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Think about this the next time you look at a periodic table: Did you know that its discoverer, Dmitri Mendeleev, once made an 11,500-foot-high solo flight in a balloon? Or that he resigned his post at the University of St. Petersburg in support of protests against czarist oppression in Russia?
A chemist himself by training, Dr. Michael Purugganan says that it's more important to teach children to understand the history and humanity behind the periodic table rather than just having kids memorize it.
"[Memorizing is] not what science is. Science is solving problems about the universe," he told GMA News Online in a roundtable interview.
He recalls that, when he was a young boy, he would sneak into the premises of the old National Science Development Board in Malate and spend hours looking at all the scientific equipment there.
"It just fascinated me. That was what really inspired me to become a scientist," he recalls. Today, he is the Dean for Science at New York University and a world leader in evolutionary and ecological genomics.
But it all started with that early spark of curiosity, which fueled a lifetime of scientific exploration —a far cry from the rote method of instruction so common in the science classroom.
Philippine science education as a whole
"People are very worried about science education," he said. "They think it's not doing very well, so this is not only a problem in the Philippines. How you teach science to children around the world is something people are thinking about. For Philippines especially, I suspect it is a problem that is across the board, not just in science but everything."
Purugganan —who graduated from BS Chemistry at the University of the Philippines Diliman— said that science high schools in the Philippines provide top-notch education, but he wished that these schools' competence in the sciences can be spread to regular, non-specialized schools as well.
"I think we have to enrich the curriculum and we have to focus on how we teach. I think the way we approach science should be changed," he suggested. Approaches to education
"I think there's enough people out there who can look at what's been working and what's not been working. The Bernidos' school in Bohol is doing excellent science education. They won the Magsaysay Award, and they're doing excellent education in a rural part of Bohol and yet their students rank in the top 10 nationwide in the mathematics exam (of the National Career Assessment Examination). They're doing something right," he enthused.
Physicists Christopher and Maria Victoria Bernido left their jobs at the National Institute in the University of the Philippines in 1999 to revive a high school in the remote municipality of Jagna, Bohol that was in danger of closing down. The Bernidos introduced a unique way for learning both science and non-science subjects, called the Dynamic Learning Program, in which more than half of the class time is made up of student-driven activities rather than simple lectures from the teachers. The couple was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2010.
Purugganan thinks it's good that the Philippines is soon implementing K-12 education, but only if enrichment of the curriculum is part of this change. For the most part, Purugganan is neutral towards the impact of K-12 to the quality of education.
"I went through a K-10 education. A lot of other scientists I know went through K-10 education. It did not hurt us because we had a really good curriculum. We know that it's worked in the past, so increasing the time is not necessarily the answer," he said. "I'm not sure K-12 is the answer. Hopefully it might be, if it forces policymakers to look carefully about what they're teaching throughout that K-12," he added.
Surprise discoveries and curiosity-driven research
Purugganan says that people and the government should acknowledge that breakthroughs in science generally come unplanned.
"The one thing I learned from being in science for a long time is that we have no idea where breakthroughs are going to come from, where things are going to happen," he said.
"One of the examples I give is one of the biggest technologies in the world for genetics right now, PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) technology: somebody just decided to study this bacteria that was growing in a hot spring in Yellowstone. He was interested in what's growing in the hot spring, he wasn't thinking of developing a new technology, but that's where this technology came from," he shared.
Purugganan prizes "curiosity-driven research." Scientists, according to him, must be allowed a certain degree of freedom to pursue interests in research. Purugganan currently runs research laboratories in New York and Abu Dhabi and has published over 100 research papers. This experience helped him lead several large-scale multimillion dollar international research projects funded by the US National Science Foundation.
"We call it curiosity-driven research. This is why we let our scientists follow their curiosity and why many countries allow scientists to do that is because there is this understanding that we actually can't plan where these discoveries will come from. And so we should give scientists some freedom to pursue where their curiosity takes them," he said.
Purugganan distinguishes between research that needs to have an end product and those that are more exploratory in nature. And even when an end product such as a particular medicine is expected, it may take as long as twenty years to be developed for mass consumption.
He clarifies: "What I've noticed is that there is almost a requirement that at the end of your research there will be a clear product (as if) we're gonna change the world in five years. You see this all the time, they will ask that in five years there's a drug that comes out of this research. (But) in the United States, it takes about twenty years to go from laboratory to drug. I think it's asking too much. That orientation should be revisited." Budgeting resources, identifying top scientists
Purugganan does acknowledge that resources for research are limited. However, such research does not necessarily have to have a concrete product in the end.
"We have limited resources so we've got to be very careful about where it goes. [The project] should be something that either the people or the government sees has meaning, that there's something we get out of it. But it doesn't have to be product-oriented, I think it's wrong to think that 'at the end of this research I would have Product X.' It doesn't have to have a product in the end but it has to be relevant, and the relevance means that it's something that would be useful to us," he said.
But how should the government set its priorities when it comes to funding scientific research?
Purugganan thinks the government should determine the top Filipino scientists in their respective fields, and ask them what needs to be done and why it should be done. This way, the government is able to better utilize its homegrown scientific expertise.
"I think the better way to fund is [to ascertain] who are the good scientists in the country and ask them 'What would you do?' and explain what it is you need to do and why it's important," he said. "Let the scientists come up with the ideas rather than the government imposing on them where they should be doing research. I think that we're wasting resources because I'm not sure it's the best use of the expertise of our scientists. And at the end of the day I'm not sure that the goal of the government is to solve this problem so we also have to rethink how we do that."
Firing up kids' curiosity and passion
In his interview with GMA News Online editor-in-chief Howie Severino on News To Go, Purugganan encouraged aspiring scientists to set their eyes on their goal.
"I went to public school here in Manila, I went to UP Diliman, and when you're growing up you [think], 'I want to be a scientist' and what do you do, you have to get advanced degrees but now there's a lot of opportunities. We have PhD programs already in Ateneo and UP system and LaSalle, there's a lot of excitement and a lot of our students are going abroad and getting advanced degrees," he gamely shared.
Filipinos who earn their degrees abroad do come back, said Purugganan. Or at the least, they give back by getting involved in Philippine-based projects, or by consulting and teaching.
Severino noted that this could be a way of reversing the brain drain, still an ongoing phenomenon in the country.
"Absolutely. I think we should do that. It's very important for our country to do that," Purugganan agreed.
Forwarding the quest for the Filipino Genome
As if to sum up his entire philosophy on scientific discovery and progress, Dr. Purugganan underscored the value of pursuing the so-called Filipino Genome. A leader in the field of evolutionary and ecological genomics, he sits on the advisory board of the DOST's newly-built Philippine Genomics Center.
"Genomics [...] focuses more on finding the application of a mapped gene sequence through manipulation. The goal is to produce a better animal breed, a pest-resistant crop, or an anti-infective drug for diseases such as tuberculosis or the influenza A H1N1 virus," a statement on the DOST website said.
Purugganan is visibly excited about the Genomics Center and the prospect of a Filipino Genome Diversity Project, and its far-reaching impact on our shared past and potential future. One might imagine Mendeleev looking down from his balloon, nodding in approval.— TJD, GMA News