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Science in the service of the Filipino people

de-Ungria (1)
She was only nineteen when Dr Corazon De Ungria took her first plane trip to Australia. Armed with her passion for scientific discovery, she went there to pursue an undergraduate degree in microbiology. Little did she know that she would be staying training and living there for eleven years, and that she’ll be coming back home not just with a college degree, but also with a PhD.

Cora, as she is fondly called by her family and friends, found her perfect match in Australia: she was passionate about learning, and Australia gave her opportunities to learn through different means. “People there like exploring, which really ties up with what I want. Science, to me, is an intellectual pursuit, and Australia provided me with different avenues for this, such as travel, conversations, cinema and through many other different ways.”

After finishing her undergraduate degree in microbiology at the Macquarie University, she pursued her doctoral degree in microbiology at the University of New South Wales.

“My Australian education has equipped me with technical and scientific skills to pursue a research career in the sciences. My passion for scientific discovery was nurtured in highly dynamic and productive research environments at Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales under the abled mentorship of excellent Australian scientists.”

One of her fondest memories in the university was the time the school supported her thesis defense even if it was just for formality or paper work. She was amazed by the trust and camaraderie given by her peers and mentors. “I was not from Australia, and I didn’t know the entirety of their culture, but I was able to leap the divide and we were able to collaborate well with each other.”

Through it all, Cora never lost sight of her dream: to use science in building a better Philippines. Instead of staying in Australia or going to other countries to become a well-paid scientist, she chose to go back to the Philippines to serve the country. “Had I gone overseas, I may have personally excelled, but I think I needed to stay in the Philippines. I was given opportunities that not all people in the country were getting – and this allowed me to have a voice. And if I could provide the voice for the people who do not have one, then maybe my life would be of use to some,” she said.

It was 1999 when she returned to the Philippines, and forensic science was still largely a man’s world. But Cora worked tirelessly alongside her male colleagues – forensic pathologists, lawyers, judges, police officers – and proved that women can flourish, whether in the crime scene or in the laboratory.

Now, almost twenty years after, Cora is head of the DNA Analysis Laboratory of the University of the Philippines Diliman, she and her team have been instrumental in the field of forensic science, particularly in improving the country’s criminal justice system. One of the laboratory’s key contributions under her leadership is the legislation on the use of DNA evidences, which had been promulgated by the Supreme Court and is now being used by trial courts.

“My parents gave up many, many things – material and otherwise – in order for me to get an Australian education and allow me to pursue my dream, and that is to use science in nation building. Recognising the power of science broadens the base from which we can find creative and novel solutions for the problems that afflict society. For me, DNA is a powerful catalyst for change. I work to be a change-maker by putting science at the service of the Filipino people,” Cora said.

Dr. Maria Corazon De Ungria had received prestigious scientific awards such as the NAST Outstanding Young Scientist in 2003, the UP Gawad Hall of Fame for Best REPS in Research in 2005, the Outstanding Young Scientist award by the Third World Academy of Science in 2006 and being named as the first Filipino regional fellow affiliate of the Academy of Science in the Developing World (2007-2011). Her type of leadership was recognized by different sectors that awarded her with the TOYM award (2005), the Asia Society Young Leader Award (2006) and the TOWNS award (2007).

She was inaugural Outstanding Alumni 2017 by the Australian Embassy in the Philippines. The Australian Alumni Excellence Awards recognises the achievements and contributions of Australian-educated Filipinos.

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