Monday, July 9, 2012

Two Filipina researchers receive L’ Oreal-UNESCO’s For Women in Science award

Recently, two young, exceptional female scientists received second batch of L’ Oreal Philippines For Women in Science (FWIS) National Fellows, namely Dr. Ma. Cecilia G. Conaco and Dr. Aletta T. Yniguez. 
L’Oréal Philippines awards the 2011 For Women in Science National Fellows
From left to right: Pamela Picazo-Garcia, L’Oréal ‘s corporate communications manager; Dr. Cristina Padolina, member of 2011 FWIS jury and president of Centro Escolar University; professor Lourdes Cruz, the first ASEAN and first Filipino FWIS awardee; Dr. Ma. Cecilia Conaco, 2011 For Women in Science national fellow; Luc Olivier-Marquet, L’Oreal’s managing director; Dr. Aletta Yñiguez, 2011 For Women in Science national fellow; DOST undersecretary Fortunato dela Peña; L’Oreal FWIS 2010 national fellows Dr. Laura David and Dr. Maria Corazon De Ungria and Christian Cayaba, Scientific and Technico Regulatory Affairs manager of L’Oreal Philippines
Yñiguez and Conaco, FWIS  awardees

Both stood out among the rest after an arduous judging process headed by first Filipino FWIS ASEAN Laureate Professor Lourdes Cruz. They were awarded fellowship grants worth P400,000 each. 

Scientific and Technico-Regulatory affairs manager of L’Oreal Philippines Christian Cayaba said that they decided to reduce the age bracket limit from 45 years old to 35 years old in 2011 to open the search for younger women scientists and so these two outshine. 

Conaco and proposal about marine sponges’ gene regulation 

Dr. Conaco is a 34-year-old “Balik” Scientist and a post-doctoral researcher at the Neuroscience Research Institute, University of California, USA where she is also a recipient of the Excellence in Neuroscience Research Award. 

She received the FWIS National Fellowship grant for her research proposal entitled Dynamic Gene Regulation in Marine Sponges which aims to identify novel sponge genes and the mechanisms that allow the organism to monitor and adapt to its environment. Through her research, Dr. Conaco hopes to understand the impact of ecological change in marine life better. It will also provide insights into the development of technologies for the synthesis or isolation of bioactive compounds. 

Dr. Ma. Cecilia G. Conaco, modern scientist
Dr. Conaco wants to explore more on gene regulation and marine sponge because she believes they don’t live a boring life even if they are found at the bottom of the ocean. For her, science is fast moving and very exciting! 

Sponges according to her are the oldest, very special, economically, and ecologically important marine organisms. She added that because of the changes they undergo during their different stages in their life cycles, sponges have become physiologically and chemically complex. 

“We hope that by studying how the sponges’ genes are used during each of these different stages, we’ll be able to contribute to the improvement of methods for resource monitoring and conservation. Because when you know which genes change the most in response to environmental changes, then we can design better ways of monitoring the health and condition of our marine organisms,” Conaco explained. 

She said that her approach is to use recently developed sequencing techniques to identify and measure the sponges’ genes, “a gold mine that we can look at to better understand how to better protect marine organisms.” 

Interestingly, she remarked that sponges have the clever way to protect themselves, and they are also considered as drugstores of the ocean. 

“The identification of sponges’ genes involved in the production of useful substances will also help to design better ways of producing drugs or synthesizing different types of materials that will be useful for all,” she rationalized. 

She found promising and interesting genes in her sequencing of an Australian sponge during her post-doctoral training and that she hoped to take her studies further and would look into indigenous Philippine sponges. She designed to focus on the amphimedon, a blue sponge that can be found in Bolinao. 

She said that sequencing genes is costly so she collaborated with other groups, specifically the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP MSI) in that way they could mutually gain and share works and results involved in the research 

Yñiguez and her plankton models to explain red tide 
Dr. Aletta T. Yniguez,the contemporary researcher

Dr. Yñiguez’s research proposal is “Enhancing Robustness of Plankton Models and Monitoring Systems by Understanding Fine-scale Biophysical Processes.” 

She finished her PhD in Marine Biology and Fisheries at Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami in Florida, where she is also a recipient of Maytag Fellowship. She is presently an assistant professor at the Marine Science Institute at the University of the Philippines. 

This project sets to contribute to the progress of primary production of harmful algal bloom models that are at this time being developed in other endeavors. It also aims to validate and augment the reliability of real-time monitoring platforms and remotely sensed data that will be part of a bloom-forecasting system in target sites in the country. 

Yñiguez depicted phytoplankton as the bases of the marine food chain that ultimately leads to the productive fisheries that many in our country rely on for their livelihood. She advised that there were many situations that led these microscopic plants to become dangerous to us as portrayed by these harmful algal blooms or HABS

HABS according to her is the genetic term for the incident heading to red tide or fish kill. She detailed that these cause poisoning, fatalities, and economic losses for the country. 

“So we are trying to figure out what are the mechanisms going on as the different phytoplankton types are changing in two different sites but one is leading to HABS and one is actually a productive fisheries area,” she said. She said that the first site would be the Lamon Bay in Bicol, a productive fisheries area; and the other site would be the Sorsogon Bay, which she said has been experiencing red tide for several years and have been the subject of shellfish. 

That through her project, she wishes to complement and improve more the government’s response system with regards to the toxic blooms. 

On a more personal and lighter note, she said that she did not see herself to be interested in marine life because she was always afraid of the sea but she ended up in marine ecology. 

At present, FWIS is one of the most esteemed and highly expected international programs in the scientific community, in cooperation with UNESCO and the Department of Science and Technology which encourages Filipina scientists to follow their dreams and to achieve progress. 

This also aims to promote excellence among young woman scientists worldwide. The award giving is over a decade now. 

L’ Oreal, science and women 

In 2010 L’Oréal Philippines, in partnership with other participating countries, joined the battle cry “The world needs science...Science needs women,” bringing the go-getting program to the local scene. 

L’Oréal Philippines managing director Luc Olivier-Marquet exclaimed that scientific excellence is always at the heart of L’Oréal. “We invest heavily in research and innovation to ensure that we provide the best in the cosmetics industry.” 

“I am deeply honored to recognize the two very young and accomplished Filipina scientists who demonstrated excellence and dedication in their craft. All of their hard work will certainly be an inspiration for generations to come,” he continued. 

Pamela Picazo-Garcia, L’Oréal Philippines corporate communications manager said: “Through the FWIS Program we have encountered so many exceptional women and heard their incredible stories of hard work and dedication. It is very heart-warming to know that through the program, we have somehow helped bring these women a step closer to achieving their dreams and move science forward.” 

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