Monday, July 19, 2010

On the shore with a balik scientist in Guimaras

The Philippines Department of Science and Technology (DOST) Balik Scientist Program aims to strengthen academic and technological human resources in the sciences. It started in 1975, was suspended in 1986 but resumed in 1993, during the Ramos presidency.

The program aims to bring back Pinoy science talent from overseas to teach, do research or science consultancy with the academe, government or even industry. About a year ago, my high school buddy and ex UPIS science club member, Yale computational geochemist and system administrator Dr Mihali A Felipe corresponded with me on his plans to apply for the program. This was approved and this July he is spending a month a UP to teach students and lay the groundwork to establish a computational chemistry research effort.

Computational chem has immense importance since using computers, the need to do expensive chemical experiments can be minimized. Also the approach has obvious environmental applications. In the environment, large scale experiments may be impractical and expensive.

This year the Guimaras government invited Mihali to take a look at the sites heavily impacted by the 2006 Guimaras oil spill. The question in the mind of provincial officials is whether the environment has recovered sufficiently enough for it to be declared clean.

Mihali took a look at oil residues still on rocks and sediment. In oil spills the toxic polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are rapidly volatilized and eventually this would be reduced to levels acceptable to environmental agencies. However the downside is that these PAHs can bioaccumulate and pose a health risk for people dependent on seafood. The question of whether PAH has entered the Guimaras food chain has not been answered. Here is where research effort will have to be focused.

Ecologically there have been negative effects with the ecological communities not returning to their original state and mangrove trees and seagrasses having shown a decrease in growth rates. Worldwide massive spills like this have chronic long term effects. The best studied one which we have a long term data set, the Torrey Canyon oil spill of 1967 suggests that the spill effect is still apparent 43 years after the event.

The expertise of Balik Scientists like Mihali is important in finding future directions for basic science and ecological research aspects of environmental disasters such as this oil spill. The computational aspect is a plus since it can save on costs.

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