Who would have thought that someone who only had $200 in his pocket, a one-way ticket, and no permanent address when he first arrived in New York in 1985 would later become a leader in the field of evolutionary and ecological genomics and be appointed as the dean for Science at New York University? It certainly isn’t your typical story of one Filipino’s personal evolution in the Big Apple for but it wasfor professor Dr. Michael Purugganan.
Born and raised in Manila, Dr. Purugganan became a leading figure in helping rice farmers in the Philippines grow their crops. After he discovered that domesticated rice varieties may have come from China thousands of years ago, breeders were able to develop new types of rice. It has also led to collaborations with the International Rice Research Institute in Los Baños where NYU scientists from his lab are working to see genetically how different rice varieties adapt to different environments. “Some of our ideas about how rice has evolved and where it originated are important in helping map its genes.” For Dr.Purugganan, it’s a question of evolution and to IRRI, it’s about breeding rice – how it is bred in the rice terraces versus how it is in the mountains.“By understanding how different traits evolve, you figure out how to change these traits to feed the world.”
Great things start from small beginnings
Dr.Purugganan’s interest in science started when he was around 10 years old. He attended a school in Malate, which was a block away from the then National Science Complex, the Bureau of Minds and what was then the National Science Development Board. “After class, I used to sneak in the museum they had there. It was fairly small but I was very fascinated by it,” he recalls. “I also used to go to the National Museum laboratories to see all their display cases. It was because of these small museums that got me interested on what it was like to be a scientist. That’s what I wanted to do – I wanted to learn about these things.”
Being a scientist did not run in the family. His parents - his father was a civil servant and his mother was a housewife and writer – encouraged him and his only other male sibling to do something that would make them happy and what they were interested in. “They never forced us to do things we didn’t want to do. Although I think my mother harbored the hope that I would become a doctor but she later realized that it wasn’t happening,” he says. “My brother and I have different career paths. He’s a special effects director in Manila and I’m a scientist. We’re both happy with what we’re doing.” Another thing that his parents instilled in them was the habit of reading. He says they were really avid readers. He would go to libraries and borrow books or buy from bookstores. “So while I wasn’t so much encouraged by them in science, they taught me to think and read broadly.”
Dr.Purugganan graduated from the University of the Philippines with a degree in Chemistry. Furthering his childhood ambition to become a scientist, he applied and was accepted to take his Master’s Degree on Chemistry at Columbia University where he contributed to the discovery that photoexcited electrons can move along the DNA strand. “When I was there, I started to get more interested in biology. In the 1980s, plant biology was becoming very exciting and I thought it was a much more useful course to take if I decided to go back to the Philippines,” he says.
In 1993, he went to the University of Georgia for his Ph.D. in Botany. There, he studied the effects of transposable element “jumping genes” on the evolution of gene structures and showed that regulatory genes evolve rapidly at a molecular level. This was followed by a postdoctoral research as an Alfred P. Sloan Molecular Evolution Fellow at the University of California in San Diego where he studied the evolution of development. Two years later, he became a professor at North Carolina State University where he made several impressive contributions involving plant evolution. “I went to where I thought was interesting and I wasn’t really afraid to think of what the future might bring. Some people do one thing and they can’t see themselves moving away from what their plans are,” he says. “For me, it was really what I was interested in that drove where I went.”
This proved to be the right path to follow. Since then, he has received many awards and recognitions. He was given the Alfred Sloan Young Investigator Award and was also elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was a Kavli Frontiers of Science Fellow of the Kavli Foundation and the US National Academy of Sciences. In 2011, the Ayala Foundation USA/PhilDev Foundation recognized him for his achievements in science and technology. He serves on the international scientific advisory boards of the Philippine Genome Center and the US Compositae Genome Project and is also affiliate faculty and co-director of the NYU Abu Dhabi Center for Genomics and Systems Biology.
The Scientific Community
The number of Filipinos in the scientific community remains to be very small. “All the more in the plant evolution community,” he shares.“I think the reason why the Filipino scientific community is small is because we don’t see it as a good career path. There are very few scientists in Manila that they can look up to.” But he observes that with the help of social media, aspiring Filipino scientists are ableinteract with like-minded individuals in Europe, Japan or the US. “I see a lot more young people now in science – really, really good ones. I think as the world is becoming more global, people are beginning to see science as a viable career. While we still don’t see other many Filipino scientists, we see those from other countries and we notice what it’s like and have an understanding of what it means to be one.”He thinks that Filipino scientists abroad who interact with other scientists should find ways to educate the public about science and what a scientist is.
To be a scientist, Dr.Purugganan says, you first have to like science. “I think people have this idea that scientists as either complete nerds or asocial. You need to have that certain level of being smart but scientists are fairly normal people.”He says a scientist always has to ask lots of questions and be able to figure out the answer yourself. You have to research and experiment. You also have to be confident, motivated, dedicated, have an open and rational mind while at the same time, still be creative. “We think of a scientist as almost robotic. They have to design experiments that nobody has done before. Creativity steps in when you need to interpret these experiments to tell us something what’s going on in the world.”
If there is one thing that he’s learned from the scientific community in the US, it’s their culture. “The community in the US is able to judge which science is worth pursuing or not and I think our colleagues back home should learn that too.” He adds that they need to also develop a culture like that of Philippine filmmakers who collaborate with each other. “Having a system or culture that allows a constant and open exchange of ideas and that ideas lead to experiments.”
He remains optimistic in the future of the scientific community in the Philippines. “The opening of the Mind Museum at the Fort and the National Museum’s plan of putting up a Natural History Museum in Rizal Park, for instance, show that there is a growing interest in science,” he says.
Life in the Big Apple
Just like the grains of rice that he studies, he has adapted to his American environment. “You cannot live in any culture for a period of time without your personality changing,“ he shares. “One of the things that happen when you live in another culture is that you start comparing your culture with that of another and I think that’s healthy because I think you realize how things are done differently compared to how it is back home.”
Going outside one’s comfort zone and constantly challenging oneself has also proven to be a life lesson that he has learned. He believes that living in the United States or living away from one’s comfort zone allows you to see the world differently and lets youappreciate the diversity around you.“Frankly, being dean here at NYU is, in a sense, outside my comfort zone. I had to think about this because I’m happy being a scientist running a lab. To actually take on a large responsibility with a major international university – I had to ask myself if I was ready for that,” he confesses. “One of the things that I admire about people in my field is that they constantly challenge themselves. They get bored if they feel too comfortable in something. When that happens, they want to do something different. I think that’s something I’ve done all throughout my life and it’s been very good for me. I think it will be good for anybody.”
He has also become more comfortable with talking to people from different cultures. “There are people from more than a hundred countries in the US. In NYU alone, there are students from 130 countries. You have to be able to talk to different kinds of people and understand where they’re coming from and not make judgments.”
The Next Big Thing
Dr.Purugganan’s proudest achievementsdon’t stem from his discoveries or papers but from his students and colleagues who trained under him.“When you go to my laboratory in the Genome Center, you’ll see all these empty bottles of champagne,” he says. “We open those bottles for every person who has left my lab, made new research programs or established their own lab. Some cases have surpassed me and that’s great. Some have done much more than I have in the field and I’m just so proud of it.”
As for his next scientific discovery, that remains to be seen. “I can’t plan what is going to happen two or five years from now,” he says. “That’s what I like about science. You really can’t plan it. Things change, things evolve.”