Video by KIM Quilinguing for the UP Media and Public Relations Office.
It was a biology class unlike any other. When graduate student Lorraine Joyce del Rosario took to the podium to deliver a report on the last regular day of class, one could have expected to hear a thorough rundown of foundational topics in cell biology or genetics.
Instead, the polo-clad MS Biology student opened the morning with the grisly case of Beverly Allitt, an English serial murderer nicknamed the “Angel of Death.” During a 59-day period in 1991, Allitt alternated between using potassium chloride and insulin to murder four children and grievously harm six more at Grantham and Kesteven Hospital in Lincolnshire, UK.
“How should we investigate this case?” del Rosario asked. The class of nine students actively pitched their ideas. Some suggested checking going through mental health records of the hospital staff, while others suggested going through hospital logs to see who had access to the drugs used in the murders.
It was a highly atypical discussion to end the academic year. Then again, there are few things typical about Biology 397: Current Topics in Forensic Biology. Offered nowhere else in the country, the second-semester graduate course at the UP Institute of Biology is understood by only few, even within the University of the Philippines.
The course co-convener and head of the DNA Analysis Laboratory at UP Natural Sciences Research Institute, Dr. Maria Corazon De Ungria defines Forensic Biology concisely as the application of the biological sciences in answering legal questions.
Most people, however, associate the word “forensics” merely with the study of dead bodies in criminal investigations. De Ungria explained that Bio 397 tackles a far broader landscape of topics. This scope is necessary to underscore how science in all its guises can be applied to answer questions that matter to the nation and its people.
A Diverse Cast
Diversity has been the course’s trademark since it began in 2012. Not only does it quietly draw students from different disciplines and institutions, it also changes each year depending on their needs and interests. The primary purpose of the course is to help postgraduate students in the sciences to realize the social dimension of their disciplines, and in the seven years of its existence, Bio 397 has never repeated itself in terms of content and composition.
“Dynamic” is how graduate student Rance Pavon described the experience. Coming into the course with barely any background knowledge in forensics, the BS Microbiology graduate soon found himself engrossed in lectures from experts at the cutting-edge of their respective forensic disciplines.
“We had people like Dr. Raquel Fortun, currently the Chair of the Department of Pathology, UP Manila, who talked about crime scene reconstructions and the role of forensics in solving extrajudicial killings,” he said. “We had people like Atty. Jose Manguera Jose, formerly with the Office of Legal Aid in UP Diliman, who talked about the legal aspects of forensics and how DNA analysis had changed the Philippine legal system.” Other lecturers discussed pertinent topics like forensic chemistry, wildlife forensics, humanitarian work, and accurate science communication in the time of fake news.
Eventually, Pavon said, students tried their own hand at discussing topics where their research interests intersected with forensics. They reported on everything, from the use of microbes in bioterrorism and how forensic botany can link places and people to crimes, to forensic Egyptology and how the study of preserved ancient remains can uncover facts that link past and present.
In addition to a final exam, the course culminates in the drafting of a review paper that explores these intersections more deeply. This review paper will be submitted to one of the local journals within the University, so that the students can share their learnings with the wider academic community.
Pavon who is pursuing graduate studies in microbiology, is writing about the use of innate microorganisms that reside in our bodies as a powerful tool for identification in forensic investigations.
“Each person has a unique profile of microorganisms that can tell us apart from another. For example, we could use microbial profiles from human saliva samples to help us say that the saliva came from this particular person.”
De Ungria considers this diversity to be a strength, but also acknowledges that differences can lead to healthy disagreements when people from various backgrounds come together. “Since we encourage students to share their thoughts, our conversations allow us to consider and accept different viewpoints. Our only running policy is to respect one another. We must agree to disagree.”
Grads for Grads
Bio 397 clearly encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning and this philosophy is most evident in the organization of the Forensic Science Symposium (FSS) which has become an annual event since 2014. It is organized by Bio397 students as part of their course deliverables.
De Ungria describes organizing this symposium as a distillation of the “learning by doing” nature of the course, as well as a hands-on demonstration of how scientific inquiry works. “We first tell them to ask their own questions and then determine what questions they think their peers would also like to know about. And then the students must identify the experts who can best provide the answers to these questions, using FSS as the platform for these conversations.”
Guided by De Ungria and fellow convener Dr. Ian Kendrich Fontanilla, Director of the Institute of Biology in UPD, the students manage everything, from planning the event to running it on the day itself to reporting on its conclusion. The concept of graduate students making the event their own and working to share their learnings to other graduate students, the so-called “grads for grads” further encourages the students to think beyond themselves.
Ultimately, this sense of responsibility helped the students organize a well-attended event last April 6. Among the speakers of FSS2019 were Dr. Mahar Lagmay of the UPD Resilience Institute, Atty. Theodore Te of the UP College of Law and former Supreme Court spokesperson, Dr. Francisco Datar of the UPD Department of Anthropology, Dr. Raquel Fortun, Dr. Emilia Lastica-Ternura of the UP Los Banos College of Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Mudjekeewis Santos, Officer in Charge of the Training Division of the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute. Dr. Fontanilla also delivered a lecture on wildlife forensics in honor of the late Dean of the College of Science, Dr. Perry Ong.
While the challenge of taking ownership of such an important event made them feel like giving up, both Pavon and Del Rosario now count the FSS as one of their favorite course highlights. “We were taught a lot of positive values,” Del Rosario admitted. “Patience, teamwork, and unity. Working harmoniously with your acquaintances. I think that organizing this symposium enriched us both personally, as well as academically.”
One might ask: What’s the point of this supremely holistic training? In De Ungria’s opinion, Bio 397 helps train the kind of scientists the country needs – individuals who not only lend a hand in solving national problems, but also help the general public to discover the importance of science to nation building.
“The take-home message is that students should see the social value of science, which might not be as emphasized in other courses,” she said. De Ungria believes that in the course of the semester, students come to appreciate the forensic casework and social advocacies that form part of the extension work in laboratories like the DNA Analysis Lab at NSRI.
De Ungria compares what the course has slowly built over the years with Dumbledore’s Army of the Harry Potter book series, which was a network of like-minded graduates who aim to fight evil and to support each other and the greater good.
“A number of Bio 397 students have helped teach science to law students through organizations like the Innocence Project Philippines Network,” she said. This exchange of information allows both sides to work towards finding potential cases that may need further investigation via DNA evidence that was not available at the trial. “It shares this very dynamic approach of ‘learning by doing’ to the student community, in the sciences and the law, and hopefully to other disciplines in the future.”
Overall, the course works to answer that age-old question: What can science offer society? De Ungria believes that science can expand the realm of possible solutions, through new discoveries. “One can have so many more creative solutions to the same problem because scientists use our ingenuity to break barriers and advance forward. And we need more scientists who are able to integrate a living social consciousness with their creativity/ingenuity in order to put excellent science at the service of society.”