2 PH women scientists awarded for novel research on ‘pandan’ and fungi

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Two women scientists from the Philippines have received awards from international science research communities for their novel research work giving prominence to endemic plants.

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In a recent press briefing, Maribel G. Nonato and Rizalina L. De Leon were presented by the Philippine Association for the Advancement of Science and Technology (PhilAAST), headed by current Department of Science and Technology (DOST) secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña, as recipients of this year’s Gregorio Y. Zara Awards for Basic and Applied Research.

PhilAAST aims to promote more science and technology developments in the country through scientific and technological research that contribute to the knowledge stock and national development.

Dr. Nonato was conferred the Gregorio Y. Zara Award for Basic Research for her pioneering works on the Phytochemistry and biological activities of Philippine genus Pandanus (Family Pandanaceae) or better known as pandan plants.

Dr. De Leon was given the Gregorio Y. Zara Award for Applied Research for her bioethanol production using local varieties of fungi as alternative sources of ethanol additives replacing food-based crops such as corn.

Dr. Nonato, who is currently the Vice-Rector for Research and Innovation at the University of Santo Tomas, has spent years in doing groundbreaking research on pandan.

Prior to her research, there was little known information about pandan. Locally, 20 out of the 450 species of this monocot plant grow abundantly in the country. Ordinarily, pandan leaves are used by locals in preparing sweet delicacies and beverages due to its sweet aromatic scent.

In most occasions, you may find pandan leaf inside steamed rice pots.

In contrast, the closest the pandan has been considered as a herbal medicine was when the plant was included in pito-pito, a popular traditional herbal medicine concoction of seven endemic plants in the country used to relieve common illnesses.

In 1991, Dr. Nonato started her research focusing on the plant. She said she chose pandan because little is known about the plant.

“If you are starting on your research,” says Dr. Nonato. “Look for subjects that have little information so you can contribute to the development of new knowledge.”

She was fortunate to have initial talks with world-renowned Pandanus botanist Dr. Benjamin Stone who was then working with the National Museum on a project focusing on the inventory of Philippine medicinal plants.

But a turn of events almost stalled her research as Dr. Stone’s untimely demise and limited resources slowed down what could have been a smooth start. However, Dr. Nonato was unhindered by her predicaments and continued her work.

Her research led to the discovery of new secondary metabolites with new biological activities, which is the basis for its medicinal attributes. With her breakthrough discovery, our neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand undertook similar research on their respective Pandanus species.

Moreover, biological studies on pandan have found it as potential source of anti-microbials, anti-viral, diuretics, anti-tuberculars, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory agents.

Consequently, Dr. Nonato’s research on the new alkaloids earned her the 2006 National Research Council of the Philippines Achievement Award in Chemical Sciences. And for her students, her various works on pandan has earned her the monicker “Pandan Queen” as most research literature is attributed to Dr. Nonato’s works.
“You just have to work diligently and be the expert in that field,” Dr. Nonato closes.

Finding alternative fuels

Deviating from the usual bioethanol feedstock using corn and other similar food-base materials, Dr. De Leon focused on local fungal species that can degrade complex polymers called lignin to produce ethanol as fuel additives.

According to her, corn and other food-base raw materials should not be used in the production of alternative fuel as this threatens food security in the country.

Her team identified Fusarium moniliforme, one of the most prevalent fungi, as a promising source of ethanol through a consolidated bioprocessing approach that extracts the ethanol from its solid form.

The bioprocess provides the fermentation resulting in the production of a substance with higher ethanol concentration at a shorter processing time.

Other notable scientists conferred were Dr. Enrico C. Paringit, recipient of the David M. Consunji Award for Engineering; Dr. Antonio Dans, for Dr. Paulo C. Campos Award for Health Research; and Dr. Antonio Laureana as this year’s Leads Agri awardee.

In his closing remarks, Secretary Fortunato T. de la Peña encouraged DOST to give more recognition to local scientists and researchers as this provides a channel for local talents to be recognized.

“I hope we could give more awards to our local scientists to inspire them and give credit and prominence to their works and contributions to science and the society.”

PhilAAST confers the awards annually to men and women of science who have contributed new knowledge for the advancement of science and technology in the country. Awardees receives P50,000 cash and plaque of recognition.

DEPARTMENT OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

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