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Scientists’ group names Filipina in Germany as ‘Planet Earth’ awardee

Mari-An C. Santos

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Scientists’ group names Filipina in Germany as ‘Planet Earth’ awardee

AWARDEE. Germany-based Filipino professor Denise Margaret Matias has been named as a 2024 Planet Earth awardee.

courtesy of Denise Margaret Matias

'How can you do proper science if your needs are not met? Science is not a priority in the Philippines. But I hope it will be,' says Germany-based Filipino professor Denise Margaret Matias

MANILA, Philippines – A Filipina professor in Germany has been named as an awardee in the 2024 Planet Earth Awards of the Alliance of World Scientists (AWS).

“Nakakahiya nga, e (It’s embarrassing, really),” Denise Margaret Matias said as she sat down for an exclusive online interview with Rappler on March 23.

The professor at the Biosphere Reserves Institute at Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development in Germany was named a recipient of the Planet Earth Awards on March 14 by the international body of scientists composed of more than 26,000 from more than 180 countries. 

Matias said, “Part of me is insecure. I mean, to be in the company of such established names in their respective fields!” 

People, Person, Architecture
FIELDWORK. Dr. Denie Margaret Matias (standing, second from left) with members of the Tagbanua community during a training for mapping giant honey bee nests. courtesy of Denise Margaret Matias

Matias, who holds a Ph.D., is the youngest among the group of scientist awardees which include Dr. S. Faizi from India, Dr. James Hansen from the United States, Dr. Kimberly Nicholas from Sweden, Dr. Jamie Pittock from Australia, and Dr. Fernando Valladares from Spain.

The award acknowledges individuals who champion life on Earth and demonstrate exceptional creativity or contributions in their work in science-based advocacy with the public, policymakers, or other non-scientist groups seeking solutions to environmental challenges. The nominees went through a rigorous screening process.

Charting a course

Growing up in Pasig, Metro Manila, Matias recalled that she always had an acute awareness of the value of the environment. 

She was president of her high school’s Eco Team club and thought “science was cool.” But when the time came to enroll for a college course, conferred with a BPI Foundation scholarship, she was surprised to find that Environmental Science was not on the list of courses she could take. 

Matias decided on the next best thing: a biology course. 

She knew that, unlike most of her peers, she didn’t want to become a medical doctor. So she subsequently pursued a master’s degree in environmental science at the University of the Philippines while working for Greenpeace Southeast Asia but soon succumbed to the perils that many who try to pursue higher education while working professionally in the Philippines.

While working at UP-Diliman’s Marine Science Institute, Matias started to seriously consider a career in the academe, thanks to Dr. Arturo Lluisma, a principal investigator who introduced her to the rigors of research. 

She earned an International Climate Protection Fellowship from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, then a scholarship to finish her MSc in Environmental Sciences and Policy from the Central European University in Hungary. She was awarded a PhD in Agricultural Sciences from the Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn in Germany in 2017.

She received a European Science Award from the Eiselen Foundation and Foundation Fiat Panis in 2018 for her doctoral dissertation entitled Sustainability of Community Forestry Enterprises: Indigenous Wild Honey Gathering in the UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve, Palawan, Philippines

It was a work borne of her engagement in fieldwork with various Philippine nongovernmental organizations, including the Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme (NTFP-EP Asia). She found out from the indigenous Tagbanua community that they had a problem with honey gathering in Aborlan, Palawan. 

She subsequently carried out a project with the community to help restore giant honey bee habitat by planting native species. 

In 2018, she, with Loreta Alsa, a Tagbanua, went to Yale University to present the project and they were awarded first place by Yale’s International Society of Tropical Forests for the Innovation Prize.  

Giving back

“I always look for a way to give back,” she said. She recounted how she would actively raise funds after extreme emergency events in the Philippines by making handmade items, especially with recycled paper. 

After Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) hit the Philippines in 2013, for example, she sold products at a Christmas market in Germany to raise funds for relief aid.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, she solicited donations through her Instagram account (@thegreenitch) for NTFP-EP Philippines and sent handcrafted notepads to donors. 

All these served as her way to contribute to her country even if she was physically away.

“I don’t want to build a career by using people, especially since I conduct research with indigenous communities,” she said. 

For her current research project on Palawan pangolins, she is helping several Filipinos by giving them access to information, training, and opportunities that are not, sadly, available to most Filipino scientists. 

She said, “We need to advance science because, at the moment, it exists in a silo. There is limited interaction with the social sciences and the humanities. In Germany, interdisciplinary approaches are encouraged and promoted, and they are supported with research grants.”

Matias, a tenured Filipino professor in Germany, currently serves as a member of the Selection Committee of the International Climate Protection Fellowship, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation; lead author of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Thematic Assessment of the Interlinkages among Biodiversity, Water, Food and Health (Nexus Assessment); and senior fellow of the Manila Observatory. 

Something that she heard Dr. Jurgenne Honculada-Primavera, a mangrove ecosystem scientist, say has been her north star: “We need science-based development.”

“How can you do proper science if your needs are not met? Science is not a priority in the Philippines. But I hope it will be,” she said. – Rappler.com

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