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Tribute to a Life: Maria Victoria Carpio-Bernido

The Carpio and the Bernido families gathered together in Jagna, Bohol to commemorate the first death anniversary of Maria Victoria Carpio-Bernido (Marivic) on Jan. 6. I was fortunate to join them. I wondered whether the physical death of that one remarkable candle also spelled the death of the dreams and the garden that it sowed and jealously nurtured. Or whether the seeds she sowed will rage against the dying of the light? And will this rage postpone for a meaningful moment the entropic wave we call the Second Law of Thermodynamics that is ultimately in store for all dreams and dreamers?

In one family dinner, we invited the Central Visayan Institute Foundation’s (CVIF) latest Science Corps visiting scientist, Swastika Issar, an evolutionary biologist with a recent PhD from the University of Cambridge via the Tata Institute, India, and the Max Planck Institute, Konstanz, where she was a postdoctoral fellow.

The Science Corps program sends new PhD volunteers to share new scientific knowledge and technologies with students and tutors in host communities. The program was conceived by Ben Rubin, now a postdoctoral fellow at the lab of 2020 Nobel laureate and CRISPR discoverer Jennifer Doudna’s lab in the University of California Berkeley, while he was a volunteer visitor at CVIF, the secondary school in Jagna, Bohol which Marivic and her husband Chris embraced and built up to some renown.

CVIF attracted a parade of curious visitors from other schools. Ben became aware of CVIF through Dr. Baldomero Olivera, a corresponding member of the National Academy of Science and Technology – Philippines (NAST-PHL) and winner of the 2007 Harvard Foundation Scientist of the Year Award for his work on conotoxin peptides, who had heard Marivic and Chris’ talk in the 2004 NAST Annual Scientific Meeting on the revolutionary pedagogy, Dynamic Learning Program, that they introduced in CVIF. Dr. Olivera collected samples of cone snails, genus conus, in Bohol Island, and eventually donated lab equipment to the CVIF science lab. Ben, with his dad Prof. Edward Rubin (leader of the team that mapped the human genome) eventually organized the now global program from private donations.

The Science Corps-CVIF nexus will surely bear Marivic’s dream into the meaningful future.

The dinner conversation that December evening was spirited, with Dr. Issar talking about the surprising power of evolutionary biology and her own work on the behavior of Cichlids (fish) in Zambia. I became even more convinced that biology, especially evolutionary biology, should become the template for all the social sciences and economics in lieu of Physics.

The Dynamic Learning Program (DLP) is the heart of Marivic and Chris’ pedagogy. At its core are the “no homework policy” (students complete all requirements at school premises and are encouraged to help in chores at home), and “learning by doing.” “Learning by doing” is where students, on their own, complete the learning activity sheets (LAS) for each topic, prepared and evaluated by the faculty (Marivic herself spent the last few months of her life furiously perfecting LASs) and in lieu of costly textbooks. The completed LASs are gathered by students into their personalized portfolios at the end of the course, serving as references for future college courses. Thus, the student, as it were, compiles his/her own proto-textbook rather than just be handed a textbook at the start. There is also the use of an “expert teacher” for a scientific area such as Chemistry, where the teaching is assigned to most competent; and the use of parallel classes to optimize expert teachers’ time. So entrenched was the “learning by doing” philosophy that most of CVIF’s successful annual theatrical plays were researched and co-written by the students themselves. Chris and Marivic would just provide guidance on the finer points of the theater arts.

The Magsaysay Foundation recognized these advantages of the DLP by presenting a Magsaysay Award to Chris and Marivic. The PLDT-Smart Foundation, led by Esther Santos, took up the task of spreading the pedagogy to interested private schools. Despite the widespread interest and some highly encouraging results, the educational establishment itself has proven oblivious of DLP, continuing instead to celebrate comfort zone programs of more school rooms, more textbooks, and more teacher training in same tired pedagogy.

For as long as the Philippines continues to bottom-dwell in the education league tables, DLP will continue to be a living testament that we lag behind not because we don’t know any better but because we cannot break out of the comfort zone of business as usual.

Every high school has posters of alumni who have made good. Two of CIVF’s were particularly interesting: Ronald Lloren who is now at ETH Zurich, Einstein’s alma mater, in Switzerland, getting his PhD in Marine Science via Marine Science UP; and Madeleine Nayga, who is doing her PhD at the Max Planck Institute Dresden in Physics via the National Institute of Physics at the University of the Philippines (UP). When pre-pandemic entry to the UP system was determined by the entrance test, UPCAT (UP College Admissions Test), the passing rate of CVIF takers was close to 20% while the overall UPCAT passing rate hovered around 5% (UPCAT stopped with the 2020-21 pandemic). Forty-two CVIF graduates got Department of Science and Technolgy (DoST) scholarships in 2022 for their tertiary education.

Competing pedagogies are a dime-a-dozen but natural selection should weed out inferior ones by comparing relative performance based on measured outcomes.

There are national aptitude exams at the secondary level but educational authorities seem intent that the data is beyond the reach of researchers interested in comparative performance. If the Philippines is to extricate itself from the bottom of the educational performance ladder — as shown again and again by cross country surveys (PISA rankings among them) — letting go of the data is a priority. Adding years to bad pedagogy (the K-12 program) will not help but may even harm Philippine education outcomes.

The Research Center for Theoretical Physics (RCTP) is CVIF’s answer to poor research and science education in the Visayas and Mindanao. But why theoretical? Few even in the Philippine science community know that the concept “double ring-shaped oscillator” in quantum physics still employed today in quantum dots was first introduced by Marivic in 1989. Numerous graduate students in Physics first found their sea legs in research and publication through the triennial RCTP conference where they meet frontier concepts and network with living research leaders, in the process finding research topics and fellowships abroad. The success of Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology physics research and science capital build-up has become the regional template of RCTP-derived collaboration.

The first RCTP conference in 1995 was held in the Bernido compound in Jagna, Bohol, and I served tables to help extend the magnificently shoestring budget. At one table I served were two physicists, Frank Wilcek from Princeton University and Gerard ’t Hooft from the University of Utrecht, Holland. They must have wondered at how basic were the appointments, so alien to the five-star hotel accommodations they were normally accorded. I wondered, too, how intrepid were Chris and Marivic to host these august visitors in these humble surroundings.

But Marivic insisted that for true seekers of knowledge, a blackboard and a spirited exchange of ideas among the discerning is suffice to, as it were, transport them to Plato’s netherworld of forms and essences oblivious of immediate surroundings. And it must have been so because the American Institute of Physics published the proceedings of three other RCTP Conferences. World Scientific also published three more! In 1998, Gerard ’t Hooft was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for work on the renormalization of Yang-Mills model, while in 2003, Frank Wilcek was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the asymptotic freedom of quarks. Such strong foundations will no doubt catapult the edifice of dreams long after the dreamer has left the stage.

To further Marivic’s legacy of excellence in science, CVIF has inaugurated the “Maria Victoria Carpio-Bernido Lectures” which is hosting science lectures by established scholars. The first lecture was given by Prof. Eduardo Mendoza of the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, Germany and a corresponding member of NAST-PHL. This column’s writer — a NAST member and National Scientist — gave Lecture 2 on Jan. 5 on why manufacturing has eclipsed in the Philippines and on how to engender a turn-around.

In November 2022, Marivic’s birthday, and 10 months after her death, a paper she co-authored with her doctoral student was accepted for publication, one of many. Those gathered to commemorate her death are resolved that Marivic will be as salient in death as in life.

Raul V. Fabella is a retired professor of the UP School of Economics, a member of the National Academy of Science and Technology and an honorary professor of the Asian Institute of Management. He gets his dopamine fix from bicycling and tending flowers with wife Teena.

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