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People and Places

A woman of Science: Marieta Baňez-Sumagaysay

Dr. Marieta B. Sumagaysay
Dr. Marieta B. Sumagaysay (right) spearheaded the promotion of basic research during her stint as the former executive director of the National Research Council of the Philippines of the Department of Science and Technology.

Creating an environment for more women to flourish both as scientists and mothers

“There can be no sex discrimination in an environment where merits count and where skills outweigh any sex-related factors, and this gave me the resolve to contribute in making this kind of environment happen for more women in science,” Marieta Baňez Sumagaysay, former director of the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Council of the Philippines (DOST-NRCP) and currently Professor 12 of Economics, UP Visayas Tacloban College, said of her early work experience in the field of sciences.

The science influencers in the family

It was as if her path was already carved out even before she was born. Her parents were both in the sciences. Her father, a researcher and published zoologist, worked mostly in his laboratory at the Schistosomiasis Research and Control, while her mother was an elementary teacher in Math and Science. And if that was not enough, her paternal grandfather, a school superintendent, would always challenge his grandchildren to beat his performance in elementary mathematics, when after the war in the 1940s, he boasted to be the sole student who received a grade of 100% in his class.

Marieta Baňez-Sumagaysay or MBS studied at the Leyte Research and Development High School (LRDHS), belonging to the 1st batch of only 80 selected students, LRDHS was a project of the National Science and Development Board (now Department of Science and Technology), the Department of Education and Culture, and University of the Philippines.

The LRDHS had a science curriculum, and it came long before the Philippine Science High School (PSHS) was established in Region VIII. The project ended after eight years.

After high school, as much as she wanted to be in the field of science like her father, she cannot withstand the suffering of white mice in her father’s laboratory, and the fumes and odor of chemicals were giving her headaches. Thus, mathematics became her next choice.

“I wanted to become a mathematician but the courses available in the province were limited and as an eldest child in the brood of five, I knew that my parents who were both government earners may not be able to afford my college education in Manila; my National State Scholarship award covered only for tuition fees and book allowance, so I decided on Economics,” MBS said.

It was 1977 then and MBS was getting more exposed to the communities, was active in local youth and religious organizations, so she decided to enroll in Economics which also has mathematics in it and a community perspective to boot.

Early career in science and gender advocacies

When she was in college, there were more female students in her Economics class than males, but the instructors were mostly males.

“The gender divide was not so distinct and I found myself in the same happy situation when I was taking my two masters degrees, one in Economics, the other in Business Management,” MBS reminisced her college days.

As a teacher and a researcher, MBS did not experience sex discrimination in hiring, promotion in rank, getting research funds, conducting field work, occupying leadership positions in professional organizations as well as in the academe.

“Merits counted. This made me realize that there can be no sex discrimination in an environment where merits count and where skills outweigh any sex-related factors and this also gave me the resolve to contribute in making this kind of environment happen for more women in science.”

MBS started holding an administrative position when she was just 29 years old, as Chair of the Division of Arts and Sciences with more than 50 faculty members, many of whom were her former teachers. This position as chair served as her platform to advocate for science.

Their early science advocacy led them to establish a small Natural History Museum for the scientists’/biologists’ collections. They spruced up the science laboratories to ensure its safety and with limited budget, they started with simple things like installation of chemical fume hoods.

This was also the time when the women’s movement in the Philippines was gaining ground. They started the Women’s Help Desks and conducted a number of gender sensitivity training. Back then it was difficult to invite attendees as it was something new and potential participants did not know what it was for. This started her advocacy on gender in teaching, research, extension work and institution building.

As a gender and development (GAD) champion, she confessed, though, “I wasn’t and still isn’t really good to talk on topics related to Violence Against Women and Children and women’s rights. I’ve always been interested in women’s economic empowerment by giving equal access to and control of economic resources to women.”

Ten years after her first stint as chair, she became the Dean of UP Tacloban College, a position which gave her more avenues for linkages and partnerships and afforded her more opportunities to promote science and gender in science.

There seems to be some milestone in her life every decade, so in the next ten years, in 2010, MBS became the Director of the Leyte-Samar Heritage Center.

And not one to leave without a trace, with the help of botanists, biologists, and science communicators in the college, they established the Haysod Garden. “Haysod” is a Waray term for spices. The trimmed and picturesque garden of local spices provided a guided tour for the students. They were given a catalogue with the origin, usage, and recipes for spices. Unfortunately, the Haysod Garden was destroyed during typhoon Yolanda.

Trade-offs on having a career and of being a mother

Dr. Marieta B. Sumagaysay

While most women may find juggling dual or even multiple roles to be tough, MBS thinks otherwise.

“It wasn’t difficult to be a mother and a career woman at the same time. I would even want to go through it again.” She is grateful to be blessed with a lawyer-son who is now Vice Consul at the Philippine Embassy in Bahrain, and two daughters who are both medical doctors. Thanks to family support and the enablers. How did she manage to excel at both? Her strategy lies in time management and focusing on doable goals and quick wins given the family’s resources. Despite her work, MBS had time to drive her three kids to school, attend their school events, and was even a Parents-Teachers Association (PTA) officer, who helped establish a cooperative for a high school where her two daughters finished secondary education.

As her career progressed, MBS was due for a doctoral degree abroad, but since she didn’t want to leave behind her three kids who were all younger than seven years old, she decided to take her PhD at the Leyte Normal University (LNU). This, despite their notion in the province that if one were to get a PhD degree, one needs to go to the University of the Philippines Diliman or abroad. But MBS was not willing to trade-off the opportunity to raise and watch her kids grow while she’s getting a PhD outside Tacloban. So, she decided to get her PhD at the LNU.

“As an economist, I live by the Economics principles of opportunity costs and of maximizing utility/output given scarce resources. I understand the trade-offs; you cannot have your cake and eat it, too. Decisions regarding career are conscious decisions,” MBS said on the choices she had to make as a career woman and mother.

The decision to obtain a PhD at LNU came at a price and MBS was willing to trade-off not getting an automatic promotion in rank at UP after getting a PhD from LNU. UP has a set of reputable universities with which PhD graduates are given automatic rank promotion.
“I didn’t get any promotion after completing my PhD. This meant I had to be doubly good in my research and publication, so that I can earn merits for a promotion in rank. I was confident that LNU can very well equip me with the skills I needed as a researcher. Its roster of graduate faculty is at par with UP, having degrees in UP and foreign universities.”

MBS knew that there are other ways by which to go up the academic ladder: short-term trainings, membership/officership in professional organizations, and a lot of research.

Her Schloss Leopoldskron stint was a non-degree short-term training. This provided her the necessary skills she needed academically and allowed her to be away from her growing kids only for a short time. The multi-cultural setting was also a perfect environment for diverse views and perspectives, where one can think out-of-the-box, imagine crazy ideas which may actually start with new scientific work. It was also an avenue where collaborations can be forged.

Her strategy of reaching the top of the academic ladder worked, as MBS now holds the highest UP academic rank of Professor 12, the only one in her College. Her story gives hope to the young faculty members, making them see that opportunities abound where they can do scientific work, promote science, and translate scientific findings into chewable bits for utilization of stakeholders.

With the way her life as a working mother had turned out, MBS has no regrets. While she may not have become a pure scientist, she became a social scientist and a science administrator, which provided her opportunities for the promotion of pure and applied science, not only for knowledge generation but for the use of communities.

“As a social scientist, I knew all along that I can help in the integration of the natural/physical and the social science/humanities,” MBS reflected.

Making Basic R&D happen in more universities and regions in the country

When MBS became the executive director of the Department of Science and Technology-National Research Council of the Philippines (DOST-NRCP) in November 2015, she knew that her task was to promote basic research and she did that exactly.

“The challenge in 2016 was so great – how to produce impactful results given the very low research budget. NRCP was then funding projects of less than 1M; even as low as PhP300,000 if only to fund more of its more than 3000 NRCP members. What impact can we expect?” MBS honestly depicted the basic research situation when she joined the council.

Under MBS’ leadership, and together with the Secretariat and with the approval of the Governing Board, NRCP came up with issue-based National Integrated Basic Research Agenda (NIBRA) 2017-2022 and this served as NRCP’s guide for prioritizing research proposals for funding, as ably implemented by the Research and Development Management Division (RDMD-REMS). From NRCP’s Grants-In-Aid (GIA) amounting to 12M in 2016, this jumped to 117M in 2022. And from having 3,927 members in 2015, the NRCP’s membership now stands at 5,111.

And after seven years and two months as executive director of NRCP, on secondment, MBS is now back at the academe as Professor 12 of Economics effective 1 January 2023, but she’s on sabbatical leave this year, however. And while on sabbatical, she’s still busy with her various science and gender-related engagements in various professional organizations.

MBS’ advice to young Filipinos is this: “Stay focused. Seek for and be keen on opportunities that are for the taking.”

She cautioned them that “You cannot have your cake and eat it, too. There will be trade-offs and opportunity costs while building a career. Remember to make conscious decisions by choosing options that will maximize your gains given the constraints and the limitations.”

Lastly, MBS invites the young to remember that “Women and girls hold half of the sky and half of the seas. Claim it!” (Geraldine Bulaon-Ducusin, S&T Media Service)

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