More Than Just a Pre-Med

Written by: Karyll Tan and Angela Tiongson

Illustration by: Savio Aquino

Back in high school, we all thought that we were going to save the world. We were just a bunch of fifteen-year-olds crafting robots out of recycled cardboard boxes and masking tape, bearing the  bit of knowledge about coding acquired from staying up ‘till 3 AM watching YouTube tutorials. Those research capstone projects gave us a glimpse of the bright future of science in the Philippines. At that moment, as we heed to our classmates presenting their Arduino robot that automatically segregates biodegradables from non-biodegradable materials, we briefly let ourselves dream about the new generation of STEM students and how we’re the hope for our country’s scientific and technological advancement.  

That was until the illusion was shattered. “Aanhin niyo ba yung research?” Senator Cynthia Villar stated during the Senate budget hearing last October 9, 2019. Right then and there, that bright future vanished right before our eyes, bringing everyone back to the reality of our government’s lack of regard for sciences other than the medical field, especially in Biology as a profession. It is a subtle yet alarming conflict in the Philippines. As a country which prides itself on its influx of STEM students rearing towards  healthcare, we have not completely grasped the full potential of science and its other branches, especially Biology. Alas, this has physically manifested in the projects implemented by the government.  

From the initial Dengue Solution turned disaster to the instant beach simulator, down to our present reality, COVID-19, the government has proven time and time again that their projects and efforts result in failure.

That proposed Dengue solution happened back in August of 2019 when the local government unit of Old Balara released 1,000 cane toads and 6,000 mosquitofish as a solution to the rising cases of dengue. As revealed by the UP Diliman Institute of Biology, this is not only an ineffective countermeasure to dengue, but a dangerous one since mosquitofish are one of the most invasive alien species in marine life and cane toads are poisonous in all its stages of development, making it harmful to both humans and animals.  

The government’s instant beach simulator project⁠—the Dolomite Sand Beach project in Manila Bay—is a widespread and significantly funded project. Not only does the artificial crushed dolomite cause lung diseases in humans as confirmed by the Department of Health but it is also severely detrimental to the habitat of birds and the productivity of the ecosystem.  

 Now hurdling over to our present, we are experiencing one of the worst and longest biological failures of all time: the government’s COVID-19 response. Not only does it lack a concrete action plan but the protocols and policies such as the continuously extending community quarantine and lockdowns were not backed by relevant scientific data concerning the increase in community COVID transmissions which would impose the need for  such policies. 

These are only three of the many failures the government has exemplified. It goes to show that research is very undervalued in the Philippines–rooted from the fact that any other branch of science that is not geared towards healthcare, especially Biology, goes unrecognized by the public. You’d hear opinions from relatives stating good pre-medical courses, not acknowledging the fact that some STEM students may not want to pursue medical school and instead pursue a professional career with their degree in Biology. This is what developed the widespread opinion that Biology is a ‘dead-end’ course if you choose not to pursue medicine. But honestly, who can blame them? 

The inadequacy of public recognition stems from the fact that the government does not give enough funding, opportunities, resources, and facilities for biologists, data analysts and scientists, thus the lack of scientific and technological progress. As stated by National Academy of Science and Technology President, William Padolina, we lack exposure to science and technology especially in Biology which applies scientific disciplines to all forms of life, depriving us of the knowledge that Biology is “the best and truest way to understand the world around you”. 

A prime example as to why it is important to recognize Biology as a profession would be the country’s COVID-19 situation. The Department of Health confirmed the country’s first case of COVID-19 back on January 21, 2020. Because of the lack of facilities and resources to test the patient, the initial NPS/OPS result was tested by VIDRL, an infectious diseases laboratory in Australia. If the government prioritized funding for biologists and scientists to combat COVID-19 as early as late 2019, we would have had an expeditious concrete solution to facilitate testing and prevent the further spreading of disease.  

To elucidate, Biology is predominantly fundamental in many fields such as healthcare, medicine, agriculture, biotechnology, and bioinformatics⁠—it branches into largely diverse specializations. However, unless Biology graduates pursue medical school or a second degree, the field remains a dead-end route for any hopes of employment in the Philippines. Hence, most biology majors, such as ourselves, cling onto the prospects of a postgraduate degree. One of which, and arguably the most celebrated, is medicine. 

This sentiment resonated accordingly in a small survey among 35 Biology majors from Ateneo. When asked about their odds of pursuing a second degree, 25 were inclined to undertake their post-graduates. Moreover, 80% of the respondents indicated that they were likely to enter the medical field. Having said that, this isn’t an isolated outcome among Ateneans as suggested in a tracer study report by the Department of Science and Technology – Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI). Data from the DOST-SEI undergraduate scholars of Batches 2018 and 2019  showed that out of the 103 graduates of the BS Biology program, only 63 had acquired jobs within the first six months after graduation. This only reinstates the rearing notion that Biology is a precursor to medicine and other related professions as how an H substrate is to blood type. 

Be that as it may, there are a variety of reasons that could account for unemployment such as pursuing a second degree or taking a break from the hustle that comes after graduation. However, it could also simply mean that there are scarce opportunities for these graduates which does not bode quite well for us, future graduates. Delving into it, unemployment could stem from the lack of a Professional Regulation Commission (PRC) license for Biology graduates, a hurdle that bars us from employment. Nowadays, employers prefer licensed medical technologists or pharmacists howbeit homogenous the necessary skills, required for the positions, are with that of a biologist’s. Reckon that the array of lab experience and know-hows from genetics alone is extensive; from blood typing and DNA extraction to DNA sequencing and Bacterial Identification. These are the skills that are inconceivably vital to the COVID situation. Ergo, we find that unemployment would also entail a lack of practice which not only implicates one from enriching the skills gained from years of study but also impedes our country’s workforce with dormant potential. 

Nevertheless, we can somehow find solace in the fact that other countries face the same dilemma for their graduates. However, unlike the complacent predisposition of our government, these countries actually believe it to be quite alarming, having acknowledged how important young scientists are for innovation. Japan, for instance, has recognized how difficult it is for their post doc graduates to land a permanent position in the academe or in the industry. Hence, the Japanese government has been channeling its efforts to encourage universities in forming relationships with private companies to serve as conduits for science careers for younger generations. 

Furthermore, in 2016, their government launched the Leading Initiative for Excellent Young Researchers, matchmaking 100 young scientists with tenure-track programmes in academia, government or industry. Concern for the sciences has long been standing since the financial year 2000, when Japan had increased its budget on science and technology amounting to a whopping ¥1.2 trillion in support for the life sciences, specifically, in the biotechnology industry. These actions not only demonstrate a keen interest and concern for the sciences but also proclaim an initiative for innovation. 

This issue calls for a range of solutions and the appropriate reforms which necessitates national intervention. One of which may include the PCR licensure examinations. As previously stated, PCR licenses would permit Biology graduates to legally practice their hard-earned skills as well as accredit them to their position or occupation of interest. As a result, a conceivable ripple effect would spread throughout the community promoting the recognition and acknowledgement of Biology. Lastly, modeled from Japan’s efforts, our government could also encourage our universities to form partnerships with private companies to establish more career prospects for our graduates. 

Moreover, higher budget allocations for research and development would help sustain and encourage innovation through local research pursuits, especially in the field of life sciences. Considering that we already have the intellectual capital embodied by researchers and graduates, when provided with the necessary resources, there is much to be achieved and attained when two and two are put together. In effect, an awareness concerning the wide expanse of possibilities surrounding Biology is elicited from the community, ultimately gaining the recognition and appreciation that it is due. 

For now, it is enough that we, students, study for that microbiology quiz, submit that genetics laboratory report, or finish writing that thesis⁠—these will all count towards proving the relevance and timeliness of science to people like Senator Cynthia Villar. So many papers have been published to date, solving this, addressing that⁠, yet, as highschool students, we were able to come up with dozens of topic proposals, each unique on its own. New problems arise everyday and we, biologists, are here to stay for them. Biology is more than just a pre-med


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