Practicing science with passion and compassion

Shaira Panela
Practicing science with passion and compassion
Passion to do science and passion to help the country is what keeps physicist Maricor Soriano, a 2014 TOWNS awardee, going in her work as a scientist and educator

MANILA, Philippines – The part of the laboratory where physicist Maricor “Jing” Soriano works does not have funnels, test tubes and burning chemicals like the science labs you see in photos or posters.

A long shelf filled with books, prototypes of different instruments and various knick-knacks welcomes the visitors. A white board is filled with notes about schedules, random shapes and figures, numbers, among other things. Aside from computers, and tables where students huddle, there is a frame set-up with a camera, and an LCD projector. 

This is where Dr Soriano, part of the Instrumentation Physics Laboratory of the National Institute of Physics at the University of the Philippines Diliman (UP-NIP), works with color, plays with video, and processes images to come up with data useful in various fields, from marine science, art conservation, biometrics, to medical imaging and physical education. 

Neither does Soriano look like a stereotypical scientist in white lab coats in front of a black board. Wearing a white button down shirt and black pants, she greets the writer with a smile upon entering the lab.

One could have not guessed that Soriano is in fact a multi-awarded scientist. The latest being one of The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS) last November 2013 by the TOWNS Foundation, together with another scientist, Dr. Gemma Narisma of the Manila Observatory.

Among her other awards are the Third World Academy of Science Prize for Young Scientist in the Philippines in 2009, and Outstanding Young Scientist given by the National Academy of Science and Technology in 2006.

“Grade 2 pa lang, gusto ko na ng science,” Soriano told Rappler. She recounted her childhood memories of science textbooks and the character “Nonoy” who asks a lot of questions.

But her journey to being a physicist was a bit of an “accident,” she said. At age 9, she said she wanted to be a doctor; when she eventually applied for a place at the University of the Philippines, she opted to take a pre-medicine course.

However, when she was admitted to UP Diliman under the category “Degree Program with Available Slots,” she chose physics.

It was Dr. Caesar Saloma, the former chancellor of UP Diliman and one of the country’s most prominent physicists, who invited Soriano to join the university’s Instrumentation Physics Lab. And she never really left the lab, even after she spent two years as a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oulu in Finland.

Science and country

In this file photo, Dr Maricor Soriano explains their assessment process of the damage in Tubbataha Reef. Ace Tamayo/Rappler

Soriano is known to develop low-cost technology for various uses. This is also one of the things TOWNS Foundation cited for her award.

“This is very important in the Philippine setting because we really can’t afford high end equipment and software,” Racoma said.

One of the technologies she helped develop is a coral reef imaging technology called “Teardrop.” It is a low-cost system consisting of a banca-towable hull which can hold an underwater video camera, a software that stitches images, and a portable GPS locator. Teardrop can create video showing shallow-water coral reefs. It has been donated on over 13 locations nationwide. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources is also adopting its technology for its coral reef management program.

Her team was also requested to help measure the damage to coral reefs at the Tubbataha Reefs National Park during the USS Guardian and Min Long Yu grounding incidents. 

Going back to the metal frame set-up in her office-cum-lab, Soriano said it is used to capture three-dimensional images of paintings to check for defects, making the jobs of museum curators and art conservationists easier and at a lower cost.

The set-up has been used to help preserve paintings at the Vargas Museum in UP. Her team has also brought their scanner to the National Museum, UST Museum and Ateneo Art Gallery to help in digital archiving important cultural artifacts.

Passion to do science and passion to help the country is what keeps Soriano going.

She never really thought of staying outside the Philippines, even during her stint in Finland.

“Abroad, you see things na gusto mong mangyari sa country mo… Maayos lahat,” she said.

“But if I go back to the Philippines, whatever help I do [here], I help my countrymen,” Soriano told Rappler.

‘Ma’am Jing’

But other than being a passionate scientist for the nation, Soriano remains to be a compassionate mentor, “Ma’am Jing,” to her students and advisees.

Bernard Alan Racoma, research assistant at the National Institute of Geological Sciences in UP and one of Soriano’s former advisees, told Rappler: “Very hands-on ang approach ni Ma’am Jing as an adviser. She only makes you do things that she knows she can do herself.”

He even shared one of his fondest memory of working under Soriano’s supervision.

“One time during our weekly meetings I wasn’t able to accomplish the task that was given to me the week prior because I didn’t know how to approach the problem,” Racoma recounted. “What she did was sat down beside me and said, ‘Sige ganito, solve natin ito nang magkasama,’ And we started producing results right then and there.”

He that the most important lesson Soriano imparted to them is about passion. “Be passionate in what you do, and everything else will follow,” Racoma said. –

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