Rey Donne S. Papa, PhD


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  • University of Santo Tomas, Biology, 2002
  • University of Santo Tomas, M.Sc. and Ph.D. Biological Sciences, 2005 and 2011

Current Job Title: Dean, College of Science and Professor of Biological Sciences in UST

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

I first realized my interest in scientific research when I won Best Investigatory Science Project during my senior year in HS. I loved the research process and thought that it would be something interesting to pursue. This was later affirmed when I served as our group’s unofficial leader for our undergraduate thesis. 

As to pursuing my current field, it started when I got exposed to doing field work for our ecology undergrad classes, which I enjoyed tremendously. I then took a more specific interest in freshwater ecology when I was already in Graduate School, of course from the encouragement and inspiration of my thesis supervisors, the husband and wife team of Roberto and Alicia Pagulayan. Seeing so many gaps in the available literature on Philippine lakes, fish ecology and freshwater zooplankton challenged me to pursue this particular discipline.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

My thesis supervisors, Prof. Roberto and Alicia Pagulayan were early influences. Later on, I began to consult and collaborate with Prof. Augustus Mamaril of the University of the Philippines – the foremost freshwater zooplankton expert of the Philippines, and he served as an unofficial mentor for my PhD dissertation topic (I could not officially take him as my supervisor since he did not finish his PhD). My PhD dissertation was supervised by Prof. Macrina Zafaralla (also of UP) and Prof. Reiner Eckmann (I was a DAAD PhD Sandwich Program fellow). I learned a lot from them in terms of how I write papers and handle research projects. I was fortunate that my university supported my plans to have external supervisors, since I ventured into a topic which was not yet established in UST before I showed interest in it. 

I also learned a lot from collaborating with the likes of Prof. Henri Dumont (Uni. Ghent), Dr. Maria Holynska (Polish Academy of Science), Prof. Noboru Okuda (Kyoto University) and Prof. David Taylor (NUS). I worked with these scientists on many projects and grants, and they have helped co-supervise many of my graduate students which also helped diversify the research interests of my research group. 

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

After my undergrad degree I served as a Teaching Assistant while taking my Masters degree. During that time, the salary was very meager, and usually came in very late because of some bureaucratic mix-ups. I did not have access to funding for my thesis as well. The sad part was I did not get any salary before my first Christmas as an “employee”. I felt really bad not being able to give anything to my parents that Christmas. If it were not for winning a small cash prize during our Christmas party I would have gone home for the holidays without any money from work! I felt so down and almost gave up afterwards. It was my parents who encouraged me to continue my studies, and they gave funds for me to conduct my field works in Lake Taal. If I did not listen to them I might have changed career paths by then. 

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

I had been given the opportunity to stay in the Limnological Institute of the University of Konstanz for six months, starting in January 2010. I used the time to perform more data and specimen analysis after my almost 2-year field work in Lake Taal. By the end of my stay, I was able to submit three papers based on my dissertation. I was only looking forward to getting one accepted so I may be able to defend my dissertation, which was my university’s minimum requirement for the PhD. I went back to the Philippines by August, and by December, I received word that all three papers have been accepted. The last acceptance literally came in during Christmas eve. This meant that I can defend in our university under a “public presentation” scheme, wherein I already get a perfect grade for my manuscript and would not have to pass through the intense scrutiny of the panel. The timing was perfect! It all fell into its proper place. To add to my good fortune, my wife became pregnant with our only child come January. I defended my dissertation with so many blessings and reasons to celebrate!

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

I love the outdoors, and love the solitude of being one with nature, so going on field work came very naturally for me.

Also, I have always considered myself a frustrated historian, so working on zooplankton taxonomy is like fulfilling my frustrations, since one needs to look at old literature and museum specimens a lot to do accurate work. My interest in history is also evident in some projects I spearheaded in the university, such as museum exhibits on natural history collections, and writing a book on the history of our university research center. These are my “scientific” hobbies.

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

Get good mentors. Emulate the positive things you see from them, then later incorporate your own personality into it. If you encounter challenges and difficulties, do not be afraid to ask for help. If ever you encounter someone who is full of negative energy, and is not a good example, be sure to NOT emulate them.

A good scientist must also never stop trying something new to improve ones’ research. The ability to formulate new questions based on what you have already done will dictate the future path of your research progress. Formulating these questions may not necessarily happen in the lab. It may be over coffee, or beers with your labmates, or it may be while you are alone in the shower or during your daily commute to work. Regardless of when or where it happened, make sure to follow it up with a good dose of reading to see if your “crazy” idea has potential. 

Lastly, a scientists’ worth is measured in terms of the quality of papers he produces, not just the quantity of papers or the number of awards one gets. Although one would benefit greatly from many papers, one should not be blinded by metrics alone. You should be meticulous in ensuring truthfulness and fair play in all your scientific pursuits. 

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