Meet PH’s new super women in science

Posted at 07/05/12 4:49 PM

Dr. Aletta Yñiguez is an assistant professor at the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines. Photo: Handout

MANILA, Philippines – Today’s women are out to save the world, whether from red tide or cancer.

Dr. Aletta Yñiguez is one of the two Filipina scientists who received a P400,000 grant this year under the For Women In Science (FWIS) program of cosmetics firm L’Oreal and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for her research on harmful algal blooms (HABs).

HABs, more popularly known as red tide, refer to an accumulation of harmful phytoplankton in a large body of water. These have been associated with shellfish poisonings and large-scale deaths of sea creatures.

Using the grant from the FWIS, Yñiguez will observe phytoplankton types in the Bicol Shelf (a productive fisheries area) and Sorsogon Bay (a HAB site) and look for environmental conditions that cause a red tide.

The data will then be used to develop computer models, which will help government agencies and local communities in monitoring the phenomenon.

“We will collaborate with government agencies and local government units to get these models in a level where we can help provide early warnings if a bloom will eventually occur,” Yñiguez explained.

“I want to figure out why particular organisms (such as phytoplankton) are becoming dominant, and under what conditions. From here, we can recommend a course of action,” she added. “People will know when it will not be a good condition for fisheries, then they can warn the community and help them find other means of livelihood.”

Yñiguez said she has always been interested in phytoplankton because of its important role in the marine food web, comparing it to terrestrial plants.

“We as a planet rely on these organisms,” she said.


Yñiguez said she never thought that she would end up as a marine scientist, considering that she used to be very afraid of the water.

“My swimming instructor actually gave up on me,” she said. “But when I tried snorkeling, it made me see the diversity of marine life. I really wanted to explore that more, so I took up Marine Ecology as a major.”

Yñiguez, 33, also completed a PhD in Marine Biology and Fisheries at Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at University of Miami, where she was a recipient of the Maytag Fellowship.

Currently, she is an assistant professor at the Marine Science Institute of the University of the Philippines.

“I have to find creative ways to keep my students interested in marine science. I don’t just do lectures – I use videos, make them interact, use examples that they can relate to,” she said. “It’s a challenge.”

With projects such as the FWIS, Yñiguez hopes that more Filipino women would pursue a career in science.

“It’s a great idea to push FWIS even further down to high school students. Let’s start encouraging young women who haven’t seriously considered going into science,” she said.

Now on its third year in the Philippines, FWIS awards grants to deserving Filipina scientists to aid in their research.

Sponge work

Dr. Maria Cecila Conaco is a post-doctoral researcher at the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California. Photo: Handout

The other FWIS awardee is Dr. Maria Cecilia Conaco, who was recognized for her research on sponges, which scientists said may help cure cancer.

Conaco’s work aims to study the genes of different sponges and their response to environmental changes. These, she said, will provide insights into the development of drugs, antibiotics and nanomaterials.

“Sponges have been dubbed as the ‘drugstores or pharmacies’ of the ocean because of its many chemicals,” she explained. “They are also the ideal system where we can study different environmental effects, since they filter sea water for food.”

“The study will help us understand how to properly conduct resource monitoring and conservation efforts,” she added. “We can also identify genes involved in producing useful substances such as drugs.”

Conaco admitted, however, that finding a cure for cancer from sponges may take a long time.

“The amount of compounds they can get from the sponge is very small. By looking at the genetic mechanisms, we’ll push ourselves closer to get them tested. But we’re not sure how long it will take,” she said.

Still, the FWIS awardee is not giving up without a fight. “Science is a fast-moving field, and everyone is becoming more collaborative. Now is the best time to do science and be in the middle of a discovery.”

Conaco, 34, completed her PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology at Stony Brook University in New York. A “balikbayan” scientist, she is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California.

Like Yñiguez, she encouraged all women to pursue their passions, especially if it is for science.

Conaco also asked families, teachers and society to support women scientists, whether emotionally or financially.

“There’s no typical day in science. It’s always a new discovery,” she ended.