The Balik Scientist Program With Dr. Chosel Lawagon
by Seneca Moraleda-Puguan
Brain drain, the phenomenon where highly educated professionals leave for another country to work or live in better conditions, has been an urgent concern in the Philippines. This includes scientists and researchers whose works are highly valued abroad.
According to statistics, the Philippines only has around 18,000 researchers. Given the population of the Philippines which is more than 100 million, this number is way lower than the UNESCO’s benchmark of 380 researchers per million people.
Fortunately, there are still scientists and researchers who decide to go back and pursue research in the Philippines. One of them is Dr. Chosel Lawagon.
Dr. Lawagon is engaged as a long-term ‘Balik Scientist’ under the Department of Science and Technology’s (DOST) Balik Scientist Program (BSP), serving as the Director at the Center of Green Nanotechnology Innovations for Environmental Solutions, University of Mindanao, Philippines.
BSP is the brain gain initiative of the Philippine government which aims to tap into the ingenuity and expertise of Filipinos abroad to strengthen the capabilities of local researchers in the academe, public and private sectors, and industry.
It was initiated to reverse the effects of brain drain, to provide researchers and scientists whose expertise are not available locally, and to accelerate the flow of new strategic technologies that are vital to national development.
Diligence, persistence, and passion were the things that kept Dr. Lawagon from giving up despite the challenges of being a female scientist. She shares with us her journey in pursuing a career that doesn’t just benefit her but the scientific community and the Philippines as a whole.
Question: What was your course in college and when did you graduate?
Dr. Chosel Lawagon: I graduated in April 2010 with Chemical Engineering degree from the University of Mindanao (UM), Davao City. I passed the licensure exam that same year. I then started teaching in UM’s College of Engineering while at the same time serving as a Volunteer staff of the Jesus Disciple Movement. I also finished my master’s in chemical engineering at UM in April 2013. Then, in August of the same year, I pursued a Ph.D. in Energy Science and Technology at Myongji University, South Korea.
Q: Please tell us something about your research at Myongji University. What were the challenges you faced as a graduate student?
DCL: My dissertation is “Lithium recovery from salt water via ion exchange and electrochemical systems with nanocomposite.”
Sometimes, I feel like I was not be able to finish it due to some difficulty in doing the experiments and being in a foreign land with foreign supervisors. But only by God’s grace, was I able to finish my Ph.D. in 2018.
Q: After your stint in South Korea, where did you go or what did you do?
DCL: In 2019, I pursued a Postdoctoral fellowship at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand, under Prof. Tawatchai Charinpanitkul as my supervisor. My study focus was the synthesis of carbon nanomaterials from petrochemical wastes. I also mentored Masteral students. After this, I started my short-term BSP (Jan-Mar 2020) engagement at UM under DOST-Philippine Council for Industry, Energy and Emerging Technology Research and Development.
After the engagement, I was supposed to pursue another postdoctoral fellowship abroad, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused lockdowns in several countries. So, I stayed in the Philippines. But the University of Mindanao offered me a Research Faculty position, and given that I have nothing yet to do, I took the job (April 2020). After doing my online BSP Exit presentation in August 2020, DOST-PCIEERD learned that I am already with UM. Hence, they offered me to pursue the long-term BSP engagement (November 2021– November 2024).
Q: What made you decide to go back to the Philippines instead of pursuing a postdoctoral or work abroad?
DCL: I decided to do the BSP short-term engagement because I wanted to return home to the Philippines after six years abroad. I also wanted to do worthwhile things while in the country hence my first BSP stint. I loved the work as a Balik Scientist when I saw how it transformed the people I mentored.
Gradually, they are now able to publish papers in internationally peer-reviewed journals. Together, we pursued research proposals for funding and were granted. Now, they are also mentoring other faculty in the College of Engineering. They are also already seeking research proposals on their own. Being able to bring change, even in small areas in my alma mater, is truly a joy and a blessing.
Q: Are the benefits/advantages that BSP has given you?
DCL: It has given a platform to pursue research advocacies such as upcycling of wastes into valuable products. It also widened my network and enabled me to pursue collaborations. Financially, we were given housing and transportation allowance on the long-term engagement.
Q: What message can you give future scientists/researchers, especially women, who want to pursue higher studies like you or be able to impact the scientific community?
DCL: Being a woman in a scientific community is a privilege and a challenge. It is a privilege because several opportunities are open to women pursuing STEM. On the other hand, it is also a challenge since there is still a stigma that women always do less than men and should always perform more than expected to be noticed or appreciated. But it should not be your gender that will define how you should function as a scientist/researcher. No matter your gender, use whatever God-given skill you have for the betterment of society. No one becomes an expert overnight. It will take time and many mistakes but have patience and faith in God that as long as you do what is right and pursue it wholeheartedly, you’ll notice the impact you can bring to society. Appreciate the small triumphs in your journey to becoming a scientist/researcher. Only some people are given the opportunity to do it.
Dr. Lawagon just recently came back from a short research stay at the University of Bayreuth in Germany as part of the Green Talents Program. The Federal Republic of Germany fully funded the research stay as one of the honors given to the selected winners of the 2021 Green Talents Awards where she was among the twenty-five recipients.
She focused her research on upcycling waste through nanotechnology. Her research explored the question of how waste can be converted into valuable products: building materials or devices for generating renewable energy and solving environmental problems.
Dr. Lawagon is an example of an empowered woman who allows her great mind, diligent hands and passionate heart to impact her nation and her generation.
Maria Curie, a famous female scientist once said: “We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted with something and that this thing must be attained.”
May the world be filled with many more great minds like her and Dr. Lawagon.