We will sniff out the slightest trace of Pinoy-ness in a foreign celebrity, and claim them as one of us. But there are Filipinos outside of the entertainment industry who deserve the kind of recognition we only give celebrities. I mean the people whose work helps us to understand why the world is the way it is, who make the universe seem a little less vast and mysterious.
I asked my friend Michael Purugganan, the Dorothy Schiff Professor of Genomics at New York University, a recent Guggenheim fellow, and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to make a list of famous contemporary scientists who are Filipino or of Filipino descent.
“That’s actually a difficult list,” Michael said. “No Filipino has won the Nobel and few scientists make it to the public consciousness (there are very few Stephen Jay Goulds or Richard Dawkinses). This would be my personal list, but only because I have heard of them or know them.”
In the Philippines we begin with the late Leonard Co. Our premiere botanist and plant conservation biologist was killed in an alleged military encounter last November in Leyte. There are at least four species named after him by his colleagues abroad. He was well-loved and is greatly missed.
Cora de Ungria, head of the DNA Analysis Laboratory at UP, almost single-handedly built up the DNA forensics database in the country. Her work has been crucial in tracing the genetic evolution of the Filipino people.
Photo: Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a swirling storm seen for over 300 years, since the beginning of telescopic observations. But in February 2006, planetary imager Christopher Go noticed it had been joined by Red Spot Jr – formed as smaller whitish oval-shaped storms merged and then developed the remarkable reddish hue. This sharp Hubble Space Telescope image showing the two salmon-colored Jovian storms was recorded in April. About half the size of the original Red Spot, Red Spot Jr. is similar in diameter to planet Earth. Seen here below and left of the ancient storm system, it trails the Great Red Spot by about an hour as the planet rotates from left to right. While astronomers still don’t exactly understand why Jupiter’s red spots are red, they do think the appearance of Red Spot Jr. provides evidence for climate change on the Solar System’s ruling gas giant. Photo from the NASA APOD Archive.
Christopher Go is a very cool amateur astronomer from Cebu. He has documented a new red spot on Jupiter, asteroids hitting Jupiter, and other planetary discoveries. Go has discovered so many cool things, international astronomers seek his advice, but he chooses to remain an amateur: just a guy with a hobby telescope.
Baldomero Olivera, a biochemist at the University of Utah, discovered the toxins from Philippine cone snails that are now being developed for pharmaceutical applications. Dr. Olivera is a member of the US National Academy of Science.
Joey Comiso is a physicist with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and his expertise is the use of remote sensing satellites to study climate. He is one of the scientists behind the current international study showing the effect of global warming—they use satellite data to record the disappearance of arctic/antarctic ice.
Larry Quem, a chemistry professor at the University of Minnesota, is a world leader in bio-inorganic chemistry; he studies how enzymes with iron react to oxygen to do all sorts of funky stuff.
Dado Banatao, an engineer, has worked on many of the great innovations in computer technology in Silicon Valley. Also a very successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur, he has founded several high-tech companies and has a building named after him at UC Berkeley.
Sevilla Detera-Wadleigh at the US National Institutes of Health is one of the leaders in mapping genes associated with psychiatric disorders. If you want to know what genes make you crazy, she is the person to ask!
Florante Quiocho at Baylor College of Medicine is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. He specializes in using x-ray crystallography to figure out the structure of proteins. Some of the really difficult ones.
There must be many Filipinos out there doing important research in the sciences. If we can identify every American Idol contestant whose grandmother is one-fourth Pinoy and claim him for our own, surely we can seek out the Filipino scientists whose scholarship and intellectual rigour will change the world.