The Asian Scientist: Chancellor Caesar Saloma, University Of The Philippines Diliman

Asian Scientist Magazine talks to the chancellor of the number one ranked university in the Philippines on science education in the UP system, his goals for 2012, and his lifelong passion: photonics research.

AsianScientist (Feb. 27, 2012) – When we named the Chancellor of the University of Philippines Diliman (UP Diliman) as one of our Ultimate Asian Scientists to Watch in 2011, we had a good reason for doing so – we were inspired by how much Prof. Saloma had achieved as a scientist and educator, and more recently by his appointment as chancellor of the number one ranked university in the Philippines.

Our humble honor bestowed onto Prof. Saloma is shadowed by a long list of distinguished prizes he has received along the way, such as the ASEAN Outstanding Scientist and Technologist Award and the Lingkod Bayan Award, both awarded to Prof. Saloma in 2008 for his contributions to photonics research and public service.

Nearly one year after honoring him on our Ultimate list, Asian Scientist Magazine sent its Philippine correspondent Tiffany Chua Copok to interview Prof. Saloma on his first-year tenure as chancellor of UP Diliman.

Warm and personable in nature, Prof. Saloma shared with us his long-term strategic plans for UP Diliman, his hopes for science education in the Philippines, and of course, his pet topic: photonics.

Thank you Chancellor for granting us this interview, it is our great honor to talk to you. Could you describe your tenure as chancellor of UP Diliman since your appointment in March 2011?

Yes, let me give you a background of the University of the Philippines.

UP consists of seven constituents or universities. This academic year, the seven UP universities have a population of 52,405, and 23,385 of these students are studying in UP Diliman. Out of the 23,385, 17,789 are undergraduates, or 42.4 percent of the UP total; 5,596 are graduates, or 53.7 percent of the UP total; so UP Diliman has the ratio of one graduate student for every 3.18 undergraduate students.

The UP system is headed by the president while the constituent units are headed by the chancellors. UP Diliman is said to be the flagship campus for a number of reasons, one is because we have the largest student population. The other reason is that we have most of the Ph.D. faculty members.

The President of UP is elected by the Board of Regents. The Board of Regents is the highest policy making body of the university, and it has 11 members. The President of the Philippines appoints three of which.

The UP President holds the position for six years, no re-appointment. The first chancellor elected when we have a new president is the Chancellor of Diliman. The UP president assumed office sometime in February; I was elected chancellor a month after on March 2, 2011. The chancellor of a UP constituent university has a term of three years with a possibility of re-appointment by the Board for another three years.

Before I became chancellor, I was the director of the National Institute of Physics, then I became dean of the College of Science. During my term as the dean, we built the National Science Complex. Then I became Chancellor of Diliman.

University of the Philippines Diliman campus (Source: Tiffany Chua Copok).

UP Diliman has an area of 493 hectares in the middle of the largest city in Manila (Quezon City). The chancellor, being the chief executive officer, chief operating officer, and the chief academic officer, has a number of challenges that are related to operations. Operational efficiency is a prerequisite to our being a great university.

The area of UP Diliman is a little bit bigger than the Seoul National University which does not deal with the socio-economic challenges brought about by the presence of informal settlements. In the latest census we have more informal settlers than the mandated stakeholders (faculty members, staff, and students). There are just 27,500 mandated stakeholders but informal settlers are at around 80,000. This is a challenge that I, as Chancellor, am facing.

UP is an open campus in a rapidly growing city and people believe that since it is government lands, they can stay here. I realize that it is difficult to achieve academic excellence if we do not know how to operate the university correctly.

If you look at all the challenges in details, it is overwhelming. A 24-7 shift is not even enough to cover the work needed to be done.

What do you hope to achieve for UP Diliman in 2012?

1. Improve the operational efficiency of UP Diliman. When I started in March 2011, I wanted to understand then how to operate UP Diliman. So I started looking at various things in operations like how is the state of our dorms? Our electric bill, security expense, and water bill. For example, we realized that in 2010 we paid a water bill of Ph72M. We have a population of 27,000 so the water consumption should be nearing Ph30M, not Ph72M. Upon investigation, we discovered that we have leaking pipes, thus the high water bill. So this is something I want to achieve in my term: attention to detail and executional diligence; strategic vision is not enough.

2. Increase the UP budget. This is a clamor of every UP President in all the campuses, every year. If we ask the national government for an increase in budget, we should give good reasons. The Philippine population has been increasing at two percent a year. Between 1999 and 2010, the Philippine population increased by almost 20 million but the number of new undergraduate students that UP Diliman is admitting has remained constant per year. It is not correlated to the population as it has maintained a 3,800 absorption capacity. It would be ideal if the intake would correlate to the population increase. If UP Diliman is to have an impact on nation building through time, its graduates have to increase with the population. This cannot happen if our budget remains constant.

3. Make UP Diliman a globally competitive university. UP Diliman has a rather low rank compared to other universities in the Asia-Pacific. I believe we are a smart group of people – there are 95 million Filipinos. Statistically of course, there are fluctuations but environmental factors are working against some of us. Many are diamonds in the rough waiting for a good diamond cutter. I know that the raw talent is there, but we lack the facilities to develop that talent. This is related to the first two points; we need an increase in budget and operational efficiency to work towards our goal.

University of the Philippines Diliman (Source: Tiffany Chua Copok).

Whatever we data we gathered in 2011 would be useful in our strategy for 2012. The contracts and systems in place now were designed under my administration. Of course there are academic problems but unless we know how to operate the university, it is all theoretical. Understanding leads us to the path of enlightenment and improvement.

2012 is exciting: it is when we put in place the systems and policies designed through the data we gathered in 2011. People say that everything is scrutinized under my administration, the reason for that is because I’m a scientist. Executional diligence means that you know the details. Though I also understand that winning the hearts of our stakeholders is also needed so that it won’t cost so much to enforce our policies.

Our ultimate strategic goal is to produce more Ph.D. graduates. UP Diliman produces around 3,200 Baccalaureate degree and 620 Masters students a year, but only 75 Ph.D. graduates a year. We have 524 Ph.D. faculty members in Diliman, and they generally do not mentor Ph.D. students successfully. If each Ph.D. faculty successfully mentors a student, we would produce at least 150 Ph.D. graduates a year.

The higher educational system in the Philippines consists of 1,700 schools and universities, but less than 15 percent of the faculty members have Ph.D. degrees. This means that many of these 1,700 universities cannot offer a viable graduate degree program.

Being the only national university of the country, the burden falls onto UP. We have to produce even more because unfortunately the conditions here in the Philippines are not so attractive that we do not get lateral free entries from other countries as our faculty members.

How does our country’s scientific research compare with other Southeast Asian nations?

The indicators are not as good. We definitely have less researchers per million of population than Thailand, Indonesia, and of course, Singapore. We have only 85 people engaging in scientific research per million.

I came from a very small town in Bohol with a population of 12,000. I used to crack a joke saying since I moved out, we don’t have a single researcher there anymore.

UP Diliman has the highest concentration of Ph.D. researchers in the country. Though we may have a considerably smaller number of researchers than in many other Southeast Asian nations, there are individual success stories. This shows that you do not have to work abroad to produce research that is publishable and worthwhile in international journals. UP Diliman researchers can produce research that is competitive and is published in leading journals.

For example, my research in signal processing, my equipment is just a simple optical microscope because we cannot afford accelerators or large hydrocolliders. I was finding the balance between signal recovery and hardware.

Through time I went into complex adaptive systems, social networks in particular, how do people behave when people panic. My group had a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), studying panic in mice.

I came up with that idea one day while fetching my wife, a molecular biologist, from work. Her lab had a mouse room, and I asked what they did with mice that grew old. She told me that they had to put the mice to sleep. I then thought, maybe I could give them another lease of life and use them in my panic studies. You see, one does not have to have the best equipment nor be a genius; resourcefulness and curiosity is just as important.

Let me tell you a story of my childhood; we didn’t have much toys then. Kids built toys out of tin cans, coconut husks, rubber slippers, and whatever they could find. I had a friend about three years older than me, who was about 11-years-old then.

He built a microscope out of flashlight components and showed me that ants have hair. Looking back, that kid had an abundance of resourcefulness and creativity and I was not that kid who built that microscope.

That kid now is a simple man, still in my hometown. I just probably had better opportunities, the economic capability to allow me to study here.

The Philippine DepEd recently announced that it will take science out of the curriculum of first and second graders, What are your views on this matter?

We have to clarify with the DepEd their purpose for that. They must be a group of sensible people to be holding that position so they may have good reasons for it.

I believe it is more important to teach young children to be observant in nature and record what they see, what they could do with simple tools. Ideas have to be validated; hypotheses are not 100 percent correct. These are prerequisites to science and can be taught outside of science subjects.

What do you think is the biggest challenge for education in the Philippines? How would UP Diliman contribute to advancing education in our country?

We lack great universities, even UP which is No. 1 in the Philippines is not high-ranking in the world.

A great university is a great research university; one that generates new scientific knowledge and creative works that define and are able to project our culture. It should celebrate our heritage at the same time and create new genres.

Let us not think that the Philippines’ golden age is over and now we are in the dark ages. We must have optimism that the greatest work of art and literature is still to come. We need to find that kind of talent in our universities. Most Nobel Prize winners did their pioneering works in universities.

Our challenge is to make UP a great research university. We have to evaluate ourselves and take steps to achieve our goal. For example, we work towards increasing the number of Ph.D. students in UP as well as Ph.D. faculty.

At present, 40 percent of Ph.D. faculty members in UP Diliman are 56 years old and above and will be retiring in the next ten years. In some colleges the percentage is more than 50 percent. There are no replacements for these faculty members. It is a big challenge because it would mean that we would produce even less Ph.D. graduates.

I have to deal with this being the chief academic officer of the university. Research work is not enough, we need to train the next generation or else we will have a crisis.

Asian Scientist Magazine Philippine correspondent Tiffany Chua Copok and Chancellor Saloma.

Where do you think the field of photonics is heading in the next decade?

Photonics is the science and technology of generating photons, controlling their propagation, basically signal processing. Generating photons gives us more efficient light sources so this means more efficient lasers and smaller light emitting diodes to transform information in a smaller chip without needing to use electrons to move information in an integrated circuit.

Recently, scientists have been able to build a laser that is one nanometer across in diameter. The other way is to control the propagation of photons – this one covers the microscope, telescope, and optical fiber.

The object here is to move very narrow pulses quickly without degrading over long distances. We want to achieve that because very small pulses carry more information. The skin responds thermally to average power (heat) but it cannot respond if it is too fast.

Researchers are looking into new types of lenses that can control the propagation of light. Now people are trying to use synchrotron radiation as a source of light. We are also looking into using metamaterials as lenses. We aim to detect very narrow pulses. Supposing we are able to produce very fast and narrow pulses, could we detect that?

At the end of the day, what we have is the detected signal. Signal recovery research aims to find more effective ways of obtaining as accurately as possible the full information that is contained in the original signal from its corresponding detected signal that is yielded by our measuring instrument which has finite resolution and dynamic range.

So there are a multitude of areas and possibilities in this field, depending on the imagination and creativity of man.

In optical microscopy research, there are two basic concerns. One is to find new ways of beating the diffraction limit. In classical imaging, one cannot see details smaller than the wavelength of the light that you are using. However, trade-offs could be made in order to overcome the classical diffraction limit. For example, details at the nanometer scale may be observed at the expense of observation time or sample thickness thereby preventing the use of the instrument to observe optically thick wholemount embryos.

My area of interest is in developing new imaging techniques for optimizing the signal-to-noise ratio of detected images (of thick samples like embryos and integrated circuits) with minimal use of expensive hardware and optical components.

Aside from optimizing biological samples in light microscopy, I also have interests in integrated circuits. I look into defects in operating integrated circuits. Its importance comes when you operate a microprocessor, as the circuits are sandwiched between the black heat sink. We were able to find a way to view it through opaque heat sinks.

The specific challenge in integrated circuit (IC) microscopy is to find better ways of imaging the main circuit (active layer) under actual field operating conditions and accurately determine the thermal distribution of the various circuit sections.

It is desirable that the entire circuit exhibits a uniform temperature distribution during operation. This is not straightforward to accomplish because in a flip-chip IC, the active layer is sandwiched between a bulk silicon (Si) substrate and layers of metal interconnects that bridge various locations in the active layer to designated IC package pins. The optically thick Si substrate also serves as the IC heat sink and electrical reference ground.

Not many optical microscopy researchers were engaged in this area before. My interest in IC microscopy was enriched by the research collaboration that my group did with engineers of Intel Philippines before the company transferred operations to Vietnam.

To read more about Prof. Saloma’s work:


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Tiffany Chua Copok graduated with a MA, BA (Hons) in natural sciences from Cambridge University, UK. Tiffany has worked as a research scientist at the non-profit International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. She has a lifelong passion for plant sciences.

Related Stories from Asian Scientist