National Scientist Gelia Castillo
By Queena Lee-Chua Inquirer "EARLY in my working life i realized that I am not intellectually superior," says National Scientist Gelia T. Castillo. "But as a simple sociologist, I found comfort in the thought that science must serve a human purpose. This often means doing science from the ground up and then tapping into sophisticated tools to address problems. When doing workshops in rice breeding, drought, trees, weeds, malaria, or HIV-AIDS, I always look for the people factor. For example, in breeding rice, I ask questions like: For what? For whom? For where? For what purpose? These are all people issues." I am proud to call Gelia a friend. Her story "The Eloquence of Seeds," which shows her love for the natural world, is included in my book "Cogito Ergo Sum and Other Musings on Science," which won a National Book Award. Whatever Gelia may say, I affirm that she possesses not just intelligence, but wisdom as well. Take for instance, the fact that for scientists, progress is mainly counted by the number of journal publications; up to now, I still get a thrill when a paper has been accepted internationally. Gelia acknowledges this, but also adds, "Science pursued to address the problems of ordinary people often has other ways of communication than journals. When research fits into real life, the impact on human well-being makes it all worthwhile. Sometimes the proof of the pudding is in farmers' fields." Crossing disciplines When I began doing research in two fields, math education and psychology, some people said I had to choose only one of them. I tried my best to do so, but soon realized that the questions I wanted to answer, such as what kind of thinking processes are present in probability and statistics, or how to deal with gifted kids or slow learners, needed inputs from both disciplines. Happily, I learned that Gelia herself is proud to be interdisciplinary, and indeed, has been so for her entire career. Gelia talks about her working life with candor and wit. "I spent 40 years with the University of the Philippines (UP). What I loved best was that UP never interfered with my freedom to be and my freedom to do. This probably made up for the P18,000 salary of university professor I got when I retired." "But rice is my life. I have been a member of the board of trustees of Philrice for more than 20 years. I have survived four presidents and 10 department secretaries. How did I last so long? Since I am shy, I am probably regarded as harmless." Gelia has worked with international health and agricultural centers. "I learned about crops and genetic resources, but research is really about people even when the science focuses on commodities or nutrients. In health, I witnessed Nobel Laureates behave like ordinary mortals fighting the scourges of humanity, such as malaria and TB. They care for those who need care most. Science is their tool, but people are their driving force." Gelia has also evaluated several research programs, all of which promise to benefit the poor. However, "between promise and performance is a great distance." An exception is the International Development Research Center of Canada (IDRC), which "was not afraid to take risks in opening up new research platforms in developing countries." Gelia was on its board of governors. She laughs, "IDRC had an information sciences division before Bill Gates became a household name." Gelia is truly interdisciplinary. As a Ford Foundation program officer, Gelia has immersed herself in rural field work. Active in a micro-finance organization, she does not expect "to be acknowledged as a feminist among feminists," but her group has more than 300,000 women-members who have benefited from its activities. Lifetime responsibility "While being a National Scientist is a recognition," Gelia says, "it is also a lifetime responsibility to society. Values of science like intellectual honesty, objectivity, excellence, validity, innovativeness, systematic procedures and evidence-based conclusions are values which the rest of Filipino society can imbibe. These values are the opposite of what predominate in our country today. In science, we do not cheat because the truth will sooner or later come out." "Cogito Ergo Sum and Other Musings on Science," a collection of Filipino science poems, essays and stories, is available at the Ateneo University Press. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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