Penman No. 198: Mind-blowers and Eye-openers

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Penman for Monday, May 2, 2016

 

THE FIRST-EVER Knowledge Festival held by the University of the Philippines in Tagaytay City a couple of weekends ago proved true to its promise and offered mind-blowing, eye-opening discoveries galore, shoring up not only UP’s reputation as the country’s leading university but also that of the Filipino genius as a whole.

Part academic conference and part science fair, the festival brought together over 200 of UP’s top scientists and artists from the university’s many campuses all over the country to showcase the best and most promising products of their ongoing research. The festival also featured talks by experts on key academic and research issues (I excerpted my own keynote here last week), and presented the university’s expansion plans and the latest publications of the UP Press. A roundtable with members of the media had UP President Alfredo E. Pascual exchanging views with some of the country’s top journalists on future directions in Philippine higher education.

But it was the exhibits themselves that formed the living heart of the festival. Most were focused on science and technology, but UP’s most advanced endeavors in the arts, education, and mass communications were on display as well. What unified them was the element of interdisciplinarity, of crossing traditional academic turfs and boundaries to arrive at better solutions to age-old problems, or better products for the 21st century. Most of the projects were being financed by the university’s Emerging Interdisciplinary Research fund (EIDR), an ambitious program which has funneled many hundreds of millions of pesos into projects cutting across disciplines and with a positive impact on the government’s Key Result Areas (KRAs).

(I know—I get fidgety myself whenever I step on the road to Acronymia, but like I said in the open forum after my talk, artists—especially those in public life—have to learn to speak bureaucratese and to do the math if they want to engage outside their comfort zones, which is also key to getting grants.)

The exhibits were organized into six clusters: (1) agri/aquaculture, food, and nutrition; (2) health and wellness; (3) disaster risk management and climate change; (4) energy, environment and ecotourism; (5) technology, new materials and other products; and (6) progressive teaching and learning.

As a frustrated scientist (I entered UP as an Industrial Engineering major fresh out of Philippine Science High), I’m always fascinated by what goes on in S&T, and touring the science booths gave me an overview of the research and development in the field within UP. Among the dozens of projects on show, I lingered longest on a few: an analysis of the use of Twitter to keep track of typhoon events; the development of the Philippine Scientific Earth Observation Microsatellite (better known as Diwata-1, which is now in orbit) for disaster risk reduction; an ecosystem assessment of Laguna de Bay, a study aimed at finding ways to revive a dying lake; and a study on the use of microbes from shipworms (tamilok) as potential sources of enzymes for biofuel production. (I’ve had tamilok wriggling down my gullet on a dare during trips to Palawan, where they’re a delicacy, and I’d happily give them up to biofuels.)

In the health and wellness cluster were a flurry of projects ranging from a dengue detection kit to the development of best-practice guidelines for the better management of prevalent community diseases and the use of social media for promoting healthcare. In agriculture, a product called BioN promised to replace 30-50% of chemical fertilizers while increasing yields by 11%, keeping plants “healthy and green even in drought and in the presence of pests.”

Although it was a tucked away in a corner of the learning cluster, what especially caught my eye was a little black box called VISSER—short for “Versatile Instrumentation System for Science Education and Research,” a highly portable science kit which can do over 120 experiments in biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and environmental science. As it turned out, VISSER had been developed by a team headed by a fraternity brother of mine, physicist Dr. Giovanni Tapang, originally with some support from the University of Maryland. The argument for VISSER is compelling: more than a third of the country’s 13,000 high schools—catering to about 7 million students—have no labs, and of those that do, only 2,800 have access to digital tools. The VISSER kit isn’t cheap at over P40,000 per unit—about the price of a laptop—but its potentials are huge, with a total market value estimated at almost P60 billion. It isn’t just good science, but good business as well for technopreneurs.

And speaking of technopreneurship, few Pinoys can be more inspiring than Dr. Gonzalo “Al” Serafica, a much sought-after consultant on technology commercialization who also spoke in Tagaytay on how he developed new uses for microbial cellulose—known to most of us as the lowly nata de coco—for the global medical market as brain patches and artificial skin. A chemical engineer and also a PSHS alumnus like Dr. Tapang, Al Serafica holds 10 US and 20 international patents and co-founded Xylos Corporation in 1996, proving that crossing over from the lab to the boardroom isn’t only possible but, in many cases, necessary.

On the whole, the Knowledge Festival offered ample proof that with the right support and incentives, Filipino scientists, artists, and researchers can be right up there with their international counterparts, but we have a lot of catching up to do. As a UP study notes, we spend about half of what our ASEAN neighbors spend on education, and even less on R&D. But just showing ourselves what’s possible is a good start, and UP will soon be touring key exhibits not just around the UP system but to other universities as well.

And UP itself will keep growing, as I was mighty impressed to see in the display that featured ongoing and upcoming expansion projects: the UP Clark Green City that will include, among others, a new College of the Natural Environment and College of Designed Environments; the soon-to-open UP Bonifacio Global City that will host classes in law, engineering, business, architecture, labor and industrial relations, urban and regional planning, statistics, and distance education; the UP Professional Schools-South Road Properties in Cebu; the Philippine Genome Center in Diliman; the new UP Diliman Sports Complex rising out of the rubble of the old track oval; and an upcoming UP Cavite incubator campus.

If we can shoot satellites up into the cosmos and turn a coconut dessert into brain implants, you’d have to believe that the sky’s the limit for the Filipino genius—as long as we don’t get sidetracked by personality politics and medieval mindsets.

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[Diwata-1 photo courtesy of ESA/Tim Peake]

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