A room full of papers, plastics, computers, scribbled notes and a large whiteboard full of equations was everything I expected to see in an office of a scientist and I was not disappointed.
In Room 304 of the National Physics Institute (NPI) I met with this year’s National Academy of Science and Technology Most Astounding Young Scientist awardee, Dr. Eric A. Galapon and the Coordinator of the Theoretical Physics Group in the institute to talk about himself, his research, and the science and research scene in the country.
At only 38 years of age and taking from how busy his workspace looked like, I started the interview by asking Dr. Galapon why he chose to be a scientist. At first there was an awkward silence, but judging by his face, I knew this scientist was really thinking hard on how to answer. “Why science,” he said contemplatively, “I guess it’s because I enjoy it.” “I think scientists and treasure hunters are similar. We’re both looking for treasure, but the only difference is our treasure is knowledge. It’s really the excitement of being the first one to discover something that the other seven billion people in the world were oblivious to that rewards us scientists.”
Surprisingly, Dr. Galapon wasn’t always the passionate scientist he is today. The only reason he took Physics when he was an undergraduate was because there was a scholarship being offered and that his family couldn’t afford sending him to college otherwise. During that time, he discovered he had a knack for science and that eventually lead him to discover his first, real love: Quantum Mechanics.
Quantum Mechanics is a theory in Physics to explain why it seemed that Classical Mechanics, or more commonly known as Newton’s Second Law of Motion, does not apply in the atomic level—the building blocks of all matter. “As is, the tenets Classical Mechanics break down in the atomic and sub-atomic level, so a new theory had to be proposed to explain such phenomenon, and that’s how Quantum Mechanics came about,” Dr. Galapon said.
According to Dr. Galapon, life as scientist isn’t easy. “Being a scientist requires a lot of devotion. You must be willing to put effort and yes, a lot of time in order to yield even the smallest results. At least for me, even though I have a full-time job here in the University of the Philippines as a lecturer and a researcher,” after heaving a sigh he said, “I still find myself constantly thinking of my research.” “When I’m lecturing or eating or whether I’m in my office or at home, even when I’m talking to my wife, I’m always thinking,” he said chuckling.
Not only is being a scientist mentally taxing, it is also very frustrating at times. Dr. Galapon recounted his first experience trying to get his work published outside of the country as being awful. He explained that he felt he was rejected not only because he was an unknown scientist, but also because he was a scientist in a third-world country. “You really have to persevere and not be modest when it comes to trying to publish your work abroad,” he said very fittingly as his first internationally published work was featured in one of the most prestigious science journals in the world, the Royal Society of London, after many rejections from other publications.
Another problem with scientific research here in the Philippines is described by Dr. Galapon as the “non-existence of a scientific-culture”. He blames the government and also society for the lack of interest in the sciences. “Here in the Philippines, people seem to think that science is all about inventing new stove or type of car, those sorts of inventions, which are really already the end results or the products of “real scientific research”.
“Even politicians think this way,” he said becoming more serious. “In general, the scientific community fears that the great progress made by the former Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, Dr. Estrala Alabastro, who herself is a scientist from the University of Santo Tomas, would be reversed by the appointment of a person who doesn’t even have any background in the sciences and is a career executive,” he added. “If we look at all the rich countries in the world, their wealth is at least directly proportional to the amount of money they devote to research,” Dr. Galapon said explaining how with more research comes more breakthroughs and these breakthrough are not only useful but also very profitable.
Dr. Galapon ended by saying that only time would tell how the Philippines will in the future, but he quickly added that when society and the powers that be change their attitudes towards science, the hope of our nation would shine all the brighter. “I have great faith that if and when that happens, we’ve got more than enough talent here to storm the globe,” he said with a smile.