barriers in order to serve the people at our full potential. In line with this, let us do our part to let the voices of these women be heard so that finally, our country can learn to listen to the scientists. After all, their impact on our country is something that cannot be replaced by anyone.

Just as these strong women took inspiration from the scientists before them, may the youth now also find hope in these women’s stories of success. Their journeys in molecular biology and biotechnology may not yet be over, but each day they work with passion and grit is a reason for celebration for women in STEM.

REFERENCES

Bhatia, S. (2018). History, scope and development of biotechnology. Introduction to Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, 1. 1-61. http://dx.doi.org/10.1088/978-0-7503-1299-8ch1

Office of the Undersecretary for Research and Development. (2020). The Balik Scientist Program. https://bspms.dost.gov.ph/

Philippine Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (2017). RevUp and RedUp. http://www.psbmb.org/revup-and-redup.html

Saloma, C. (2019). Brain Drain and Inbreeding in the Training of Future Filipino Scientists. Philippine Journal of Science, 148(1). 7-9. https://philjournalsci.dost.gov.ph/images/pdf/pjs_pdf/vol148no1/Editorial_for_Vol148_No1_Brain_Drain_and_Inbreeding_in_the_Training_of_Future_Filipino_Scientists.pdf

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