Plenary speech of Dr. John Burtkenly Ong during the 50th Anniversary of the Physics Department


Dr. John Burtkenly Ong giving a speech during the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Department of Physics at Leong Hall Roofdeck last October 10, 2015.

by Quirino Sugon Jr

The Department of Physics of Ateneo de Manila University celebrated its 50th anniversary last October 10, 2015 with theme, “One Big Bang”. After the dinner, Dr. John Burtkenly Ong gave plenary speech to the alumni and friends of the Department of Physics. Dr. John Ong finished his BS Physics in Ateneo de Manila in 1991 and received his Ph.D. in in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (specialization in hydrogeology) from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2010. Below is an Introduction of the Speaker by Dr. James Bernard Simpas, Chair of the Department of Physics of Ateneo de Manila University, followed by the speech of Dr. John Ong.


by Dr. James Bernard Simpas

John graduated from these hallowed halls way back in 1991 with a BS in Physics. His academic career took him through an MS in Geology from UP, a Ph.D. in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (specialization in hydrogeology) from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and subsequent post-doctoral work with the US Geological Survey at the University of Connecticut. But the above credentials, impressive as they are, are only a part of what makes John inspiring. His unique passion to apply science for community service and development work moved him from Physics into hydrogeology. This was manifest in his early work on developing instrumentation to study rivers and flooding, to geological surveys and mapping, to research on groundwater and landslides for the benefit of poor communities and indigenous peoples. The citation for the Xavier-Kuangchi Exemplary Alumni Award he was given in 2007 states, “He is considered a modern ‘technical’ missionary who does not evangelize in the traditional sense, but is significantly transforming lives of indigenous peoples while preserving their cultural heritage for future generations.” For his work, he was also recognized as one of the TOYM for Community Service in 2003—the only Physics major to have received this award so far. John’s career path is a classic example of Ignatian discernment—seeking one’s vocation by finding where one’s greatest gifts meet the world’s greatest need.


Fr. Dan, Fr. Jett, Dr. Simpas, Dr. Alarcon, Dr. Mary-Jo Ruiz, fellow alumni, students, and friends,

Happy 50th anniversary to the Ateneo Physics Department! Wow. Days are long and years are short. I studied physics at the time when our role model was McGyver. Now they are Sheldon and Leonard from the Big Bang Theory.

A few weeks ago James asked me if I could share my experiences as an alumnus of the department and I said yes. Days later I received a formal letter from the department inviting me as a keynote speaker to talk about my insights on the department’s history and its future possibilities. My knees wobbled as I read the email and I told myself, “What more can I share to these people who know more physics than I do?” So I emailed James and asked if I could simply share how I was formed or influenced by the Ateneo physics program, and he kindly agreed.

I divided my sharing into four parts so that you’ll feel better when I reach close to the fourth part.


Dr. john Ong at the dinner table with friends. Counterclockwise from the right are Dr. Evangeline Bautista, Dr. Mari-jo Ruiz, Dr. John Paul Vergara, Dr. John Ong, Dr. Minella Alarcon, and Dr. Obiminda Cambaliza.

1. Wonderment

In my 2nd year in Ateneo, I was unable to balance the balance sheet during our final exam in accounting. I realized it was time for me to leave Management Engineering. I wandered through the Chemistry and Math Departments before literally moving up to the Physics Department–ME and Math were on the 2nd floor of Faura Hall while the Physics Department was on the 3rd floor.

I was fascinated by how things work.  I was captivated by the setting sun, the magic of fluid pressure, the gigantic momentum of a ship as it slowly docks, the invisible power of electricity and magnetism, etc. I stood in awe and wonderment at the world through the lens of physics. I built a series of pulleys and motor switches to tip a bucket of water hung on our ceiling to wake me up in the morning  when I was always late for my 7:30 am philosophy class. Curious to see how a fluorescent lamp works, I cut the glass off a fluorescent lamp, connected its ends to a current regulator I built in high school and watched in amazement as the filament glowed red hot before it exploded. I built an electronic mosquito repellant and gave it to my sponsor, the Guevarra Realty Corporation, through the Office of Admission and Aid—sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet and thank them for my Ateneo education.

I entered the department at the time when Fr. Daniel Mcnamara, SJ was chair and the faculty was composed of Dr. Minella Alarcon, Fr. Su, Mr. Norberto Tecson, Jess Rivas, Sr. Kathlyn Duffy (who gave lectures on Teilhard de Chardin), Eddie Timmermans, and new graduates such as Nathaniel Libatique, Thomas Pe, John Sy, Victor Chua, Toto Oppus, Pierre Tagle, Niel Caranto, Bong Monje, Ivan Culaba, and the shop was ran by Mang Ipe, Mang Rudy, and Sonny. Fr. Jett was a scholastic at that time. I remember he gave a talk on building a huge capacitor for a laser, and how they played with a variable transformer, pumping up the voltage but not having sufficient current. Later the words “Voltage isn’t everything; we need amps” got stuck in my head. My fondest memories were the many times Mr. Tecson would pat my back and say, “May ipapakita ako sa iyo.” We would enter his room and he would joyfully show me his newest invention.  When i was working in the shop, he would ask me what I was doing and always gave insightful suggestions. Years later, Mr. Tecson told me how fascinating the field of Environmental Science was. He exclaimed, “The entire earth is your lab!” And that perhaps if he were born at a later time, he would have studied earth sciences instead of mechanical engineering.

Life in the Physics Department wouldn’t be complete without an experience with Fr. Dan. I can’t remember what the context was but one day in a physics class, Fr. Dan asked us, “What have you done to deserve the talents and gifts that you have?” And the answer was “nothing.” Thus, we do not own our talents and gifts; they were entrusted to us and we should share them with others. I remember being struck by this question and reflected upon it.


John Ong delivering a lecture to Mangyan high school students on how to read maps

2. Listening and the humbling of science

During my 5th year in Ateneo, I wanted to join the 8-day retreat for seniors. My family was financially struggling at that time. Although it was said that no one, for financial reasons, should be excluded from joining the retreat, I, being a Filipino-Chinese, was too embarrassed or perhaps too proud to tell Fr. Dan that I couldn’t afford the retreat (Intsik na, nagppapalibre pa). I ended going on my own solo retreat. I asked Fr. Dan for some guidance. He gave me a number of bible passages and reminded me that prayer is listening. I went to San Jose, Occidental Mindoro, climbed up the barren mountains and alone sat in silence. I asked the Lord where he was calling me and what can I do with a degree in physics. I listened, and listened, and listened. By day 7, I was getting anxious because I haven’t heard anything save for the sounds of birds chirping, wind blowing and river flowing. Then on the 8th day, I heard something. What was it? Nothng. Yes that was what I heard. Nothing. And I was overjoyed. I realized I heard nothing because I lacked experience. And so I reasoned that the Lord was telling me to go out into the world, experience the world, then come back and reflect on my experience. It didn’t matter what job I chose at that time. I felt liberated and joined Fr. Walpole’s environmental group where I was very much inspired by its mission statement: science for social concern. I was tasked to evaluate the physical state of watersheds. As I went around the country, i repeatedly saw the problem of water. Too much water and there was flooding; too little water then there was drought. Years later I went on to pursue graduate studies in geology, hydrogeology, and a postdoctorate in hydrogeophysics.

Going back to my environmental research job in the early 90s, I remember attending a conference where I was deeply struck by what Dr. Uraivan, a sociologist from Chang Mai University, said. To paraphrase her, she said: “Let the mountains continue to erode, the forests get denuded, and the environment destroyed, for unless we deal with the social issues, the physical environment will continue to deteriorate.” True enough, man is the greatest agent of change. Solely solving environmental problems through physical, biological, and technological approaches are bound to fail because these problems are inextricably embedded within a social context.

In the mid 90s, I was assigned to Mindoro. As I climbed the mountains, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the hinterlands vis-a-vis the poverty of the Mangyans. As I listened to the Mangyans share their problems on how the lowlanders have encroached on their lands and displaced them–problems that are a matter of life and death–I was totally embarrassed by the petty problems in the office that often consumed me. I was tasked at that time to look into ways we can help the Mangyans secure their ancestral domain.  One day a Mangyan leader asked me if I can remain with them and teach them. That night I was kept awake in the little bahay kubo, not only by the giant gecko that threatened me with its loud tu-ko sound, but rather by reflecting on the invitation of the Mangyan for me to remain there and teach them. I left Manila and joined the mission in Mindoro. Being a man of science I thought how can I use my science to help the Mangyans. There I experienced what I would later call the humbling of science. Overwhelmed by the face of poverty and suffering, of sickly Mangyan friends succumb to TB, of kids dying from measles, I realized that the science I studied and the fascination I had for how things work appear so distant and may seemingly be only tangentially of any immediate use to their situation. Then I realized that the only time I can truly help them is when I am able to think and feel like one of them. Thus, I learned to speak, dress, think, and feel like one of them. I slowly learned and thought of ways on how the Mangyan themselves can create 3D maps of their area so they can identify their ancestral boundaries.


Dr. John Ong scanning the subsurface in search of a school buried by the landslide in Guinsaugon, Leyte (Manila Observatory – UP search-and-rescue team)

3. Science for social concern

In 1994 I attended a talk by Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo, a Fil-Am geologist who passionately spoke against the corruption and danger posed by constructing the mega dikes to contain the lahars of Pinatubo. As I listened to this man, I realized that he knew his science and was using it for the betterment of society. After so many years, I found a person who embodied the mission statement of science for social concern. I was very much inspired by this man. Years later I would join him in monitoring lahar flows and the possibility of a crater lake break (which actually did happen).

Since 2003 I became more involved in disasters, investigating landslides in Southern Leyte, flash floods in Quezon, flooding in Pampanga, and siting safe drinking water in poor communities and in evacuation centers in Mindanao.

In 2006 I co-lead a volunteer search-and-rescue team at Guinsaugon, Southern Leyte, organized by Toni Loyzaga and the Manila Observatory, where a landslide thrusted and transported a community more than half a kilometer downhill.  It was an intense and stressful moment. Like detectives working with limited time and resources we tried to locate the school where 250 children were buried by the landslide. Every search-and-rescue contingent was hoping to find even a single survivor, but the sole survivor after 7 days was a chicken, buried 2.5 feet deep. Although I took an active role and was in promptu assigned as the technical adviser for the search-and-rescue operation by the Philippine Army general, we came back home defeated.  The first thing I did when I returned to Ateneo was to visit the chapel. I entered during the Responsorial Psalm which read something like: “Lord in times of need I, I called out and you answered my prayer.” I wept knowing that the people’s prayers were left unanswered and they perished. It was as if I was hearing them cry out in prayer and I failed to help save even a single soul. As tears ran down my cheek, i heard an answer to their prayer which led me to the observatory. Rolly Choi (Ateneo Physics ‘__) was building weather stations at that time.  I told Rolly if he can fast track the development of telemetric rain gauges as early warning devices. I secured some funds from my Xavier high school batchmates to develop a prototype. Later, through the Manila Observatory, Oxfam and the American Women’s Club of the Philippines funded a number of rain gauges in Mindoro and Quezon. When we installed the rain gauges, I reminded the people that the rain gauges were there because of the sacrifice of thousands of lives in Guinsaugon–so that they may live.

A few years later I heard that the rain gauges that were painstakingly constructed and deployed in Mindoro were left unmaintained up in the mountains–another example showing that technological solutions alone cannot solve the problem.


Dr. John Ong investigating a large dug well, the drinking source of a community in Southern Philippines.

4. Science guided by the heart

When i was in grad school, two of my professors clashed each other.  Since I processed a lengthy data set, I promised Professor A that I’ll continue to work on the project even after graduate.  Months after I graduated, Professor B asked me about my status and I said I was processing the data of Professor A. This quickly annoyed him and he could not understand why I was willing to finish the project. I told him that if I do not work on the data set, then all investment would have gone to waste.  He understood that but still he couldn’t understand why I was willing to work with Professor A when others would rather avoid him. I was an outlier in the Gaussian curve and he demanded an answer. I then told him, “Professor B, if, as you’ve said, Professor A is the most difficult person to work with in your entire career–or if I may change a few words, if this person is the most difficult person to love–and I can work with this person–or I can love this person–then I can work with anyone in the world and I can love the entire world! Isn’t that wonderful?! He remained silent then remarked, “Patience, patience! I need more patience. Thank you for sharing with me your Christian love.”

I’d like to end with a story that burned in my heart the entire time I was in the US and until this day. In 2008 we visted a small community where in the previous year a local leader attended a meeting in mainland Mindanao. In that meeting people displaced by armed conflict didn’t know he was a Muslim warrior and shared with him how their dreams were shattered and how they suffered because of the war. Suddenly, it dawned upon him that the war was going nowhere and he felt a very deep desire for peace. Upon returning to his community, he ordered his men to remove the landmines that served as the protective fence around their community. Transformed into a warrior for peace, he thought of programs in health, water, and education to benefit his people and the lower caste group in their community. Thus, this was how we found ourselves visiting their community in search of clean drinking water. After surveying potential water sources and before we left, I told him that I’ve been thinking for quite some time when peace will come to Mindanao. Some build roads, schools, clinics, and water systems hoping that these infrastructures would bring peace; the military enforces peace by the use of arms; others try to organize communities; and yet I couldn’t find peace in this land. However, on that day I found peace in our midst, in the person of this leader. I realized that peace is attainable if one truly desires it, works at it, and guards it. I told him to vigilantly guard that peace for peace is a jealous taskmaster and can quickly disappear. We had plans to return and locate a potential water source using geophysical techniques. Unfortunately, later that year, conflict in that region intensified, leading to the withdrawal of our team. In silence, I continue to hear the suffering of the faceless people crying out to the Lord to listen to their prayers and for men and women of goodwill to respond to the call.

I return now to our Inang Bayan, a blurry-eyed middle-aged man close to the number of years we’re celebrating the Physics Department’s Anniversary today, realizing how time and strength quickly go by. With the limited time at hand, it is important to choose meaningful activities by allowing our science to be guided by the heart. We are faced with numerous problems: the continuing need for energy and water, a warming earth, rising sea level, intensified weather disturbances, a huge population with limited resources, contamination of our air, water and soils, an ever increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and more. How important is the study of physics in the world and specifically in the Philippines? Let your heart guide you in finding the answers. Laudato Si’.

Thank you for listening and congratulations once again to the Ateneo Physics Department on its 50th anniversary.


Group picture of the students, faculty, staff, administrators, and alumni of the Department of Physics during the 50th Anniversary celebration last October 10, 2015. Dr. John Ong is at the fourth from the left of the front row.


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