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Teaching microbiology in Ethiopia

/ 12:40 AM November 29, 2015
DANTE R. SANTIAGO, associate professor at Jimma University in Ethiopia, serves as a mentor to his graduate and postgraduate students who are on to some ground-breaking and potentially life-saving discoveries.

DANTE R. SANTIAGO, associate professor at Jimma University in Ethiopia, serves as a mentor to his graduate and postgraduate students who are on to some ground-breaking and potentially life-saving discoveries.

Global Pinoy had the chance to interview through e-mail Dante R. Santiago, a Filipino scientist in Ethiopia.

He studied at the University of the Philippines, is married and has two daughters.

Excerpts from the interview:

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Global Pinoy (GP): Was being a scientist a dream since childhood? Did a particular event happen that made you want to be a scientist? 

I became a scientist due to circumstance. I wanted to be a medical doctor in order to follow the footsteps of my older cousins (a doctor, a dietitian and a nurse). Also my aunt on my father’s side planned to put up a hospital so I thought that I could take part in it.

However, when I entered University of the Philippines in Diliman (premed courses were offered there at that time, 1970s), I realized that our finances could not support a medical curriculum which would last for nine years, at least.

So I shifted to BS Hygiene (now BS Public Health), the closest curriculum to medical laboratory technology thinking that if I pass the medical technology board and become a licensed practitioner I could still fit into my aunt’s planned hospital.

Time passed and plans changed. My older cousins all immigrated to the US and the planned hospital evaporated. Nevertheless, I pursued my hygiene course since it was too late to change it. In my junior year, I was fascinated with microbiology, the world of bacteria, molds and viruses (not the computer variety).

Microbiology really became my passion so much so that I decided to specialize in this field of study. So I took up MS in Microbioloy at UP Los Baños. At Los Baños, I also encountered the world of insects and since insects do get infected by microbes, I pursued my doctorate in Entomology (study of insects), specialized in Insect Pathology, the field representing the marriage between microbiology and entomology. Although I am an insect specialist now, I did not forsake my first passion—microbiology.

GP: How would you describe yourself as a scientist? Do you get lost in your work? What are some funny or not-so-funny incidences in your life with regard to your work? 

I am a focused person. When I decide to pursue an interest, my attention is almost fully directed to that endeavor. My wife complained about it because of my tendency to forget many responsibilities.

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When we were building our house at Bay (next town to Los Baños), Laguna, my attention was divided between my work and checking on the progress of the house construction. Because of this I forgot to pick up my daughter Guia from nursery school one morning.

Fortunately, my laboratory attendant passed by the school, saw Guia and brought her to our house. When I came home that day, my wife asked me where my daughter was. I was horrified I forgot all about my daughter because my attention was on something less important than her.

GP: What is a typical day for you?

Here in Jimma, Ethiopia, I go to the university campus every day except Saturday and Sunday. The campus is just a 10-minute walk from my house. When I have class, I lecture in the morning and hold laboratory sessions in the afternoon. In most days, I spend my morning there doing

e-mails, reading online news (Inquirer, BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera) and advising students.

In the afternoon, I just stay in my house, reading books. In the evening, I watch videos that I downloaded from the Internet or given by friends. I prefer videos with moral themes.

SANTIAGO is one of the first Filipinos to come to Ethiopia as an educator. During his tenure, he has advocated and succeeded in improving laboratory facilities of the university to better support its students.

SANTIAGO is one of the first Filipinos to come to Ethiopia as an educator. During his tenure, he has advocated and succeeded in improving laboratory facilities of the university to better support its students.

GP: What is your ultimate goal as a scientist?

Well, my perspective has changed and I don’t do research anymore. Rather, I convince graduate and postgraduate students to go to the fields I am interested in and let them implement the research agenda I have. In this way, I train them to become either a microbiologist or entomologist in the specialization akin to mine.

For example, I guided a masteral student who was able to obtain from soil samples two bacteria that can degrade textile dyes in textile-industry waste water. Most textile dyes, in the liquid form, when swallowed can cause cancer in man, but are safe when already bound in the cloth.

He is the first person to do that in Ethiopia. Another graduate student of mine was the first Ethiopian to do research on the use of molds for control of mosquito that transmits malaria which is quite prevalent in this country.

Now, a postgraduate student is working under my supervision on the genetics of two protozoan parasites which are also prevalent here. Incidentally, my specialized field in microbiology is microbial genetics.

GP: Do you believe in a Supreme Being?

Yes, absolutely. But let me relate to you my journey in religion. I was baptized a Catholic and grew up a Catholic. However, my exposure to biological studies led me to become an evolutionist.

Evolutionary theory teaches that the universe came into being due to a naturalistic phenomenon, an implosion of a superdense matter that expanded leading to the formation of galaxies, stars, planets, moons and other objects (e.g., comets) in the cosmos. This is referred to now as the “Big Bang.”

Also, there is the naturalistic origin of life and the evolution of species, first “simple” ones such as bacteria that gave rise to more complex organisms such as plants, animals and ultimately, humans.

These are the teachings of Charles Darwin, the author of the now classic book, “The Origin of Species.” Evolution in biology is also called Darwinism. So, the creator God is excluded from the equation of the universe and life.

I came to realize later that evolution has two insurmountable flaws:

  1. How matter came from nothing as supposed by the “Big Bang”; and
  1. How life arose from inanimate matter as proposed by Darwinists and Neo-Darwinists (present biologists who champion Darwin’s ideas).

I am fully convinced that the nature of the universe and life forms can be better explained by the existence of a designer who formed such complex creations. I am now a Bible Christian, a Seventh-day Adventist.

I say I am a Bible Christian because my belief is entirely based on the teachings of the Bible. There are those who claim to be Christians but the doctrines they believe in are unbiblical such as the immortality of the soul, sacredness of Sunday, completion of atonement at the cross and the so-called secret rapture.

GP: Please tell us about your family. 

I am married with one spouse and two loving daughters, now both taller than me and my wife. My wife, Connie, is a nutritionist by profession and was a teacher in community health at UP.

After early retirement, she worked for some 12 years or so in the fast-food industry and is currently involved in the garment industry.

My elder daughter, Guia, is a graduate of Communication Arts at UP Los Baños and now works in the public relations industry. My younger daughter, Anne, although a graduate of Hotel and Restaurant Management at St. Paul’s University Manila, is with the human resource section of a foreign bank based in the Philippines.

GP: Do you ever stop working or are you like the stereotypical scientist in movies who is always working the whole time?

Not anymore. As I said, I relegate the hard work of research to my students who, by the way, are quite obsessed in the lines of study I involved them in. I am now some sort of overseer, looking over their shoulders and giving pointers when needed. So, I am more relaxed now in terms of “work” and I spend my time on another line of “work” which involves my church.

GP: What are your hobbies?

Well, I still read books. I don’t have television here in Ethiopia so books and videos are my pastime. Sometimes I collect insects for preservation but only a few and if I find them unusual or new to me.

When I retire, really retire if you know what I mean, I would like to learn how to play the saxophone. I like the sound. Also I would like to buy a telescope and admire God’s creations, especially the constellation Orion and the Orion nebula.

GP: What books do you like to read? What book are you reading now?

Now, I read the books of Ellen G. White, one of the founders of Seventh-day Adventist denomination and those of other Bible Christians. Once upon a time, I was an avid reader of the works of Robert Ludlum, JRR Tolkien and Christopher Paolini.

A FORMER evolutionist, Santiago is now a Bible Christian, a Seventh-day Adventist, and attends service and lectures at a church in Jimma, Ethiopia, where he currently works.

A FORMER evolutionist, Santiago is now a Bible Christian, a Seventh-day Adventist, and attends service and lectures at a church in Jimma, Ethiopia, where he currently works.

Biblical interest

Santiago says he saw an advertisement in a newspaper about teaching jobs in Ethiopia. “I was already retired from UP LB then and teaching in a college in Manila. Because Ethiopia is in the Bible, my interest was piqued and I applied.”

He says he was going to a place like Egypt. He was informed he was going to Jimma, located southwest of Addis Ababa, the capital.

“Fortunately, I was accepted by the Ethiopians who interviewed me right there and then.”

His notion was he was going to a larger version of Baguio City.

“When I saw Jimma the first time, it hit me that my initial impression of the country was way off the mark. Roads are not paved except the main highway, muddy when it rained and dusty when dry. I realized that beyond the capital city, Ethiopia is backward.

In 2006 when I first set foot here, the country was one of the 10 poorest in the world. It was only then that I understood why the United Nations Development Program under which I was hired as a teacher is called “capacity building,” that is, to help Ethiopia get out of the world’s cellar, so to speak. Since then, however, the economy and living conditions are improving which of course is inevitable since, for Ethiopia, the only way is up.

Culturally, Ethiopians are slow to adopt foreign ideas except cellular phones (for most people) and the Internet (for academics and professionals). For example, we planted pechay for our own consumption and when we shared it with the locals, the elderly refused to use it because “it is not Ethiopian.”

Also, the younger generation would not use chayote even when we taught them how to cook it because it is new to them. Their mind-set is to stick to things Ethiopian even though foreign ideas may improve their lot.

“I am one of the first Filipinos to come to Ethiopia as a college teacher. (We were told that, during the time of Ferdinand Marcos, Filipino high school teachers were deployed here.) I teach at the graduate and postgraduate levels and only very recently that I was asked to teach an undergraduate course in order to maximize the benefit of my presence here.

“In the beginning, there were only six Filipino teachers here in Jimma and now there are 13. Only two (including me) are not engineers. The other one is a lady English teacher. It is because of our good performance—the first batch of teachers—that the Ethiopian government decided to recruit more Filipino teachers.

“I think there may be more than 60 of us here scattered all over Ethiopia.

“Every now and then, we have gatherings and enjoy good Filipino food while drinking and singing songs (videoke). Also, a regular event is dinner in a restaurant when salary day comes. There are two fine restos near the campus which we frequent.”

He says most Ethiopians mistake Filipinos for Chinese and refer to them us: “You, you, China. When they realize we come from the Philippines, they call us Philippians, mistaking us for the people to whom the apostle Paul wrote a letter (The Epistle of Paul to the Philippians).

“This shows their familiarity with the Bible. (It is lamentable that unlike the Ethiopians, we Filipinos are Bible illiterate.) The dominant religions here are Orthodox Christianity (akin to the Greek Orthodox) and Islam. There are Evangelical Protestant churches and Catholics are a tiny minority.

“Many Ethiopians are wary of the Chinese but when they recognize we are not, they become courteous, friendly and even solicitous.

“Often, when I fall in line to pay my electric and water bills, those ahead of me would urge me to go to the front. Of course I decline their gracious offer. They usually greet us with ‘Where are you go’ and a smile. Children would say ‘I love you’ though we perfectly know that they don’t understand the true meaning of the words,” Santiago says.

Santiago comes home with two other Filipinos once a year for a one-and-a-half to two months vacation. “Of course I feel homesick once in a while. I believe we all do because when we gather together, we discuss events in the Philippines and I see the nostalgic look in the faces of others, especially those with small kids. I am the most senior in the group, three are in their early 50s and the rest, in their mid- or late 30s. This is the reason why there is videoke singing every time we meet, to ward off loneliness due to separation from dear families.”

Insects

 

Regarding insects, Santiago says, “Insects are very interesting because of their sheer variety and also functions in nature. Insects are the most dominant animals in the world. Without some of them, we cannot have most of our fruits for they are the flower pollinators.

“Do you know that the pollinators of the mango tree are the green bottle flies we call bangaw?

“The most interesting insect for me is of course the butterfly, very colorful and graceful in flight, indeed. Remember the strategy of Muhammad Ali? ‘Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.’ However, I don’t collect them; I merely admire them. This is because when I was still a postgraduate student, our teachers advised us not to catch them for they are already considered a threatened species I agree with them.

“So I collect beetles instead. They are the most numerous and variable of all insects. I prefer the scarabs, which have sizes ranging from small to huge and stunning coloration ranging from drab grey to shiny black or green or yellow or blue hue.

“If chance permits, you may view the scarabs in Google Images and you will also be fascinated with them. Some species serve as food such as the salagubang and toy like the salaginto. You might also be familiar with the rhinoceros beetle or uwang (so called because of the very prominent horn on the head, very much like the rhinoceros) that is the bane of coconut trees.”

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TAGS: Dante R. Santiago, Ethiopia, Global Pinoy, microbiologist, Scientist
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