By Michelle Anne P. Soliman
In the coastal towns of Anda and Bolinao in Pangasinan, P110 million worth of milkfish (scientific name: chanos chanos) was lost earlier this month. The fish kill was reportedly caused by dissolving oxygen levels on the water surface of the fish ponds in which the bangus was being raised. If more fish kills occur, this may reduce the milkfish supply in nearby provinces and in Metro Manila. What few people in the area know is that a Filipina scientist — Dr. Charissa M. Ferrera — and her team are currently working on research to help alleviate the problem.
That the team is led by a woman should come as no surprise. According to the 2017 World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, the Philippines is No. 10 of 144 countries when it comes to parity between genders, with 79% of overall gender gap closed — 11% higher than the global average. The women’s labor force participation rate is 52.6% while men’s labor force participation rate is at 80.9%.
The same report notes that 39.9% of female researchers are in engineering and technology, 51.3% are in agricultural sciences, 59.5% in natural sciences, and 70.2% in medical sciences. This places Filipinas in a good position to work on issues revolving around climate change, sustainable energy, and affordable health care, all global issues whose solutions lie in science.
FOR WOMEN IN SCIENCE PROGRAM
Devoting itself to promoting its two key advocacies on beauty and science, French personal care company L’Oréal, in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), established the For Women in Science (FWIS) program to recognize women who contribute their expertise and knowledge in their respective fields for sustainable development in their communities.
In the last 20 years, the program has had 53 national and regional programs established in 117 countries. It has globally recognized 3,100 women scientists, and honored 102 laureates for excellence in science including three Nobel Prize winners.
The program was launched in the Philippines in 2011 with two FWIS Philippine national fellows recognized, Dr. Maria Corazon A. De Ungria and Dr. Laura T. David, followed by another two in 2012, Dr. Maria Cecilia Conaco and Dr. Aletta Yñiguez. It was postponed in 2013 due to typhoon Haiyan (locally known as Yolanda) when the foundation focused on rebuilding affected schools.
To mark its 20th anniversary, L’Oréal and UNESCO are relaunching the FWIS program and have recognized the fifth Filipina national fellowship awardee — Dr. Charissa M. Ferrera.
“At a time when questions about the future of our planet are growing, we are extremely conscious of the role that science can play — not just solutions but also hope to address the new challenges before us,” Carmel Valencia, corporate communications manager of L’Oréal Philippines, said at the program’s relaunch on June 5 at Century City Mall in Makati.
“One of our ambitions is to make science accessible to all and ensure that we change mindsets because a [new] mindset can lead to the empowerment of women in the field of science,” L’Oréal Philippines managing director Thibault de Saint Victor said, citing the 2016-2017 Commission on Higher Education (CHED) report that only 4 out of 10 STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) enrollees are female.
“There is still so much we can do to accelerate the advancement of woman scientists in the Philippines. It’s important that we do not only raise awareness about this challenge, we [must] also try to provide solutions. We are pleased to bring back the FWIS in the Philippines,” he said.
Shahbaz Khan, Director of the UNESCO Regional Science Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, noted that gender equality is the fifth of UNESCO’s 17 social development goals.
The purpose of the program is to get over barriers and stereotypes, give women a real place in science, change the world, celebrate their successes, and increase [the number of] women role models. “The world will not achieve sustainable development goals unless they empower women scientists,” he said.
USING THE GRANT
Dr. Ferrera, the newest FWIS Philippine national fellowship awardee, is a chemical oceanographer and post-doctoral researcher at the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP MSI). She is currently conducting research focused on ocean acidification and phosphorus pollution and its effects on fishing communities in Bolinao and Anda in Pangasinan. She hopes that this information will directly help the fish pond stakeholders.
“When I learned about this program, I dared to ask my supervisor to nominate me because I have a research project in mind, and it’s very relevant to what’s happening to our environment, and it will help the fishermen in the study site,” Dr. Ferrera said in her speech at the programs relaunch.
“I will be using the grant to communicate ocean acidification and also phosphorus pollution to the fishing community; and have an index tallying what happens to the phosphorus in the sediment using oxygen isotopes of phosphate,” she explained in a recorded video.
“If we properly communicate the results to the stakeholders, we will prevent the instances of these harmful algal blooms and also fish kills which will lead to sustainable mariculture practices.”
Dr. Ferrera also gave a message to aspiring women scientists: “There’s so much [more] potential in you than you think you have. You are more courageous than you think you are. There are a lot [more] opportunities for you than you think there are. Never give up on your dreams. It’s usually in the most difficult times that you learn a lot. In those challenging times, if you look at them as opportunities for growth, then you are not very far from your goal.”
As part of the recognition, Dr. Ferrera was granted a fellowship worth P400,000 for the continued development of her research.
The L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Philippine national fellowship is open to any Filipina researcher/scientist who has earned her PhD and is currently pursuing research in any scientific field. The research criteria include the significant contribution for the advancement of the scientific field, and its impact on society and its future.
For more information, visit www.forwomeninscience.com.
By Michelle Anne P. Soliman