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FEATURE STORYMarch 7, 2023

Dr. Pia Bagamasbad, The Philippines

Dr. Pia Bagamasbad, University of the Philippines International Women's Day 2023

Each year for International Women’s Day, the World Bank meets women across East Asia Pacific who are challenging, creating, and leading the way in their fields.

At the height of the pandemic, Dr. Pia Bagamasbad led a team of students and researchers from the University of the Philippines National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (NIMBB) in training medical technologists on RT-PCR testing for COVID-19. The training program made significant contributions in rapidly increasing the testing capacity of the country and supporting its pandemic response.

Over a span of less than two years the Philippines rapidly expanded the number of laboratories that can conduct RT-PCR tests. As part of its pandemic response support to the Philippines, the World Bank helped finance the expansion of testing facilities, medical consumables, and training of laboratory professionals. As part of the Philippine Department of Health’s (DOH) COVID response program, Dr. Bagamasbad led a team that developed and implemented the COVID-19 Online Learning Laboratory (COLLab) Course on RT-PCR testing currently being offered by the Philippines Department of Health. In recognition of her achievements, Dr. Bagamasbad was named one of The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS) in 2022.


What inspired you pursue your field and the research areas you are engaged in?

It was really a choice when I was in graduate school. In grad school, you get to choose your PhD adviser, and for me it was more of a match of personalities. I found a PhD adviser whose personality and method of mentoring matched mine; and the research focus of the PhD adviser that I chose was investigating the molecular basis of hormone action in development of organisms. We were particularly interested on how stress hormones and the thyroid hormone affect the brain development.

I realized if I’m going to have my own lab in the Philippines and for my research interest to be more appealing to funding agencies, I realized that I needed to transition my research focus from basic science to biomedical research for our work to be better appreciated and be moe relevant to people. That’s when I shifted to cancer research, studying several types of cancers that are driven by hormones including breast and prostate cancer.

Can you tell us the story of how you supported the COVID-19 response?

During that time, we were studying genes and how genes are expressed, and for our studies we needed the RT-PCR technique. It was the first machine that I purchased when I established my lab here in the Philippines in 2014 because it is central to what we do in the lab and most of our experiments are based on [that technique]. In my lab, we did not use RT-PCR to detect viruses. Although it is used to do that but for our purposes it was more for research and trying to answer the research questions that we had. So my research assistants, my undergraduate and master’s students were highly trained in using the RT-PCR technique.

When the pandemic hit, we could not go to the lab anymore. And then we all know what happened: the initial one week [lockdown] became months, and the months became years.

No one was allowed to enter the university for two weeks. When the COVID cases were increasing, we were thinking that the virus could be detected by RT-PCR. We knew then that there were only three testing labs in the country: RITM, San Lazaro, and UP Manila. For us to really curb the spread of the virus, we must test because we must isolate the infected ones, and we all know how that works already. Rapid antigen tests were not available then, because they were developed later. We had to do timely testing and we had to test all the ones exposed. Even if you’re not showing symptoms, RT-PCR can confirm if you are COVID-19 positive. So we said, ‘you know we have all these people, all these students, research assistants who are capable of running the tests. And we have several RT-PCR machines housed in our building’. We thought: why don’t we just come up with the training program to train the medical technologists how to do RT-PCR testing?

It was just a group chat from professors who wanted to help curb the spread of virus at the height of the pandemic. That’s how it came to me and how it started. We developed a module for a week, got the funding to run the training program; a hands-on training program.

We [eventually] also came up with an online version of the training program [through which] we could train more people. …Through that online course, we were able to train more than 8,000 laboratorians, med techs, from all over the country, from across 17 regions.

Were there equality issues that you’ve encountered when you were working with other teams?

None. In fact, most of the experts that they had on the expert panel for testing were women. And I’d like to highlight that the field of life sciences is dominated by women in the Philippines, it is one of the few countries where that is the case.

If you look at the faculty roster here (NIMBB) or even in the College of Science, maybe there are more women than there are men. Being a woman in the academe is no longer a disadvantage here in the Philippines. I did my graduate education in the US and there it is a different picture where the academe is dominated by men. In the Philippines or at least in the life science, I can say that we get an equal number of men and women who are interested in this field, who pursue graduate studies in this field and end up staying in the academe and doing research. From my observation, women in leadership roles tend to have strong personalities developed from being educated or working in countries and environments where barriers to women persist.   

How did you find your leadership voice?

For me it is leading by example. It’s when your team members see that you are passionate and dedicated to your work and that you work just as hard or even harder than they do. I think it trains people to have a positive attitude and be highly motivated towards the work they do, and inspire and develop their passion for research. More importantly, your team members need to see and appreciate the vision and impact of their work, that their work contributes to expanding scientific knowledge, as in the case when we publish our research work, or helps in increasing the number of STEM professionals needed for nation building as in the case of the faculty and administrative staff of our Institute.

How about the women’s role in leadership positions? How can we ensure more women to be in a leadership post? Is the current environment more accepting of women becoming leaders?

Yes, it is. We are very lucky that the Philippines is a world leader in gender equality and women empowerment as I have seen in the academe particularly in the life sciences.  Our family structure and support system at home give women more time and flexibility to take on leadership positions without sacrificing their traditional roles.

To encourage women to take more leadership roles, we need to help women realize that we are no longer limited to our traditional roles and the women are capable of accomplishing great things with efficient use of my time, hard work, and dedication. The most effective way to do this is emphasize the importance of quality education, hard work and passion. From my experience, it really helped to have had mentors who really motivated me and pushed me to my limits to make me realize my full potential. Leaders and mentors in leadership positions, both men and women, need to take more proactive roles in mentoring young women and leading  the way towards the path that they have paved where women are no longer limited to traditional roles of where and what they should be.

What advice would you have for women who are still studying or are early in their careers?

They should not be discouraged by failures. They should think of failure as a learning experience, that there is a lot more that they can learn from mistakes than there is when they are always being right or always successful in their first try. Failures should be a source of motivation and not discouragement.

In the Philippines, what are your hopes in overcoming barriers for women in their careers?

The barriers are not unique to women but exists for all of the Filipino youth as evidenced by the education crisis in the Philippines where students complete their basic education and yet are still completely lacking in basic knowledge that should have been acquired at the level of basic education. The education crisis has been worsened by the pandemic where online education has created a learning disability. To address this problem, we need to reform the education system which includes raising the standards and quality of teaching at the level of basic education. We need to improve the quality and standards of our educators, and to achieve this, it needs to start from the government. In our society, teaching is not considered as a desirable career path or as an indicator of success. Lawyers, engineers, and medical doctors are regarded as smart and successful but we need even smarter teachers because educators build the foundation of these successful careers. We need to change this outlook given the critical roles that our teachers play in effectively imparting the necessary knowledge and experience needed to shape the future of our youth, and consequently of our country.



**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.


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