Taking inspiration from the sea

But this island's beauty could have not been maintained and preserved if not for the initiative of Dr. Angel Alcala, one of two scientists to be conferred the title of National Scientist this year by the President of the Philippines.

Alcala, currently the director of Silliman University-Angelo King Center for Research and Environmental Management (SUAKCREM), grew up in a coastal town in southern Negros Occidental where he used to swim in waters with pristine coral reefs.

He finished his bachelor's degree in Biology at the Silliman University in Dumaguete City in 1951. He then started as a biology teacher for students preparing to enter the nursing profession and medical school.

"But one can be bored by teaching year after year," said Alcala. He decided to go back to his first love, the sea.

He received a Fulbright fellowship for a master's degree in biology at the Stanford University in the United States in 1959. After six years, he came back to the US to pursue his doctorate.

His stint at Stanford prepared him and influenced him to conduct research in marine biology in the Philippines.

"My fellow graduate students were all supportive of the application of theoretical knowledge to practical problems in the country. My faculty advisers of the Graduate School were working on Philippine biodiversity and some of the graduate students were working on similar topics... They inspired me to consider for further studies the marine fauna of the Philippines," he shared.

MARINE TREASURE. A green sea turtle swimming in coral gardens of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) of Apo Island in Dauin town, Negros Oriental, Philippines, 11 July 2013. Steve de Neef/Greenpeace handout/EPA

MARINE TREASURE. A green sea turtle swimming in coral gardens of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) of Apo Island in Dauin town, Negros Oriental, Philippines, 11 July 2013.

Steve de Neef/Greenpeace handout/EPA

Seeing the degradation of coral reefs in the Philippines, he decided to do something about it by setting up marine protected areas in Sumilon Island off southern Ceby, and in Apo Island.

He then started to pursue new concepts in biology, while his advocacy for sustainable ways of managing the environment led him to establish a laboratory in Silliman. It eventually became the venue for research and follow-up action, or the "marine protected area concept" (MPA concept).

This advocacy did not go to waste, as the country now has a national policy on marine no-take zones, or areas set aside by the government where catching any form of marine resource is prohibited.

"Work on the conservation and management of the unique biodiversity, for which the Philippines is known, has given me a feeling of satisfaction that my academic degrees have been useful not only to me and my family but also to the country," Alcala told Rappler.

Science in PH 'fulfilling'

At 85, Alcala has already written over 200 books and publications on community, ecology, and biogeography of amphibians and reptiles, both locally and internationally.

Alcala, could not have been more satisfied as a scientist practicing in the country.

"Pursuing a passion for science in this country is quite fulfilling. Our government and our people generally appreciate and welcome people who have the passion to contribute to the country’s development," said Alcala.

He added, "In fact, I can say that my pursuit of excellence in research was motivated by my desire to help in the conservation of our natural resources by putting to work my academic education and training."

As a passionate biologist and environmental conservationist, Alcala had never expected rewards. But he has been receiving awards and recognition for his researches and work as a leader in marine preservation. Some of these distinctions are the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service in 1992, and the Gregorio Y. Zara medal for Basic Science by the Philippine Association for the Advancement of Science, Inc. in 2011.

Alcala has also served as the secretary for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and as a Commissioner at the Commission on Higher Education.

Alcala was conferred the title of National Scientist through Proclamation No. 782 dated June 6, 2014 together with Dr. Ramon Barba of the University of the Philippines Los Banos. The conferment ceremony is due to be scheduled this July. – Rappler.com

(Erratum: We mistakenly identified Apo Island as being part of Negros Occidental. It is actually part of Negros Oriental. Our apologies.)