Shining a spotlight on Pinay scientists

Shaira Panela
Shining a spotlight on Pinay scientists
The achievements of notable Filipina scientists are proof that women scientists thrive in the Philippines


MANILA, Philippines – Perhaps everyone is familiar with Fe del Mundo, the National Scientist. In textbooks, she was portrayed as the inventor of a make-shift incubator out of bamboo.

Del Mundo was a woman of many firsts – the first woman admitted in the Harvard Medical School, the pediatrician who founded the Philippines’ first pediatric hospital, and the first female National Scientist of the Philippines.

She was also recognized for her pioneering studies on infectious diseases in the Philippines, including dengue, which was still little known in the country during her time.

Del Mundo was a doctor, a beloved nurturer to children, and a scientist. More importantly, she was a Filipina role model. 

Aside from Del Mundo, other notable Filipina scientists include Gemma Narisma, a climate scientist from the Manila Observatory; Maricor Soriano, a physicist who develops low-cost technology for different purposes; Reina Reyes, the “Filipina who proved Einstein right”Maria Corazon de Ungria, one who helps the wrongly accused through DNA tests; and Lucille Abad, one who developed a plant grower using seaweed.

The women-powered Philippines

Their achievements are proof that women scientists thrive in the Philippines.

In fact, the Philippines leads in Asia in closing the gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap report. Globally, the country ranks 10th out of 144 countries, with 79% of the overall gender gap closed.

“On the onset, this might be a good ranking for the Philippines,” Maria Karisma Bea Agarao, national program coordinator of UNESCO Jakarta’s office in the Philippines, said in a press event.

Agarao said the report highlights how the country still fell short in terms of what men have accomplished in the fields of economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival, and political empowerment.

“[But] what we want to do is to focus on removing those barriers for us to achieve gender parity,” she added.

While the country fell 3 notches from 2016, it continues to fare well in various economic opportunities categories like women handling managerial and executive positions, and labor force participation.

Wanted: Pinay scientists

The Philippines is among the few countries in Asia that have achieved gender parity in the field of science and engineering.

At least half of scientists in the Philippines are, in fact, females. Specifically, as of 2013, women are on par with men in the fields of natural sciences and agricultural sciences.

However, the gender parity we have achieved may be in danger as the number of women enrolling in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses has been declining.

For academic year 2016-2017 alone, the Commission on Higher Education recorded that only 4 out of 10 STEM enrollees are females – a number lower than in previous years.

As a whole, the country’s science sector still faces a number of challenges. A UNESCO report showed that the country only has 189 researchers for every one million Filipinos – lower than the UNESCO standard of 380 researchers for every one million people.

Other challenges include low investment in higher education, low rate of scientific publications, and weak infrastructure for research and development. (READ: 5 things to make PH a better place for scientists)

At the forefront of Pinay scientists

Eight years ago, a Filipina biochemist made us proud when she became the first Filipino and first Asian L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards For Women in Science (FWIS) Global Laureate.

Launched about 20 years ago, the FWIS seeks to recognize outstanding contributions of female scientists worldwide.

The FWIS Global Laureate award is a fitting recognition for the impact of Lourdes Cruz’s 40 years of research on cone snails and certain chemicals these snails produce that serve as painkillers, as well as other biopharmaceutical products.

Cruz, now 76, is one of the 4 remaining living female National Scientists of the Philippines, together with geneticist Dolores Ramirez, entomologist Clare Baltazar, and demographer Mercedes Concepcion.

Cruz still actively participates in numerous research. In 2017, she was ranked as the top cited scientist from the University of the Philippines. She has also been promoting science communication to empower indigenous communities, especially the Aetas in Bataan.

After Cruz won the FWIS Global Laureate title in 2010, the L’Oréal Foundation decided to launch the fellowship program in the Philippines, said Carmel Valencia, corporate communications manager at L’Oréal Philippines.

The Filipinas who have been recognized as FWIS fellows include De Ungria, marine scientist Aletta Yñiguez, oceanographer Laura David, and marine biologist Cecilia Conaco.

Valencia said that L’Oréal and UNESCO seek to empower more women scientists to follow the footsteps led by Cruz and the other former FWIS fellows, adding that their program intends to show how “the creativity, the passion, and the intelligence of women deserves to have that equal contribution to be able to solve one of humanity’s greatest challenges.”

On June 5, 2018, L’Oréal-UNESCO Awards For Women in Science will award one Filipina scientist. She is set to receive a fellowship grant worth P400,000 ($7,602)*. –

Female scientists image via Shutterstock

*US$1 = P52.62

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