op-ed column for MST, published 4 May 2011
When Leonard Co was given the posthumous National Academy of Science and Technology-Hugh Greenwood Environmental Science Award (an award recognizing outstanding scientific and technological research works that contribute to environmental protection and conservation) at the Hyatt Hotel and Casino Manila on Monday, a powerpoint presentation detailed his accomplishments in the field of botany, taxonomy and conservationism.
Co, 57, was killed in November last year in Kananga, Leyte, in what was believed to be a crossfire between government forces and rebel troops. He and his companions Sofronio Cortes and Julius Borromeo were in a forest plot of the Energy Development Corporation, reportedly gathering seedlings of endangered trees. The matter is still being investigated.
While Co's death may have been an unfortunate event, it was, for many, just one of many sad stories in the continuing history of insurgency in the countryside. Not so for the university and the country's science community. Co's passing was a tragic and senseless loss.
He wrote two books on medicinal plants and the forest trees of Palanan, Isabela, where he spent a great deal of his time. So much time did he spend in the Cordillera region, in fact, that even as he entered the UP as a botany freshman in 1972, he was not able to obtain his bachelor's degree until 2008 – a good 36 years after he first stepped into the university. Because of his practical expertise, he was no longer required to submit a thesis. He simply submitted a copy of his book.
During the decades-long gap, Co worked to enable indigenous Filipinos to cultivate and own proprietary rights on native medicinal herbs. He kept returning to the UP, though, caring for its herbarium. Before his death, he was reportedly working on updating the Enumeration of Philippine Plants, which was first published almost a century ago.
Indeed the contributions of the man are many, deep and far-reaching. He did not even need to brandish an alphabet soup of degrees to make a difference. One of the most touching testaments to Co's impact on the people around him was a video made by his biology students from the UP.
The video showed Co and his students on the field, collecting and investigating different kinds of plants. The students characterized him as a mentor, a friend and father, who always went around with his umbrella and his hand lens. The pictures showed Co breaking bread with his students and holding up a leaf or another, imparting to them his appreciation of plants.
We normally think men of science would be so calculating, objective, even clinical in their dealings with people. Not so Leonard Co, a man valued as much for his friendship and compassion as well as for his expertise.
An endemic plant, one of the biggest flowers in the Philippines, was named after Co – the Rafflesia leonardi. It's a testament to his legacy.
The Hyatt event was participated in by a mere handful of scientists, academicians and a sprinkling of government officials. There was none of the fanfare and the outshining that normally characterize a gathering of stellar minds and superstars.
Then again, scientists are not known to be that way.
Three finalists to the NAST Talent Search for Young Scientists were also named that day. Jaymee Encabo, MS of the Institute of Biological Sciences of UP Los Baños led a team of researchers to optimize the basic tool of polymerase chain reaction (the PCR method, which amplifies the DNA of any sample, she says) to detect the disease-causing rice tungro virus.
The virus does not manifest itself early on, she says, so there should be a way to detect it and to come up with resistant varieties of rice. The objective is not to commercialize this method for farmers' use but to enable the breeding of such resistant rice varieties.
On the other hand, Flordeliza Bordey, PhD, used data from 1996 to 2007 in identifying the factors that helped increase domestic rice production. Bordey, who is with the Philippine Rice Research Institute, determined that the factors were irrigation, the use of hybrid rice varieties, third-generation modern inbred rice varieties, certified seeds, and training.
After years of subsidizing the use of hybrid and certified seeds, the national government has now deemed that such practice is financially unsustainable. Hence, the direction is,, according to Bordey, to use community seed banking in continuing the practice.
Finally, Christopher Monterola, PhD of the National Institute of Physics in UP Diliman led a team to duplicate the properties of a landslide system in a table-top, laboratory setting. The team is all-Filipino and its work has been published in European and American scientific journals.
Not much is known about how exactly landslides occur, Monterola says, pointing out that two of the ten worst landslides in history occurred in the Philippines. So does the research enable us now to predict where, when and how a landslide would occur? “I would not want to make that claim,” he replies, in that careful, deliberate manner that only scientists can exude. “But we are a step closer. It's a positive indicator.”
Of course, the real contribution and the eventual goal would be prediction – and the saving of lives. Monterola looks forward to further collaborations with the Department of Geology and Engineering and using data from actual, historical landslides in the Philippines.