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Breaking Through the Glass Ceiling

An Interview with Dr. Naomi G. Tangonan

Dr. Naomi Tangonan
Dr. Naomi G. Tangonan

Centuries ago, it would have been unimaginable for a Filipino woman to go outside her home and obtain an education. Times have changed since then, but even in the modern Philippines, women are still outnumbered by men in the sciences and the academe. However, once in a while, a rare combination of talent and perseverance paves the way for an exceptional woman to reach the top and excel among her male peers. Meet Dr. Naomi G. Tangonan, a rare breed of a woman scientist who has broken through the proverbial glass ceiling and achieved distinction in her field. She was the first woman student editor of the University of Southern Mindanao’s (USM) official student paper, the Mindanao Tech in 1968, the first woman Dean of its College of Agriculture (CA) after 44 years, the first and only university professor at USM, among other noteworthy accomplishments.

Dr. Tangonan obtained a Doctor of Philosophy in plant pathology and a Master of Science in plant pathology, major in mycology (study of fungi), from UP Los Baños through scholarship grants from the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA), the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD) and USM. She finished a BS degree in agriculture, major in agronomy, at USM.

At present, she heads the following offices at USM such as the Plant Pathology Research Laboratory, Crops Research Division of the USM Agricultural Research Center (USMARC), R&D (research and development) Publications Office, a project leader of the Philippine Rubber Research Center (PhilRubber), a joint undertaking of the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Agricultural Research and USM, coordinator of the CA’s Public Information and Documentation office, and research coordinator of the CA’s Dept. of Plant Pathology.

Concurrently, Dr. Tangonan is also the editor of four publications at USM: R&D Journal, CA Research Journal, RDEP Monitor, and CA Newsletter. She has also served as editorial assistant in Kalikasan, the Philippine Journal of Biology. She is immediate past president (2002-2003) of the Philippine Society for the Study of Nature (PSSN)

In this initial offering of the “In Focus” section in BKR, Dr. Tangonan enthusiastically shares her story, hoping that women all over the Philippines will find inspiration and encourage them to break through barriers in science and society to reach their dreams and aspirations.

Why did you choose mycology as your field? Was there any particular event/person in your life that/who influenced you in making this choice?

My choice to major in mycology was, I believed – at the time I was starting to do an MS at UPLB (University of the Philippines Los Baños) – the best option; no one was into this field from my home university and it seemed to me a new and unexplored area where I can develop my academic competencies (teaching, research, extension).

Dr. Tangonan as moderator during a plenary session of the Mycological Society of the Philippines last April 11, 2003 at UPLB.

Dr. Irineo J. Dogma Jr., the country’s authority on the lower fungi (Chytridiomycetes), who was my MS thesis adviser was very instrumental in encouraging/influencing my decision. He figured to me as a very smart and committed mycologist/scientist who went out of his way to teach his students/advisees everything about the beautiful world of the fungi, as fungi! Notwithstanding the terrible effects they can bring to plants by causing diseases; the latter is also what I am currently into: plant pathology (mycology being one of its broad fields). My interest in the applied aspects of the fungi was further enhanced having worked during my PhD with Dr. Tricita H. Quimio, a recognized expert on mushrooms also at UPLB.

Please give us a background of your family.

I’m the eldest of eight siblings, single and never been married, 55 yrs young and head of the family, sort of… I live with my soon-to-be 80-yr-old mother, and two other sisters who like me are also single and nbm, nasa lahi ba kaya… and busy with careers. Josephine, 52, is the Dean of the College of Human Ecology and Food Sciences here at USM, and Sol, 47, is a Soil Technologist at the Department of Agriculture (DA)-Bureau of Soils in Cotabato City.

Mother is a plain housewife; father was with the academe, died in 1991. My late father used to be an assistant professor here at USM and had been one-time chair of both the Departments of Plant Breeding and Genetics and Animal Science; I can say he was a big influence in my career! As an UPCA/LB grad he had high expectations of his kids and perhaps wittingly or unwittingly it caught on especially the first three older ones…I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to excel and succeed even though I was not necessarily at the top among my peers…not to please my late father because in fact we were always arguing about issues, etc. When he said, “ yes,” I’d say “no” and vice versa…but otherwise he was very supportive of my career.

I have one brother, Rommel, who’s next to me, and is also the Dean of the College of Engineering and Computing here at USM; my second brother Manfred is Director of a development program at Tubod, Lanao del Norte provincial capitol, and my youngest brother Artemio Jr. is a Development Project Officer in the Agro-Industrial Production Services here also at USM. A second sister, Aida, died of asthma complications in 1990; my youngest sister Alice is an agriculturist with DA-Central Mindanao Agricultural Research Center at Kidapawan City.

We all went to public schools and in college availed of free tuition as my late dad was faculty of USM (even so I had some scholarship as academic scholar at some semesters or the other). My MS and PhD were on PCARRD and SEARCA scholarships and a Fulbright travel study grant in between at the University of Hawaii Manoa Campus.

What has been the guiding principle you found to be most helpful to you, both in your personal and academic life?

Healthy competition. I am a very competitive person and given the opportunity, I can do and give my best and work as hard pushing myself to the limits, and if my best isn’t enough I have no regrets because I gave it my all.

Living a Christian life. That with the good Lord’s help and for as long as it is His will, I can be what I want to be. Perhaps the ultimate test would be “Am I doing it for myself alone? Or for the Master Teacher and Lord of my life whom I relate to and serve each day? And the people to whom my services are due?” Somehow I do want to make a bit of difference in the lives of others (e.g., my students, colleagues et al.) and help improve the approach of doing things without being sucked into the system of politics or bureaucracy.

What is your opinion of the current status of Philippine S&T?

There is hope (and beauty?) even in the current sad if not deplorable state of S&T affairs because there are little bits of progress done or being done by people whose lives are dedicated to the improvement of fellow beings or society. Some may not warrant big media attention or might seem too trivial to be noticed but there are good committed scientists/researchers in the country (and outside) who are still determined to help make Philippine S&T move on despite the lack of government support, too much politics, crab mentality, vested interests, corruption, etc. S&T is also now “politicized” – people with no S&T track records are appointed to key S&T posts in government agencies and even SCUs (state colleges and universities), etc.

Dr. Tangonan delivers the President’s report during the 3rd PSSN Annual Scientific Convention held last May 1-2, 2003 at UP Visayas Cebu College.

In my own small world as a teacher, it lifts my spirit each time I see my own students experience first-hand the wonders of recognizing, isolating or identifying a lowly fungus that could very well be providing us a breakthrough in medicine, food, or that they begin to understand that the fungi don’t necessarily cause diseases to our plants but they help in the decomposition process and thereby maintain the ecological balance of living forms in nature. When a student understands/appreciates that concept I feel I’ve sort of succeeded in “waking up” his/her potentials as a scientist… nay mycologist or plant pathologist.

What are your expectations of Filipino scientists, in both local and global settings?

None. I have no expectations of other Filipino scientists. I have no right to expect anything from anyone! I don’t pay their salaries. Whether they work (and the manner of how they do it) here or abroad is fine with me. One can always serve humanity and even one’s country wherever one is, and can make the most of his/her services to help others, himself/herself, and society. In any setting and all things being equal I believe the Filipino scientist can excel and be at par with others.

My expectation of myself, however, is entirely a different story: that in my own career for as long as the government (my home university, the University of Southern Mindanao – USM) pays my salary, I owe it to USM to give it my best services as a scientist, teacher, researcher, without reservation, that I’ll be the first within my power and ability to defend the same from people with vested interests, etc., that I’m doing and giving my best to advance or promote its scholarly or scientific programs, and do initiatives along such lines where my expertise can be tapped. Even as a simple citizen, I’d serve my country, specifically my community, right where I am in whatever way I can.

Please describe some of the difficulties you encounter in doing research in the Philippines.

I don’t like to say more than the usual lack of funds from the government, nor the lack of moral support from the powers that be, nor the lack of modern facilities/equipment, nor the passive attitude people have if it isn’t their field, but there I’ve said them anyway!

From my experience, I can do my best with what I have and with what little – or no support – the government and my so-called bosses up there give or not give me! I can still work even with little or no logistics; there are always ways and means one can explore. Some of the understudied or unreported plant diseases I’ve worked on and published or documented recently were done with very little money or without any clear-cut funding from nowhere.

Is there a particular unforgettable episode in your student/academic/research life that you would be willing to share? If so, then please relate.

That one’s life as a scientist or academician or even as a plain teacher is not without its downsides and failures, but what makes it meaningful or challenging is that these failures are actually successes turned inside out or upside down. That when I fall or fail in any undertaking, it’s ok, no big deal, I can try again…and again…and again. I like what some soldier had said, “Though I be wounded I’m not dead, I’ll lie me down to bleed awhile; then I will rise and fight again!”

Dr. Tangonan was awarded one of the four Achievement Awards in plant pathology during the Ruby Anniversary of the Philippine Phytopathology Society last May 7, 2003 at Cebu. From l-r: Dr. Evelyn Gergon, PPS President (2002-2003); guest speakers Nelia T. Gonzales and Bernardo Castillo, pioneer plant pathologists, and Dr. Tangonan.

Personally or officially, often times, I’d be given low priority because I am a woman and thus I’d feel discriminated but I’d have a big laugh later (not at them but at myself) when eventually I’ve proven my critics wrong, that as a woman I can do what people perceived only men can do!

When you feel discriminated as a woman, how do you deal with it? Do you meet these challenges head-on or do you prefer the passive way?

I don’t think I’ll ever be the passive one: I stand my ground, I talk and if necessary I write and make some noise to the point that sometimes I’d be misunderstood. I think I’m a fighter for as long as I know I am right and my value system is at stake or compromised, but when I realize I am wrong, I’ll be the first to apologize as well, am very open and transparent in my official and personal dealings with people but when I need to be silent, I clam up. I feel for the ‘underdogs’ who do their best and work as hard but are not given a break…it’s like I can identify with them. I never use my gender to advance my interests – it’s just that I am a woman, I play fair, my cards on the table, I can be one of the so-called “president’s men”…but see, even that phrase is so sexist!

What would be your particular advice to younger women who are only beginning with their career (and families)?

Advice to young women? Oh I really am not sure with this kasi case-to-case naman. I’d just say they follow their instincts and gut feelings! If they can do a good balancing act and have the best of both worlds, fine! Many women succeeded in that but when and if it comes to choosing what option, I’d say go for family first and career next. I am blessed in that point: no husband to consult or condescend to, I was and am free to decide on my own! But I also value the opinion of others, hindi ako sarado. No substitute for a successful career if one’s family is sacrificed kung baga pa. One’s career can wait or be on-hold but your kids will be kids once only and when they need you, you must be there because that’s what they’ll remember and treasure you for when they become adults. In a way, I am a ‘mother’ to my nephews and nieces and I know the feeling. It is painful to see women succeed in their careers but whose own children have been neglected so to speak. Women should never lose touch with their own families no matter how busy they are with careers.

Finally, please give a message for our kababayans.

Stop complaining, stop griping, and start doing something positive in your field! Science is so promising that one can produce outputs even with the barest of essentials. In our own small or big way, we can make a difference in S&T…they say and I agree it basically starts with the right ATTITUDE!

I know there are far more deserving women out there who should’ve been interviewed first and having been considered by BKR and given this opportunity, I want to humbly say thanks for the honor of being interviewed by you; I have such high regard for BKR and the wonderful people behind it! More power and the good Lord bless you all.*

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