by Angela Abaño, Mari Chiong, Spencer Galit, Ysa Gohh, Cody Ipapo, and Rajah Padaen
National Scientist Lourdes Jansuy Cruz, Ph.D. is a multi-awarded Filipino biochemist. She has garnered several distinctions such as the 1981 NAST Outstanding Young Scientist Award, the 1982 NRCP Achievement Award in Chemistry, the 1986 Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service Award(Biochemistry) (“Cruz”), the 1993 Sven Brohult Award (Lee-Chua 104), and the 2010 L’Oreal-UNESCO Awards in the Life Sciences (“Dr. Lourdes,” National), among countless others. Alongside these, she has also served as the editor-in-chief of the Philippine Journal of Science, and is presently in the editorial board of Philippine Science Letters and the Journal of Toxicology—Toxin Reviews. In her work as a scholar, she has also edited two proceedings and published 130 papers. Currently, she is a professor at the Marine Science Institute at the University of the Philippines, the president of the Center for BioMolecular Science Foundation, and the president of the Bataan Center for Innovative Science and Technology (“Dr Lourdes,” ResearchSEA).
These are the words we are used to hearing as introductions to guest speakers, reading at the back of books or publications, or researching to get a glimpse of a person’s life. However, have we ever wondered how successful scientists like these come to be? What brings them to the life of science? Is it simply a naïve tick mark in a college application form, or is it a calling—a passion?
In the case of Dr. Lourdes “Luly” Cruz, there was no indication early on in her life of her future greatness as a scientist as she had a happy and carefree childhood similar to most us. Perhaps the passion for science was in her blood. Her father, Ramon Arao Cruz, was a chemist at the University of the Philippines (UP) Los Baños, and her mother, Julita Tolentino Jansuy, was a former dentist. She and her siblings grew up close to nature as they “played with leaves,” and tried to make perfume with flowers. This kind of play “made her inquire, touch, and explore her world” (Lee-Chua 92). As Luly says, “We played with plants and animals, and developed great liking for living things—I believe this should be instilled in the youth as much as possible” (qtd. in Lee-Chua 92).
In college, Luly studied in UP Diliman to follow in her father’s and eldest sibling’s footsteps—to become a chemist. Afterward, she worked in the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) as a research aide, and in 1964, she pursued her master’s degree and later on her doctorate in biochemistry in the University of Iowa (94). Luly admits that biochemistry was not her forte in college, but, as she says, “I did not let this stop me from pursuing the field. I have never regretted my decision” (qtd. in Lee-Chua 94).
Attempting research in the Philippines, as Luly would find out however, is no walk in the park. Her colleague, Dr. Baldomero “Toto” Olivera, in the Biochemistry Department of the College of Medicine of UP Manila was able to secure research grants. Unfortunately, there were numerous hindrances, such as inaccessible chemicals and outdated equipment, which “[made] it impossible for the Philippines to compete with other countries.” Hence, Toto and Luly decided to focus on resources the country did have—“the various Conus species [or cone snails], especially Conus geographus and Conus striatus” (95).
At first, Luly and her team had no concrete plan. They began by extracting the venom from the cone snails, injecting these different toxins into mice, and observing their reactions (96) such as “scratching, hyperactivity, depressed activity, sleepiness, tremors, stretching, paralysis, convulsions, and death” (Tecson-Mendoza 17).
Their team later on went to collect more samples and toxins in Camiguin and Cebu. They then resolved to work on the venom of Conus geographus, as this is the most deadly. They purified some active peptides from the poison, and isolated the α-conotoxin, which “was similar to that of a rattlesnake venom, only more deadly” (Lee-Chua 96).
Her body of work, along with her various collaborators, has helped reveal the nature of different conotoxins of the Conus species. Conotoxin is made up of only 13 to 30 amino acids, making it a relatively smaller molecule compared to snake toxins with 60 to 70. Hence it travels through its victims faster (89-90). Luly also discovered that the site specificity of each conotoxin found in the toxin of Conus geographus also adds to its potency. This means that a smaller concentration of toxin from Conus geographus spreads throughout a victim’s body just as well as the toxin of a cobra with much higher concentration (96-97). Furthermore, the site-specific attribute of the peptides of a single conotoxin can contribute to drug manufacturing. “Side effects from many drugs arise because the action of the latter is not limited to one site. Because our findings are specific, they can be used in the study of drug manufacture” (qtd. in Lee-Chua 97).
Luly’s research on conotoxins expanded the horizons of further research and understanding in various fields. It led to “(a) the elucidation of the biochemical and molecular structureand properties of many types of conotoxins and their mechanisms of action, (b) their uses as tool or probe to study brain activities, and (c) the study of other types of conotoxinsfrom other cone snails by other scientists” (Tecson-Mendoza 15).
Aside from her work on conotoxins, another project that Luly worked on was with Spirulina, a species of cyanobacteria with high-quality nutrition. During the time she was working on this substance, her sister was already suffering from stage 4 cancer. Impressed with her own research, she gave some of the substance to her sister. Soon enough, her sister’s condition began to improve and is “now optimistic about her chances in battling this disease” (Lee-Chua 103).
Despite her long list of individual accomplishments, Luly has proven that science is also about collaboration with and improving the lives of others more than just making new discoveries on her own. She established the Center for BioMolecular Science (CBMS) foundation, and with the help of several other scientists, designed projects such as a roving van disseminating biotechnology education materials. To rekindle scientific research and development in the Philippines, Luly has shown interest in founding a science and technology resource center for scientists to be able to do their research and in reviving the Philippine Journal of Science as a publication for Philippine research under the Institute for Scientific Information (Lee-Chua 104). Parallel to her desire in developing Philippine science is her passion for developing the less fortunate sectors of the country. From her compassionate efforts sprung the Rural Livelihood Incubator (Rural LINC) in Morong, Bataan which uses science and technology to eradicate poverty. Under her guidance and with the help of volunteers, Rural LINC’s various activities such as education, preservation of cultural heritage, establishment of sustainable livelihoods and medical missions have contributed to better living conditions for the indigenous Aytas (Tecson-Mendoza 19).
As we can see from Luly’s experiences, it appears as though she were meant for the life of science from the beginning. She grew up with nature and developed an interest since childhood. Also, despite biochemistry being her worst science class in college, she pursued it because she was possessed by passion. Furthermore, she is a clear example that there is no distinction between being destined for a career in science or simply being interested in it.
The same applies for all of us. You do not have to be the best at your field. As long as you have the passion for it, great things can come forth with perseverance and determination. Just as Luly did not let her weakness in biochemistry or their lack of equipment and supplies stop her, you cannot allow hindrances to stop you from reaching your goals.
Hence, as we take on the challenges that come our way, we can bear in mind Luly’s message to the youth:
“Even if you are not academically outstanding, do not give up. Try your best. Do not tire of asking questions. Get close to nature. Try to develop a hobby, like I did—and if you eventually get paid for working at your hobby, so much the better!” (qtd. in Lee-Chua 105).
- What field of science did Luly specialize in despite not being adept at it?
- What is the deadliest of the cone snails?
- What do you call the neurotoxic peptides isolated from the venom of the cone snails?
- What animals did Luly’s team initially test the venom on?
- What project did Luly work on that helped her sister’s situation with cancer?
Q & A with the Authors
1. Why did you choose Luly for your paper? If given the chance, would you change this decision?
Although it was a group decision, personally, I liked featuring Luly because of three reasons. Firstly, she proves that scientists aren’t elite people separated from the rest of society. They are people who live and enjoy life just like we all do and have the same background as we did when we were younger. Secondly, the idea of extracting toxins from cone snails isn’t exactly the most common of discoveries one can engage in. For me, this proves that there are so many unique things to learn about the world through science aside from what has been popularized by media and in technology. Lastly, cliché as it sounds, Luly has a heart. While other scientists may be content to just make discovery after discovery, she never forgot to give back to the community around her. Science, after all, is not just about pushing the boundaries of human knowledge but also using that knowledge to improve the lives of those around us. Luly most certainly did that for her fellow Filipinos. That being said, despite the abundance of Filipino scientists with equally important scientific achievements, I wouldn’t change our decision in selecting her as our featured scientist. — Cody
2. What did you learn from Luly’s story?
Luly taught me to appreciate even the unfamiliar and unnoticed species of the sea because these Conus can make a very strong impact on us, humans. Thus, Luly’s study helped me become aware of these sea creatures so that we can be able to know what we can do when we encounter them. — Spencer
3. Did Luly change your view of science?
I used to see science as a pretty easy subject, but in terms of real scientific research, I perceived it as something pursued only by those who are capable enough to do it. However, Luly’s story showed me that science doesn’t need experts alone. It needs interest, and eventually passion. — Ysa
4. Have you ever considered becoming a scientist?
I’ve always fancied the thought of becoming a scientist and contributing much to whatever field I was in. Is it still possible for us lay people to do that, however? I believe that even if we are not all fully fledged researchers, all of us can still integrate the scientific way of thinking into our lives. It influences the way we think and make decisions. It calls us to be critical and examine closely the things that we usually wouldn’t question in order to gain a more complete understanding of things. It encourages us to find a sound foundation for the things we accept as facts. If we keep this in mind, then we are doing science in our own small way. — Rajah
5. Have you ever pursued something you are not that good at?
Back when I was younger, I always had this habit of giving up midway when things are starting to get tough. For instance, I quit swimming when they offered me a spot in the competitive team because I wasn’t passionate enough to want to continue it despite the pressure and the hardships. I really admire Luly for having so much love and passion for science that she was able to pursue her dream and overcome the obstacles along the way. I’ve never pursued anything that I’m not good at but right now, I’m looking for that one thing that I would be extremely passionate about so that like Luly, my passion would be my inspiration and motivation to help me pursue my dream even if I’m not good at it. — Angela
6. If you were to meet Luly, what would your message for her be?
If I were to meet her, I’d tell her to continue achieving her goals and I’d ask for a picture and an autograph. — Mari
Question for the Reader
If you were stung by a cone snail, what would you do?
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