Filipina Balik Scientist champions biomedical research amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

The world has taken remarkable strides in sciences throughout its efforts to combat COVID-19 as a newly emerging disease. By allowing experts to better understand the disease and its effects on the human body, the field of biomedical research has contributed significant knowledge to COVID-19 response globally. Recognizing its potential in addressing pressing health concerns, Department of Science and Technology-Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (DOST-PCHRD) Balik Scientist Dr. Heidie Frisco-Cabanos returned to the Philippines in March 2020 with hopes to contribute to the field of biomedical translational research in the country.

With her experience and expertise as a research fellow from the Massachusetts General Hospital-Harvard Medical School, Dr. Cabanos is currently serving as a visiting scientist-consultant for the establishment of the Biomedical Innovations Research for Translational Health Science Laboratory (BIRTHS Lab) in the University of the Philippines Manila College of Medicine Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (UPM-CM-DBMB).

“The main goal really of my BSP visit is to help establish cutting-edge biomedical research in the Philippines,” says Dr. Cabanos, believing that it would help advance biomedical research and enable the translation of research outcomes to solutions for infectious diseases. Once established, the BIRTHS Lab is set to develop local capacities in performing experimental work involving laboratory animals and such alternatives. It will also facilitate projects on COVID-19 immune responses and vaccine-induced immunity, which can be used as reference in exploring the applications of similar technologies and solutions for other diseases.

Having started her Balik Scientist engagement during the onset of the pandemic, Dr. Cabanos admits that the scientific community was thrown into disarray, especially the field of biomedical translational research where extensive laboratory experiments are required. Forced to postpone all on-site visits due to travel restrictions, the Balik Scientist remained unfazed and dedicated to her work, continuing to impart her expertise to Filipino researchers through online seminars, lectures, and meetings.  This is a testament to what she shares is one of the most important lessons she has learned as a woman scientist during the pandemic─ being able to adapt to any situation.

Dr. Cabanos believes that women are able to make significant impact in providing solutions to the pandemic with their ability to better empathize with the needs of vulnerable sectors. “Women should continue to be a voice with a heart and give perspectives normally not observed by men and the rest of society,” she says on the role of women, especially those in science, in this pandemic.

Through the grit and perseverance of women scientists such as Dr. Cabanos, health research is able to move forward amidst a global health crisis.  To Dr. Cabanos, “Science is not a sprint but a marathon.” The work and knowledge generated by the previous generations of scientists and researchers are the foundation to the breakthroughs being achieved today. In turn, Dr. Cabanos hopes that her efforts in establishing biomedical translational research in the country will bear greater outcomes in the future that will make Filipino lives better.

Hoping that there will be more women scientists who will facilitate research-based, accessible health solutions for Filipinos, Dr. Cabanos encourages aspiring researchers to enrich their talents and skills with guidance from a mentor. As a mentor herself during her BSP engagement, she advises to “be humble by admitting that you don’t have answers to everything and learn from other experts.”

The Balik Scientist Program is the brain gain initiative of the DOST which aims to encourage overseas-based Filipino researchers to return to the Philippines and share their expertise to strengthen the capacities of local researchers in the academe, public and private sectors, and industry.