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SCIENTIA ET CIVITAS: The year that was – Top science discoveries and starting over

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By Dr. Jenny Lind Elmaco

2022 was a year of loss but also of hope, of change but also of discovering what should remain constant such as family and community. It was a year of contradictions and challenges but also of sparking hope and igniting action.

This year, we crawled slowly out of the COVID-19 pandemic, building our lives back gradually and hoping to become stronger and better not only as Filipinos but also as members of the global community. As a country, we saw our continued vulnerability to climate change with the onslaught of typhoons Karding and Paeng testing our resilience while also showing the incredible bayanihan spirit that is formidable as ever. Last month’s COP28 highlighted the need for strategic plans, accountability, and clear indicators as we work on the twin transition to a greener, digital, low-carbon economy while also finding sustainable solutions to address poverty, countering violence, and creating cultures of peace. This year, we also welcomed a new set of leaders headed by President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Romualdez Marcos, Jr. and Vice President Sara Vicenta “Inday Sara” Zimmerman Duterte-Carpio. We hope that the current set of leaders work together with civil society and the business community as we envision a sustainable future.

One of the greatest lessons of 2022, for me, was the indispensability of science and research and the importance of science diplomacy as we tackle the challenges of our time. Our collective experience with COVID-19 revealed not only the gaps in combatting infectious diseases but also the interconnectedness needed in response and recovery efforts. To usher in this column for 2023, I have selected the Top 4 scientific discoveries that I believe are important to monitor continuously as we move forward in the new year:

  1. Microplastics inside us

Plastic waste and its impact on the environment is becoming an alarming issue especially with the recent discovery of scientists from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam detecting microplastics in human blood for the first time. Lab results showed different types of plastic present with 50 percent of the blood samples having polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is the plastic mostly used for packaging food and beverages. This is a particularly worrying development especially as the Philippines is ‘one of the world’s worst offenders on marine plastic pollution, with 0.28 – 0.75 million tonnes per year of plastic entering the oceans’ as reported by SEA circular, an initiative of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA), and funded by the Government of Sweden.

  1. Lazarus-potentials in dying organs

OrganEx, a solution developed by neuroscientist Nenad Sestan from Croatia and his team at the Yale School of Medicine, allowed the scientists to restore basic organ functions from pigs, including the brain, heart, liver, and kidneys even a full hour after the animals have died. This scientific breakthrough opens possibilities in extending the viability of human organs intended for life-saving transplants.

  1. Quantum entanglement scientists win the Nobel prize in physics

While the mysterious world of quantum entanglement has been studied for quite some time now with Albert Einstein referring to it as ‘spooky action at a distance,’ in October this year, the three pioneers of quantum information science, Alain Aspect of the University of Paris-Saclay, John Clauser of JF Clauser & Associates, and Anton Zeilinger of the University of Vienna were awarded the Nobel prize in physics for their contributions to understanding this bizarre phenomena. Essentially, quantum entanglement shows that characteristics of one particle of an entangled pair depend on the characteristics of the other particle, no matter how far apart they are or what lies between them or even if they are millions of light years apart. The potentials of quantum entanglement have applications in emerging technologies for health, security and communications including supercomputing, high-precision GPS, high-resolution medical imaging, etc.

  1. AI unlocks protein structures

In our science class, we were taught that proteins are the building blocks of life. Using Artificial intelligence (AI) to predict the shapes of these proteins, Facebook’s parent company Meta and DeepMind, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet found 600 million and 220 million proteins from viruses, bacteria, and millions of species. Finding out a protein’s structure provides a greater understanding of what it does and how it works. This could help in the development of new treatments, for example.

And I want to add here one significant accomplishment with Filipino science diplomat winning the United Nations’ (UN) Sasakawa Award for Disaster Risk Reduction

Filipino scientist Glenn Banaguas won the United Nations’ (UN) Sasakawa Award for Disaster Risk Reduction Award this year. I add his triumph not only because he is a good friend but because this accolade is an important achievement to show the incredible work that Filipino environmental scientists and activists like him are doing and also to put a spotlight on the countries potential to lead the actions to address climate change. The Philippines is one of 18 mega-biodiverse countries of the world, housing two-thirds of the earth’s biodiversity and between 70% and 80% of the world’s plant and animal species. Based on 2021 Fitch’s Climate Change Physical Risk Exposure Heatmap rankings, the Philippines ranked fourth in terms of vulnerability arising from floods and storms. Meanwhile, the 2022 Country Climate and Development Report (CCDR),of the World Bank, IFC, and MIGA shares that the Philippines would benefit from an energy transition toward low- and zero-carbon alternatives. Working hand in hand with scientists on adaptation measures and climate-proofing, as well as on sustainable livelihoods, would be a great jumpstart to 2023.

Happy New Year, everyone!

*Dr. Jenny Lind Elmaco is Regional Project Director of EURAXESS, an initiative of the European Commission in research and innovation. She sits on the Board of the Association of Young Environmental Journalists and was recently awarded the Double Gold in Education and Global Diamond Award in Innovation from the Global Women Inventors and Innovators Network (UK). Follow her @JennyElmaco on Twitter.

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