IBM Research Scientist Dr. Paulito Palmes to give a talk on Deep Learning


Paulito Palmes to give a talk on “Deep Learning: Overview and Applications” on jan 21, 2015, 4:30 p.m., at CTC-313.

The School of Science and Engineering, Ateneo de Manila University and Ateneo Social Computing Science Laboratory cordially invites you to attend the 2016 SOSE Lecture Series featuring “Deep Learning Overview and Applications” by Paulito P. Palmes, Research Scientist at IBM Ireland’s Dublin Research Laboratory (DRL) and Balik Scientist on January 21, 2015, 4:30pm-6:00 p.m. at CTC313


Big companies such as Google (DeepMind, Google Brain, Google Photos), IBM (Watson), Microsoft (Skype translator, Cortana), Facebook (DeepFace, FAIR), and Baidu (DeepSpeech) are investing heavily on deep learning technologies for their cognitive computing applications. Information is continuously growing and a big chunk of this Big Data is unstructured information. All these companies are involved with Big Data processing and are confronted with the problem of how to automatically extract relevant information for monetization. Deep learning, which is a reincarnation of Neural Networks with much deeper processing layers, has been shown to be effective in extracting features and abstractions automatically for large scale unlabeled data. It is a generic algorithm which can be applied to image recognition, natural language or speech processing, and prediction. In deep learning, the bigger and deeper the network is, the more accurate and robust is its performance. Due to its highly computer-intensive requirements, most implementations use GPUs to speed-up training specially for very deep networks. There are two parts in the presentation. The first part is for the general audience. It starts with some background information and historical development of Neural Networks and its recent reincarnation. Some basic concepts on how the network learns patterns and the underlying mechanisms how it generalises will be discussed. The second part is intended to those who would like to see real applications and sample codes. A brief overview of Julia programming language will be covered followed by its application to image recognition using its Deep Learning module.

About the Speaker

Paulito P. Palmes is currently a Research Scientist in IBM Ireland’s Dublin Research Lab (DRL) working in the areas of data mining, cognitive computing, and biomedical engineering. He finished his Bachelor’s degree in Applied Math at the University of the Philippines (Visayas) and his Master’s degree in Computer Science (AI) from the Ateneo de Manila University. He went on to finish his PhD from the Toyohashi University of Technology, Japan. He’s third in the family to receive the Outstanding Young Scientist (OYS) award in 2007 which was awarded during his teaching stint at the ADMU. His research interests are in the areas of data mining, machine learning, evolutionary computing, and biomedical engineering.


RSVP Name, Organization, Contact Number and number of participants by January 20, 2016 to: Ms. Jasmin Javier, jjavier(at), 4266001 local 5670, 09189633058 with subject header: SOSE Lecture Series.

Department of Information Systems and Computer Science
Rm 208 Faura Hall
Katipunan Ave., Loyola Heights,
1108 Quezon City, Philippines
+63 2 426 6001 ext 5660
Tel/Fax +63 2 426 6071

Genie Lorenzo’s talk during the Ateneo Physics Department’s 50th Anniversary

Genie Lorenzo

Genie Lorenzo (BS Physics 1998 and BS Electronics Engineering 2010) giving a talk during the 50th Anniversary of the Department of Physics last October 10, 2015 at Faber Hall . Photo by Johannes Añonuevo.

by Quirino Sugon Jr

During the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Department of Physics last October 10, 2015, one of the alumni who shared her memories of the department is Genevieve Rose H. Lorenzo. She finished her BS Physics in 1998 and her MS in Electronics Engineering in 2010–both from Ateneo de Manila University. Since 2002, Genie has worked as a research staff in the Urban Air Quality Dynamics/Instrumentation Technology program of Manila Observatory.

One of Genie’s tasks at Manila Observatory is maintenance of MO’s 42 Automated Weather Stations: 28 in Metro Manila, 8 in Rizal,  1 in Cavite, and 5 in Mindanao. An Automated Weather Station automatically measures rainfall rate, accumulated rainfall, temperature, wind direction, and air pressure–something similar to Fr. Angelo’s Secchi, SJ’s Universal Meteorograph in 1867 which Manila Observatory acquired during its foundation at the time of Fr. Federico Faura, SJ.  The only difference is that the data are not anymore recorded by pen on paper but electronically and transmitted to Manila Observatory via the Internet. Genie writes scripts in Python or PHP to format the data from the automated weather stations to serve as input for forecasting typhoon tracks and rain volume and also for modeling climate change risks. Many of the weather reports published by the observatory were co-authored by Genie.

Genie’s other task at Manila Observatory is maintenance of air samplers used for air quality research. These machines suck in air and let them pass through a filter. The filter is then weighed and chemically analyzed in MO’s UAQ/ITD lab to determine whether the soot comes from cars, industrial exhausts, etc. The difference in the blackness of the filters can be considerable, e.g. comparing the air in EDSA with that of Antipolo. Genie also joins in the Manila Observatory’s annual air quality monitoring during New Year’s Eve. An example of this is the Urban Air Quality Report of 2014.

Below is a copy of the speech of Ms. Genie Lorenzo during the 50th Anniversary celebration of the Department of Physics.


by Genie Lorenzo

In 1986 Halley’s Comet was in the sky, and somehow my papa and I were able to watch that together.  That was maybe my first stark memory of being amazed by the night sky.  Then in high school I was intrigued by the metric system, how a camera worked, and an experiment in physics class with candles and lenses and inverted images, and my high school Physics teacher, Ms. Alcid, was so clear and coherent with her lessons that I, perhaps without knowing any better, bravely ticked the BS Physics CE program in my college entrance application to the Ateneo.  My neighbor Thryza kept on convincing me to go to the Ateneo, where she too was enrolled, and so when I found out that my good friend from high school, Anne, was going to Ateneo to enroll in the undergraduate double degree Physics and Computer Engineering program, I decided to come to Ateneo and enroll in that program too in 1994.  (Eventually I finished only the BS Physics program, and pursued the MS Electronics Engineering degree later.)

A. Demonstrations

I remember it must have been the first day of our freshman Physics 31 class or lab, and our teacher, Dr. Simpas (he must have been in his early thirties then) had me stand on a measured particular spot in the room,  while he swung a metal ball tied to a string toward me in order to demonstrate the pendulum.   There was also a spring demonstration shown to us during our tour in Faura Hall in freshman year, among other things there like the “resonance” demonstration.  For me the spring set-up in Faura merely looked like a slinky that one found in toy stores on display, and like many of the concepts taught in class, I think they call people like me a slow learner, it took me a while to appreciate why that spring, waves, and sine waves were so important and fundamental in our everyday lives and the universe.  Most of the demonstration set-ups then, they say, were made by Mr. Tecson, so our block was both very excited and a bit worried to have Mr. Tecson as our first EM teacher as we heard about his unique, effective and yet frightening style of teaching and giving oral exams for each class meeting.  We began some classes with Mr. Tecson, but then he got sick, and so he couldn’t be our teacher, and then some semesters after he was again supposedly going to be our teacher, but then he passed on.  Then there was Mr. Montuno, and the Millikan Oil Drop experiment in the Advanced Physics lab, and oral exams about the Twin Paradox.  And so for my 18th birthday by blockmates gave me a white puppy, whom we named Tipler, after the author of the Modern Physics book that guided us through countless overnight review and problem set solving sessions.

B. Manila Observatory

For senior year, I signed up for thesis work at the Manila Observatory, which for us then, maybe until now (?),  was a relatively unknown faraway location on campus.  I do not remember now if it was before or after the thesis but at some point after I had trekked over to that part of campus I was able to pay a visit to Fr.Dan in his brown room (the furniture was all brown, and ancient, and he had so many books that must have been classics on the bookshelf) and when I asked him what I could do there, he simply replied, “water vapor.”  “It is important to study water vapor especially here in the tropics,” was what he said. The topic assigned to me for my thesis was on clouds and optical depth, and Dr. Alarcon was my adviser and we communicated via email as she was sent to Rose-Hulman in the US then.  And I don’t think I did much… but Dr. Alarcon was gracious to me and, maybe because of her absence, she took it easy on me, but I remember being so amazed and engaged by the new things I was reading about on clouds and radiation in the journals.  And there was no google then, only the beginnings of alta vista search, so we had to manually look through all the journals, and even visit the PAGASA library in Quezon Avenue, and correspond with the authors of the journals via email and await the copy via snail mail— and to open an envelope with a journal from an author for me then was already a big thing.

C. Personal Care

Mr. Bennett was our teacher too and our friend, once after college I was recounting to him the story of how I  found myself somehow in the UP NIP laboratories looking for a research assistantship.  I told him how there seemed to be no other openings except in the Theory Department, and how I had knocked on their door and met some people, and asked them if I could work there, and after which they asked me which problem of those posted on the wall I knew something about, to which I honestly answered, none but I that I was willing to learn.  And then one of them at the Theory Lab, a tall guy, asked me if I knew the story of Alice in Wonderland?  Let me lift a line from the text of Lewis Carroll from which the tall guy drew his conversation piece, “One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked. ‘Where do you want to go?’ was his response. ‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered. ‘Then,’ said the cat, ‘it doesn’t matter.”  That tall guy left me then, and they gave me an email address to contact, I think it was Perry Esguerra’s email address.   And Mr. Bennett has asked me, in our a few short but always memorable chance encounters, so where are you going?  And for that I am grateful.

Somehow I found myself back at the Manila Observatory in 2002, and have been in the institution doing a variety of things from air sampling, to weather monitoring to stargazing since then.  In 2012, because the Manila Observatory is interested in science that will help ease the suffering of our people, I was able to visit a town in Davao Oriental, devastated by the Typhoon Pablo.

There I was able to witness the human spirit that prevails and that is sustained in the worst of circumstances.  And there the WHY of our workings, and on a personal note– everything that I had been through and that led me to that point… became clear.


Genie Lorenzo of the Manila Observatory explains to the youth of St. Francis Xavier in Sigaboy, Davao Oriental how the Automated Weather Station functions. (Photo: John Frances C. Fuentes). Photo and caption credit: CBCP News.


D. Humility

What has being a Physics student- which I think I am for life, I am a Physics student for life–what has it taught me?

I am gratefully, joyfully, gracefully, blessedly humbled by all the learnings that being a Physics student has taught me.  And I think it is through this humility that I was led to wonder (through childhood experiences with nature and the Physics Demonstrations), meaning (through my personal search, and the Manila Observatory), and connectedness (through God’s graces, and Personal Care), even with my own inadequacies, doubts, and failures, so that I could be of some use and help to others.

My father often asks me, because he knows how much difficulty I have had with academics and all, what is it exactly that I do.   I try to describe it to him the air samplers, and the weather stations and the data we have and the maps we make at the Manila Observatory whenever there is an impending storm, but am not sure he understands exactly.  Little does he know how much an effect that one evening, we spent together under the night sky many years ago, had on me.

We are now with some of your MS Atmospheric Science Graduate students and BS Physics Undergraduate students working on the data of the weather stations which we have set up around Metro Manila.  It makes me excited because we have never actually studied our local weather as in depth as we are doing now, and I am also at the time same nervous because our work is also a responsibility and so we have to be thorough because there are many who will be affected by our findings.

E. Congratulations

Congratulations to the Physics Department on its 50 years. Thank you for of introducing us to the wonders and rhythms of everyday life in the classroom and in the laboratory, for leading me and others to our working institutions like the Manila Observatory, and for your personal care and concern for us students.  May you continue to mold students to become the best that they can be through their science in order that they can continue to be of service to others.

This 50th year celebration is also in tune with the global celebration of 100 years of the Einstein’s Theory of Relativity this year, and 150 years, also this year, of the Manila Observatory, from where the department traces its roots, and after whose first director, Padre Federico Faura, SJ, the building which houses the Physics department on Campus was named.

F. Prayer

What about that Cheshire Cat and the fork in the road, what do I say when he asks again, what do you want?  I respond in prayer:

Direct, we beseech Thee, O Lord, our actions by Thy holy inspirations and carry them on by Thy gracious assistance; that every word and work of ours may always begin from Thee, and by Thee be happily ended, through Christ our Lord. AMEN

Ateneo Physics Department renewed its CHED Center of Excellence status for 2016-2018


Table 1. The CHED COEs and CODs in Ateneo de Manila University by School and Discipline for 1 January 2016 to 31 December 2018

by Quirino Sugon Jr

Last 23 December 2015, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) released its Memorandum Order No. 38 Series of 2015 which lists the Centers of Excellence (COEs) and Centers of Developments (CODs) nationwide for the next three years, from 1 January 2016 to 31 December 2018. The Department of Physics of Ateneo de Manila University was included in the list of COEs together with four other schools: University of San Carlos, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology, De La Salle University, University of the Philippines-Diliman. Only one school was designated as Center for Development for Physics: University of Baguio. The Ateneo Physics Department has been a CHED COE for the past 17 years.

The selection of the COEs and CODs were based on the following set of criteria: Instructional Quality (45%), Research and Publication (30%), Extension and Linkages (20%), and Institutional Qualification (5%).

In Ateneo de Manila University, the CHED COEs are in Business Administration, Entrepreneurship, Literature (English), Philosophy, Information Technology, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, Psychology, and Sociology; while the CODs are in Literature (Filipino), Environmental Science, Communication, History, and Political Science. Table 1 shows the classification of these different disciples by School: SOH (School of Humanities), SOSS (School of Social Sciences), SOSE (School of Science and Engineering), and JGSOM (John Gokongwei School of Management).

“We would like to express our sincere appreciation to these departments for all their efforts and accomplishments over the years in order to attain their status with CHED,” said Dr. John Paul C. Vergara, Vice-President of the Loyola Schools of Ateneo de Manila University.

As written in the CHED MO No. 55 Series of 2006, the responsibilities and minimum expectations of a COE are as follows: (1) Act as role models/leaders in the local, regional and national community; (2) Sustain and enhance research capabilities and upgrade professional or research graduate programs in the discipline; (3) Provide assistance to agencies/institutions within its geographical area of coverage; and (4) Undertake other activities/projects necessary in developing quality education in the specific discipline. On the other hand, for the COD are the following: (1) Develop their instructional programs through faculty development activities and upgrading of facilities and library holdings; and (2) Establish linkages with COEs in the same discipline to further improve their capability to undertake research in the field.

In exchange, the benefits of being a COE or COD are funding assistance for Instruction, Research and Publication, and Extension and Linkages. For Instruction, the funds may be used for faculty development, upgrading of library and facilities, and development of programs and instructional materials. For Research and Publication, the funds may be used for research grants, publication fee awards, and innovation and commercialization of projects. And for Extension and Linkages, the funds may be used for academe-Industry projects, faculty development,  consortia agreements, and internationalization activities.

Dr. Evangeline Bautista, Dean of the School of Science and Engineering, first broke the news last 30 December 2015 on the results of the CHED evaluation in her Facebook profile: “Congratulations to Biology, Chemistry, DISCS, Mathematics and Physics for being designated as CHED Centers of Excellence and to Environmental Science for being a CHED Center of Development!”

“We are once again honored to be a CHED Center of Excellence for the next three years,” said Dr. James Bernard Simpas, Chair of the Department of Physics. “Many thanks to all, especially Anna (our secretary), for all the hard work that went into our application for this certification last year. This is indeed a good start for the New Year for our Department. May we always remember that this is a privilege (which comes with our responsibility to our students and to our University) and not an entitlement (which only leads to hubris).”

Ateneo Physics Department to offer Ps 195.2 Astrophysics under Dr. Reinabelle Reyes this January 2016


Dr. Reinabelle Reyes before the Gonzaga Building of Ateneo de Manila University (Photo by Quirino Sugon Jr)

by Quirino Sugon Jr

Last 5 December 2015, Mr. Clint Bennett, head of the Undergraduate Committee of the Physics Department, announced that the department shall offer Ps 195.2 Astrophysics next semester, starting January 2016. It’s a 3 unit introductory course in Astronomy and Astrophysics, with an emphasis on understanding the physical processes behind stars, galaxies, and even the birth and fate of the whole universe. Students are expected to have a solid grounding in calculus-based Physics and Mathematics, so they must have taken MA 22, together with PS 32, PS 42, or PS 52. Physics students may take the course as a Physics elective or free elective, but not as an MSE (Materials Science and Engineering) elective.

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes shall teach the PS 195.2 Astrophysics course, which she described in her Facebook post as a revival of “Fr. Daniel McNamara SJ’s Intro to Astrophysics course for undergraduates at Ateneo de Manila University.” Dr. Reyes took the course with Fr. McNamara when she was still taking her BS in Physics in Ateneo de Manila University. After her graduation in 2005, she stayed for a year in Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics, then went to take her PhD in Astrophysics in Princeton University. She received her PhD degree in 2011. At present, Dr. Reyes works as an independent Data Science Consultant and teaches part-time at Rizal Technological University and Ateneo de Manila University.

There is still no definite schedule for the PS 195.2 Astrophysics course with Dr. Reinabelle Reyes. Right now the schedule was set as TBA and this shall continue even during the registration period to allow students of varied schedules to enroll. But Dr. Reyes prefers the 2:00-5:00 Thursday schedule, so students must make sure to keep this time slot open.

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.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.