UP Marine Science Institute: A lustrous pearl of RP science
by Maria Lourdes San Diego-McGlone, PhD & Gisela Padilla-Concepcion, PhD
When Jose Rizal referred to the Philippines asPerla del Mar del Oriente(in his Mi Ultimo Adios), he was giving recognition to the beauty and preciousness of our country, and to its strategic location in the sea. Our national hero may not have known it at the time, but our country lies in an area of great marine biodiversity — a fact that is now being thoroughly studied and exploited by our scientists and which will result in material benefits to our country’s health and economy. A number of research institutes in the Philippines are engaged in marine studies and foremost among those is MSI, the Marine Science Institute in UP Diliman. MSI is recognized as one of our country’s Centers of Excellence — and deservedly so. Its faculty and the research work done within its walls and out in the sea have attained worldwide recognition.
Indeed, very recently, MSI won a prestigious international prize. It was awarded, ex-aequo with the Global Footprint Network of the US, the Calouste Gulbenkian International Prize 2008, for its “thoughts or actions that have made a decisive contribution to and have significant impact on understanding, defending or fostering the universal values of the human condition, with particular reference to respect for biodiversity and defense of the environment in man’s relationship with nature.”
On Dec. 9, MSI will host “Isang Pasasalamat” at the UP Bahay ng Alumni to thank and honor its supporters and to mark its achievements in the last 34 years. MSI, represented by its founder Dr. Edgardo D. Gomez, had also received a DOST outstanding research award earlier this year in recognition of its work on “marine biodiversity, biotechnology, and sustainable utilization of marine bioresources in the Philippines.” There is indeed reason for thanksgiving and celebration in MSI this year.
We recall how Ed Gomez struggled in the early years to form a nucleus of researchers who were interested in marine biology. In 1974, he created the Marine Sciences Center (MSC) in a little room at the NSRC (Natural Sciences Research Center). Unfazed by being an “outsider” in UP (he was not a UP graduate) and having meager funding support, he began to build a research center in UP patterned after the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, USA, where he had obtained his PhD.
The MSC grew quickly to become the full-blown research and degree granting institute known today as MSI, as Ed continued to attract more and more serious researchers and grant money into his fold. The three cornerstones of the marine sciences — marine biology, marine physical science, and marine biotechnology — were laid and became the foundation of MSI. When Ed stepped down as MSI director after 24 years, he had established the necessary administrative support and infrastructure in MSI to make it conducive to productive research. The faculty started to publish in international peer-reviewed journals until it reached a rate that was unprecedented in the whole of UP. Ed led research in MSI by example. He upheld high ethical and scientific standards and instilled discipline among his colleagues, even as he encouraged informal scientific discussions and personal interactions. Chemical oceanographer Dr. Gil S. Jacinto, a most worthy successor, continued Ed’s tradition in the next six years and led MSI as it expanded to other research areas utilizing new technologies, e.g. computational modeling, remote sensing, etc. And MSI grew and improved in many respects even more.
Even today, we are principally a research institute and we offer only MS and PhD degree programs. Some graduate students come from within UP, but a significant number are from other universities, and from the provinces. What purpose do our graduate programs serve aside from feeding into our faculty-led research projects (i.e., theses and dissertations are part of projects)? Many of our PhDs and MS graduates have gone back to their home universities and research institutes and have become the research leaders there.
Recently, some of us have been involved in teaching MS1 — an appreciation course on oceans and man. This course is attracting droves of undergraduate students. Is it only because these young students love the water or the beach, snorkeling or scuba diving? Is it because “marine” is exotic, fascinating and exciting? Or maybe, more of them would like to build careers studying and saving our marine environment? Are more of our youth becoming serious environmentalists?
But what in real terms has MSI accomplished for itself and for all of us — for Philippine society — through its 34 years of existence? Being in the midst of the richest marine biodiversity on this planet, MSI feels responsible for the documentation, conservation and sustainable use of our marine resources, which represent a unique competitive advantage of our country. These efforts require a multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary group of experts which MSI has. Aside from 431 ISI publications, eight patents and several patent applications, has MSI’s basic and applied research translated to real benefits to society?
The researchers of MSI have used their findings in marine science to provide assistance to industry and coastal communities in the sustainable utilization of marine resources, and as basis for crafting national and local policies and strategies for coastal management. Moreover, the researchers at MSI have made significant contributions to marine science in the country. Ed Gomez and Suzanne Licuanan pioneered work on giant clam biology, reproduction and conservation. Helen Yap’s work on coral restoration ecology is a promising tool to enhance coral reef recovery. Perry Aliño and the coral team were the trailblazers in undertaking coral reef monitoring, improving Marine Protected Areas (MPA) management effectiveness and building resilience for climate change through networking. Annette Meñez’s work on population genetics and sea ranching of mollusks, sea urchins and sea cucumbers further shows the benefits from the synergy of science, governance and management applications. Dosette Pante’s genetic work has been applied to examining the connectivity of organisms.
Mike Fortes’ work on seagrasses and mangroves highlights the profound importance of these ecosystems to the overall integrated management of the coastal zone. Rhod Azanza or the “red tide lady” has advanced the knowledge of how red tides and other harmful algal blooms occur and mechanisms to cope with the problem. Jun Trono is the grandfather of seaweed culture and tremendously contributed to seaweed taxonomy. Roy Lluisma showed that unraveling the molecular basis of seaweeds is a crucial key to developing better strains of seaweeds. Edna Fortes has provided the link between past and future knowledge on taxonomy and physiology of marine plants through the largest herbarium in the ASEAN region. Coke Montaño has produced and patented natural products from seaweeds such as the air freshener called “Simoy,” and seaweed-based fertilizers.
Luly Cruz spearheaded the work on discovering toxins from cone snails for drug development. Giselle Concepcion leads the study to search for the next wonder marine drug for cancer and infections, from sponges, sea squirts and microbes, also searching for the next painkiller drug from turrid snails. Malou McGlone and Gil Jacinto do work on chemical characterization of seawater to better understand the association of eutrophic waters with aquaculture and other pollution-related human activities. K (Cesar) Villanoy and Laura David are physical oceanographers who characterize currents and circulation patterns in coastal waters and marginal seas and see how these influence the behavior of organisms. Ando Siringan’s work on coastal geology examines the dynamics of coastal systems from a recent and historical perspective. Allette Yñiguez is MSI’s most recent addition and she is into ecological modeling.
It is said that the science is only as good as the scientists behind it. There is solid manpower in MSI as evidenced by the highest concentration of NAST academicians and publishing scientists in an academic institution in the country. MSI has one National Scientist (Luly Cruz), four NAST Academicians (Luly Cruz, Ed Gomez, Jun Trono, Giselle Concepcion), two NAST corresponding members as adjunct professors: Ed Padlan is working with Giselle to produce a candidate vaccine for influenza and develop targeting therapeutic antibodies; Toto Olivera has worked through the years with Luly Cruz on conopeptides, bringing this research to world-class status, and he is now working with Giselle on turrid snails, the microbial symbionts of snails, and establishing a mollusk museum in MSI. We have two other adjunct professors: Wolfgang Reichardt, a microbiologist who studies the role of bacteria in coastal sediments, and Pierre Flament who works with the oceanography group.
Several high-value grants have been awarded by the DOST to MSI research groups. These are continually used as leverage to obtain equally large foreign grants and vice-versa. Clearly, MSI researchers are able to prepare competitive research proposals based on their previous studies published in respected, peer-reviewed journals. It’s what we call positive feedback leading to leaps of progress.
Come to MSI any day and you will witness young (and not-so-young) researchers, students and administrative staff, who move with a sense of urgency and an enthusiastic smile, obviously driven by work that they love to do. At faculty meetings, there are lively discussions of independent minds, with the likes of Ed and Gil among them. MSI’s graduate courses are mentally stimulating, with a balance of theory/concept and application. Students from all over the UP Diliman College of Science flock to MSI to take graduate courses, discuss thesis projects and use equipment which are aplenty at MSI. We see the future of MSI in the young researchers who work with us. They are imbued with the passion to pursue marine research. If possible, they would like to work in our labs 24/7 (24 hours a day, seven days a week)! They come to the lab even on weekends and spend their spare time together — talking, thinking, feeling and breathing science, and they have fun doing it!
So come and see us at MSI and visit http://www.msi.upd.edu.ph/web/. Once again, we are grateful to all our supporters. We have the institutional memory to mark milestones and avoid pitfalls. We are trying to establish a lasting scientific culture at MSI. Let us candidly say, modesty aside, that in the silver lining of Philippine science, we are proud of one shining star — MSI! In the sea of treasures of Philippine science, we are proud of one lustrous pearl —MSI!
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Maria Lourdes San Diego-McGlone, PhD, is a professor and former director of UPMSI. She teaches graduate courses and leads research projects in chemical oceanography on nutrient biogeochemistry. Gisela P. Padilla-Concepcion, PhD, is a professor at UPMSI where she teaches graduate courses and leads marine natural products and related biomedical research. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.