Lecture delivered for the 2011 Concepcion Dadufalza Award for Distinguished Achievement on December 13, 2011 at UP Los Baños
It is indeed an honor and privilege to receive the Concepcion Dadufalza Award for Distinguished Achievement from the University of the Philippines. I accept this award with great humility and gratitude. I thank the University of the Philippines for this recognition. I dedicate this award to my parents―Domingo and Concepcion, my siblings―Norberto, Deanna Marie and Daniel, and to my children―Jethro Lee and Trina Leah. I share this award with my co-workers and mentors.
I did not have the opportunity to have personally known or have Professor Concepcion Dadufalza, in whose honor this award is named and given, as a teacher. From what I have gathered, Prof. Dadufalza served as mentor and inspiration to many undergraduate students she taught at UP Diliman. In the words of UP Vice President Gisela Concepcion, while Ms. Dadufalza taught English with “endless exercises in reading, writing and discussions in English, all ultimately aimed at developing our skills in critical thinking—both analytical and integrative.” Further, “she taught us the value of self-knowledge and self-improvement, the need for a sense of self — a sense of one’s totality, both interior and exterior, and this was important to us who were young, inadequate and insecure…”
The topic of my lecture is “Transformations”. My students would probably think that I will talk about transformation biotechnology or genetic engineering. But we do know that transformations, which means “change, renovation, or even revolution” are what makes life challenging and help us achieve our goals.
But how we transform ourselves, or our lives, and how we choose our paths depend a lot on catalysts personified by mentors like Prof. Dadufalza.
Mentors Are Catalysts of Transformations
All through our lives, we have been guided by mentors. My first mentors are my father and mother. They were both very hardworking and honest common folk. My father, Domingo, worked in the Bureau of Fisheries and my mother spent all her professional life as a devoted teacher. From them, I learned industry, love for work and honesty.
On their meager salaries as government employees, my parents sent all four of us, their children—Norberto, Deanna Marie, Daniel, and myself, to the best high school nearby, St. James Academy, a Maryknoll school. Among my favorite teachers were Ms. Myrna Ambrosio and Ms. Soledad Salazar. Ms. Ambrosio was a very good and inspiring science teacher, very knowledgeable, always smiling and was a chemist! On the other hand, Ms. Salazar was a very strict, but very articulate and analytical history teacher. She had so many stories to tell, about our country, surrounding countries and the world which was to my young mind, were very interesting and engaging. Among the Maryknoll sisters, it was Sister Janet Marie who impressed me most. She taught us English grammar, sentence construction and logical essay writing rigorously. She was always demanding that we used our “coconut”; she would always say “Let me see the smoke coming out of your ears!”
At Mapua Institute of Technology where I took my BS Chemistry course, my favorite teacher was my professor in organic chemistry, Prof. Lauro Limuaco. His exams were not routine questions, and were always problem solving. He was a task master. It was Prof. Limuaco who was instrumental in my entering research. When Dr. Bienvenido O. Juliano (BJ), then a young senior scientist at IRRI, came to recruit junior researchers, I was among three or four recommended by Prof. Limuaco to be interviewed. BJ took me and Miraflor Cruz as research assistants in the Cereal Chemistry Laboratory. This started me in research and completely changed my life! Before this time, my plans were to teach and continue to study MS at Mapua.
Initiation into Research
During the time I was in IRRI (1967-1969), I thought it was a great adventure to live in a dorm, enjoying living far away from home and learning so many new things including research. But, now I have learned to appreciate and be more thankful that I got the opportunity to work with topnotch scientists at an international research institute. The lab, of course, was state of the art. The site was idyllic with the laboratory buildings surrounded by rice fields and Mt. Makiling on the background.
How was BJ as a boss and adviser? BJ was a strict boss but he guided his researchers closely and gave them the space to develop and contribute their own ideas to the research. He would talk with each of us, one-on-one. We had weekly group meetings. I was always astonished that even if I prepared so hard for a meeting with him, he would have so many more ideas and suggestions. Each of us junior researchers was required to give a seminar for the Saturday seminar series. We would write the first draft of the paper, discuss this with him and he would finalize it. We practiced delivering the paper and even answering questions. We learned to work hard, to work independently and as a team. My two years of research under Dr. Juliano, now a National Scientist, resulted in a scientific article on the rice glutelin in 1971, a pioneering work which is still cited by researchers working on rice proteins.
At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I first started as an Organic Chemistry major (perhaps an influence of Prof. Limuaco) but transferred at once to Biochemistry after the first semester. After my MS under Prof. Trevor Robinson whose specialization was secondary plant metabolites, I chose Prof. Edward W. Westhead who was in enzymology as my PhD adviser. Students called him EWW or Ed or Number 1. He was that popular. Dr. Westhead discussed with us in general terms our research topic and we had to work on it and give it flesh. We had regular consultations with him. Like Dr. Juliano, he seemed to have the answer to all the questions and problems and had ideas and suggestions that I had not thought about! (Is that called wisdom?) EWW was like a foster father to us especially the foreign students, and was very hardworking. We, students, worked way into the night and he would be in his office or his small lab next to his office. He was considerate and showed his concern for his students’ welfare. EWW wanted me to stay on as a postdoc but I wanted to come back home. I had been away for five long years.
Building a Research Program and Laboratory
On my return to the Philippines, I started as an assistant professor at the Department of Biochemistry at the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Medicine which was headed by Dr. Solita F. Camara-Besa upon recommendation of Dr. Lourdes J. Cruz, with whom I had worked at IRRI. However, Acad. Emil Q. Javier, then Director of the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) of UPLB, lured me back to Los Baños to join IPB. He and National Scientist Dolores A. Ramirez were instrumental in allowing my laboratory to have the most complete basic biochemistry equipment and supplies and have been supportive of our researches.
At IPB, I had to build a biochemistry research laboratory and a research program. From Dr. Javier I learned short term and long term research planning, aiming at goals and working hard to achieve goals. Moreover, from him, I learned the value of interdisciplinary research work, team work, and team building. At IPB, we had review and planning workshops every year.
Six years after I joined IPB, I was tapped by newly appointed IPB director Eufemio Rasco Jr., now PhilRice Director, to be his deputy director. I was apprehensive about accepting the job. It was certainly a different area of endeavor. We were now looking at not only our own researches but the research program of the whole institute. From Dong Rasco, I learned multi-tasking. I took care of the tasks of the deputy director but on many occasions I also had to take care of some of the tasks of the director. We prepared research proposals not only for our own programs but for the whole IPB. We also conducted a feasibility study for a national seed improvement program. In the early 1990s, I chaired the external review of the Institute of Plant Breeding, inviting experts from outside UPLB and other countries, as well, to review the programs and plans of IPB. This is perhaps the first of its kind in the whole UPLB campus.
I started as a researcher but in a few years, I had become a research program leader and manager. Certainly, IPB has provided the right conditions for the growth, not only of myself, professionally and as a person, but many others as well. We thank our mentors at IPB exemplified by the first three directors—Dr. Emil Q. Javier, Dr. Ricardo M. Lantican and Dr. Ruben L. Villareal who have different ways of leadership and mentoring, and Dr. Dolores A. Ramirez, a pillar of the Institute, for her incisive insights, her continued support and mentoring.
Transformative Years in Teaching
As I mentioned earlier, when I came back from my studies, I joined the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of UP College of Medicine where Dr. Solita Camara-Besa, was my first boss. From Dra. Besa, I learned the values of preparing very well for lectures, discussing test questions—structure, importance or relevance, clarity and to be prepared for the questions of the students. Everything had to be perfect and in proper place. Just like her. The department taught Advanced Biochemistry to the medical students in large class mode, all 150 of the crème of the crop! All of the faculty members involved in the team teaching had to attend each of the classes. No relay teaching here. Each lecture was like a performance. It was a joy to watch and listen to the lectures of the faculty, especially, Prof. Marita V.T. Reyes, who would later become Dean and Chancellor. Her lectures were always received with a round of applause from the students. Indeed, her lectures were a tough act to follow.
When I came to UPLB, my appointment was academic-non teaching (ANT) (the precursor of Researcher position). But in no time, Dr. William G. Padolina, the chair of the Department of Chemistry (now Institute of Chemistry), invited me to teach. To Dr. Padolina, I owe the first opportunity to teach at UPLB and which opened doors to me.
I consider the Institute of Chemistry as my second home at UPLB. This is where I honed my teaching. I first taught Plant Biochemistry, an undergraduate course, followed by Analytical Biochemistry, then Protein Chemistry, both graduate courses. I also helped develop and institute the latter two courses. My handling of the biochemistry courses allowed me to interact and know more students. This has been challenging as I had to update, revise, refine my lectures and lecture notes regularly. I introduced innovations such as technical paper discussions and use of interactive software to study protein structures and to relate structure to function. The design and actual handling of courses also prepared me for the institution of new curricular programs. Moreover, my appointment as affiliate faculty of IC and later the Institute of Biological Sciences allowed me to advise undergraduate and graduate students.
One’s research experience enriches teaching and this is highly appreciated by students. The best compliments come from students who give us small pieces of paper telling us we are their favorite or even their best teacher, or emailing us how they appreciated the course just ended and so on.
And in the last two years of my career have come the greatest challenge as a teacher— teaching the GE course Exploring Biotechnology with Professors Toni Laurena and Beth Garcia. Students are from first year to fourth year and from all the colleges of the university. We are now on our fourth semester of teaching this course and we are constantly improving the activities and delivery of the lectures, so that we will attain the goals of the GE course.
Challenges in Curricular Development and Management
As I matured in both research and teaching, I got a marching order to develop the Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (MBB) from then Graduate School Dean Ann Inez Gironella in 1998. I did not know what I was getting into until Ma’am DR, National Scientist Dolores A. Ramirez, informed me that she, as Dean of the UPLB Graduate School tried to institute the MBB program unsuccessfully for more than 10 years. Although I had prepared interdisciplinary research programs before, developing curricular programs was a new undertaking for me. I formed perhaps the biggest curricular committee ever. I invited experts from different fields from all the colleges of UPLB while consulting experts from UP Diliman. Together, we developed the UPLB interdisciplinary MS MBB program and the PhD MBB program, which were approved by the Board of Regents in 1999 and 2002, respectively.
My own College of Agriculture created a committee, which I headed, to develop the BS Agricultural Biotechnology (ABT) and the GE course, Exploring Biotechnology, and finally, after ten years and three deans, the program and the course were instituted in October and August 2009, respectively. Two years since its initial offering, the BS ABT program has now more than 160 students!
Reaching Outside of the University Confines
When the biotechnology debate or the biotech controversy, came to Philippine shores, I went through another transformation. Do I stay within the comfort zone of the university or go out? I have gone around the country to explain biotechnology and its issues and concerns to all, farmers, politicians, students, academics and all sectors. Why? I consider it as my social responsibility as a scientist to share my knowledge, to explain science and technology issues to the general public. I am also glad that many more of our faculty and researchers at the University are going out of their way to explain and discuss science and technology with the general public. We are also encouraging our students to be involved in this kind of activities especially when they finish their degrees and pursue their careers.
Transforming Students—the Greatest Challenge and Mission
Throughout my studies and career, I have had excellent mentors. But perhaps, the greatest challenge and mission is to mentor the next generation of scientists, educators and leaders.
In my 37 years in the university, I have been fortunate to have advised and graduated many BS, MS and PhD students. Without knowing it until now, I have been applying best practices of mentoring learned from my own mentors. I have learned that students are different from each other. The technique that worked with one may not work with another. Some students need more guidance than others. Some students are more independent! Some students need to learn to focus and not do ten experiments at the same time and not finish any. At the start, students should be closely guided. Some students love to stay being students so that you need to order them to finish up! However, as they become more proficient and confident, they should be allowed to work more independently. To give them more space, as my mentors had done before.
As our duties and responsibilities multiply, we need to share our mentoring responsibilities with other members of our lab. In so doing, they become prepared to be full-fledged advisers and mentors, themselves.
Transformation is change. We are usually afraid of change. I say, do not be afraid of change. Change is inevitable.
And one day, we will find ourselves archaic. Our ideas will be challenged, and challenged even by our students.
When that time comes, when our students have become better than us, then we can say, we have done our job.
Dr. Evelyn Mae Tecson-Mendoza is a Research Professor and UP Scientist III from the Institute of Plant Breeding, College of Agriculture, University of the Philippines Los Baños.