Science for the people

Science is truly an exciting field albeit a complex one to many. While we recognize the fruits and innovations that science has brought to us throughout millennia, many are still far from appreciating it. Some even fear it in the modern world. But science has no sense of resentment, and only seeks to alleviate man’s basic longing: necessity.

While it is natural to have a healthy sense of skepticism, we must always respect the primacy and importance of science in most matters of our lives, from ensuring the safety and quality of the food that we eat to being able to create a sustainable industrial environment, science has constantly paved the way toward a safer and better environment for everyone.

This National Science Week, we explore two issues and two scientists—creating safer food and developing models for a less impactful industrial activity, two aspects that everyone has a stake in.  We explore these contributions that our ingenious Filipino scientists have brought to the world.

Part of this wide effort are two Pinoy scientists and academics whose research have changed the way we live —Dr. Alonzo “Al” Gabriel of the University of the Philippines, Diliman and Dr. Kathleen Kaye Aviso of De La Salle University.

Alonzo “Al” Gabriel

Trailblazing Food Scientist

Gabriel is a food scientist who is currently undertaking his master’s in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where he also got his previous Masters in Science in Food Science, and Bachelor of Science degree in Food Technology.  Dr. Gabriel is part of a food technology and hygiene research think-tank at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, which leads the country’s efforts in achieving safer, more nutritious food for everyone.

After graduating with a degree in BS Food Technology, Gabriel became a research assistant for an NGO based in UP for one year, after which he applied for an instructorship position in the same school.

“I took my first master’s [Master of Science in Food Science] while working for the NGO, and after five years, I got my master’s. On the same year, I also got my scholarship for my Ph.D, in Japan, where I did my Ph.D, in three and a half years,” Gabriel added.

Gabriel earned his Ph.D. in Biofunctional Science and Technology from Hiroshima University in Japan after presenting his dissertation, titled: Antimicrobial Efficacies of Physiochemical Parameter Combinations Towards Microorganisms in Fruit Juice.  Ever since, Gabriel has been in and out of the country, speaking to various fora and conferences as a resource speaker abroad.  Gabriel has also earned numerous awards for his contribution to the field, including being one of the 10 Outstanding Young Men of 2013. He has also authored more than 40 peer-reviewed journals in the field of Food Science and Technology research.

Even though he is at the heights of his stellar career, Gabriel has never forgotten his role as a public servant and teacher. He is often at his lab, with his peers at UP, constantly finding ways to improve food by exploring new and innovative methods of food safety and defense, and increasing nutritional value.

“I happen to be one of the leaders of the Philippine Food Defense Team of the Department of Agriculture (DA), which started in 2011. With our learning and our research and expertise combined, we were able to draft national standards for food defense, as in the United States’ Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Defense. When you say Food Defense, this pertains to the protective methods against intentional adulteration of food or foodstuff.  These standards have already been published by the Bureau of Food and Drugs (BFAD),” Gabriel said.

According to Gabriel, there are a lot of shortcomings in terms of food safety in the Philippines and that a lot more needs to be done in order to ensure that our food is not only good for consumption in our country, but are more nutritious, and are good for consumption elsewhere.

“Definitely malaki pa yung hahabulin natin kasi 2013 lang naisapasa ang Food Safety Act (RA. 10611 ) and the implementing rules and regulations (IRRs), which were only made in 2015, I think, have not yet been fully implemented and cascaded down to the local government unit (LGU) level. Prior to that, we only had the Sanitation Code of the Philippines from the Martial Law Era, and several other relevant laws,” Gabriel said.

According to Gabriel, another lack in the country’s systems is an improved surveillance mechanism for food-borne diseases—to not only find out the origins of disease-causing pathogens, but determining its other characteristics like antibiotic resistance against medicine. We need to take food safety education and preparation seriously, he said.

“In the Philippines, more than 90 percent of food stakeholders are micro and small-scale. Which means they probably do not have access to food safety education and training, so the challenge now falls on the LGU—how are we going to cascade our knowledge and training to the small-level? Apart from food safety regulation, we must also work to educate these stakeholders, because it is also within the letter of the Food Safety Act, so that’s the challenge—how do we give these stakeholders knowledge so that they can protect their business as well protect their customers? Our role is to translate our technical knowledge into practical knowledge which they can use every day, and for me, hindi na effective ang pamphleting.  What we need is immersion and experiential demonstrations, and retention tactics,” Gabriel added.

Gabriel’s main focus is in Predictive Microbiology, a field which aims to establish mathematical models that can estimate quality deterioration and the safety of food products. It has been the principal work of Gabriel over the last 15 years he has been an academic.

Gabriel is also the principal investigator of the Food Microbiology and Hygiene Lab at the College of Home Economics at UP Diliman. He is constantly seeking for new ways to inactivate disease-causing and spoilage-causing microorganisms using new ways, which range from physical and energy-based processes to traditional and natural chemical processes.  He, along with his team, then creates and combines these learnings to form a system from which other people and industries may learn.

Kathleen Kaye Aviso

Environmental Systems Engineer

In the age of massive consumption, deteriorating resources and natural environments, Aviso and her research team’s work becomes more relevant than ever.

Today, underutilizing and ignoring the byproducts of factories and industries has become a hazard, especially when not handled masterfully. In the age where efficiency and conservation are a priority, every kind of “waste,” like solid and liquid waste should be treated as a potential resource to be reutilized, reducing the impact not only on the physical and natural environment, but the social environment as well.

Aviso is a chemical engineering professor at De La Salle University and the research director of the College of Engineering at the same school.  Her work, along with her team, develops efficient industrial systems, which have the least impact on the social and the natural environment.Aviso, a Ph.D, is a systems and environmental engineer who focuses on developing efficient mathematical-based resource-utilization systems and models for industrial processes such as manufacturing, but her profession is focused on energy systems such as power plants.

“So most of the work we do is focused on environmental decision-making.  Basically, it’s about creating an efficient mathematical model and figuring out what the different types of technologies are available to achieve a certain goal.  We specialize in developing energy systems for power plants,” Aviso said.

Aviso graduated from the University of the Philippines with a degree in BS Chemistry, after which she worked in the industry before applying for a master’s degree [MS Environmental Engineering] at De La Salle University in 2004. Ever since her undergrad years, she had also dreamed of becoming a researcher and an academic.

“I was fortunate enough that my application ended up with some of the top researchers in the university, and the university also started out its own scholarship program for Masters and Ph.Ds. They asked me if I really wanted to teach or take up my graduate studies, so I said: ‘Okay, I’ll take up my graduate studies’—since I thought then that I would be needing my Master’s and Ph.D. if I really wanted to be part of the academe. So I took up my masters in 2004 and then immediately went up to my Ph.D [BS Industrial Engineering] studies all the way up to 2010. I finished a doctorate in 2010, and that’s when I started teaching for De La Salle. And I have been here since then,” Aviso said.

Aviso added that any kind of industrial activity produces a kind of impact whether it will be positive or negative. Her expertise involves looking at the industrial activities of energy systems like powerplants and gathering their data, which tell the said plant’s byproducts and direct effect on the surrounding environment. She then crunches all this data in a mathematical model of various equations and provides her own improved versions, which she then gives to the plant’s experts for evaluation.

“So it’s not just about looking at the impact of electricity when you use it, but we look at how electricity is created and how it impacts not just the physical environment, but the social environment as well. You seek out better alternatives to this system in place. Eventually, what you do is to try to investigate more, the different processes that you need in order to come up with the particular product or service, which will either improve or replace old systems,” Aviso said.

This also entails the need for cooperating with the people who may be affected with these industrial developments, to gain their consent, and to inform them of the possible impacts they may face, all through the LGU level.

According to Aviso, one of the major hurdles the country currently faces is our geography as an archipelagic country—there are islands that do not have self-sustaining energy systems, and Aviso sees a solution in the combination of renewable energy resources with an efficient system with minimal waste—hydro, biomass, and solar power. In this system, farms, rivers, and mountains become a possible and sustainable energy source.

Creating efficient and less impactful industrial models is one thing, mainstreaming it in order to put it into effect is another, especially in terms of explaining the systems to non-scientists who could be major policymakers.

“I think there is a gap between being able to explain the results and benefits of our research and having it on mainstream in the form of public policy, maybe because it is really hard to understand. What must be done is that we really need to expose the stakeholders into what you do, which will gain you your support,” Aviso said.

As the science continually progresses, more and more relevant issues are revealed to us.  The irony is that the more we develop, more precise instruments and methods in understanding the world, the more we reveal the problems that surround our society, yet, the more young scientists like Gabriel and Aviso come into the scene to help us understand and endure through them. It is an irony, but a worthy one, and a step towards appreciating science more and more.

-Written by Alfredo N. Mendoza V in Manila Bulletin.  See original article link here.

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