On Firm Ground

  • Written by  Michaela Marie B. Alcasid
  • Published in Features
On Firm Ground © OVCRE/Lawrence N. Garcia
Dr. Desiree M. Hautea—this year’s Outstanding Researcher—is a steadfast and selfless woman of faith. She stands tall as a scientist exemplar but remains grounded like a plant that thrives in the face of adversity.

“I cannot work for money,” Desiree Hautea smiles softly as she utters the words. She pauses to lean back for a while and continues. “I always engage in any undertaking where first and foremost—I have belief in. Second is, I am confident that it can help a lot of people. And third, it is aligned with my moral code.”

Her Roots

Desiree credits her good moral upbringing to her parents—the tinkerer and the dressmaker—as she fondly endeared them. She could still recall her father telling her, “Hindi kita pinakain ng nakaw.” She carries this saying with her to this day—in both personal and professional aspects of her life. Her father’s constant reminder is present in every project she takes on. She recognizes that project funds entrusted to her are not for hers to keep or exploit for personal use. This is just the first of many reasons why she consistently thrives in her profession.

In several ways, Desiree’s parents had influenced her skills and drive when it came to her work as a researcher. She was raised in a problem-solving family background. Overcoming challenges was their family’s natural tendency. Not once did she see her parents back down from a fight. Whenever a problem emerged, they confronted it. Motivated by the love for their work and children, they struggled and adjusted almost every day. Although there were tough times, they always managed to face life’s trials head-on.

Her father, the tinkerer, was a repairman who could merge old and worn out materials into new and innovative things. He had the ability to conjure up something useful out of objects that would likely be discarded by others. Desiree spent most of her childhood days in her father’s workshop. She loved watching him craft all sorts of things. Although she couldn’t remember exactly what they were, her feelings of reminiscence couldn’t be made clearer.

Her mother, on the other hand, would rigorously work on her sewing machine day in and day out. She would study during her spare time and in doing so eventually adapted to evolving fashion trends. Desiree described both her parents as having an eye for details. Her father always made sure his inventions would work in the long run while her mother ensured the clothes she either mended or created were taste-wise and body-wise perfectly fitted to her customers.

“My parents were always on the go. I grew up in an atmosphere where no one frequently followed routines. They were also both very dexterous so when they worked, they always gave their best,” adds Desiree.

Sprout of Seedlings

Growing up, Desiree dreamed of becoming a medical doctor. She loved the idea of helping people. Seeing her father’s inventions sparked her interest in science and the cutting-edge technologies that came with it.

It was only until her teenage years that she realized her dream of becoming a medical doctor was not a rational one. Taking up a course in medicine meant paying huge tuition fees her parents could not afford. Being the second of five children, Desiree also knew that she would be supporting her younger siblings upon starting work. As such, when it was time to choose what college degree to pursue, she chose what is practical over what she desired. Desiree found that Agriculture was the most sensible option for her. Even though she couldn’t fulfill her childhood dream, she was comforted by the idea that she could still serve the Filipino people.

While taking up BS Agriculture in UPLB, she worked as a student assistant at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). The hard-working Desiree would continue working long after office hours even without a supervisor in sight. Little did she know at the time, Dr. T.T. Chang—one of the scientists at IRRI, noticed her efforts. Right after graduation, he offered her a job at IRRI—an honor and a great opportunity. She, however, politely declined the offer because her heart wanted her to work for the academe. “The only way I can give back what was given to me is to also create the same opportunities for the next generation…That is my reason for teaching and staying in the university,” explains Desiree.

She went on to take her MS degree in Genetics and her PhD in Molecular Genetics which were both under full scholarship. Desiree took her PhD from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in the United States. Her time abroad had not only expanded her expertise, but also broadened her connections in the field. After receiving her PhD in the US, she returned to the Philippines and worked at the Institute of Plant Breeding (IPB) as a full-time researcher.

One of her most notable projects at IPB was her introduction of molecular marker technology which was still a relatively new field in the 1980s. Despite the challenge of using new technology, Desiree saw great potential in it. She wanted to conduct and use the technology for plant breeding applications and genetic resources. One of the applications of molecular marker technology is the production of genetically modified (GM) crops. GM crops contain genes from other organisms that can boost yield and improve resistance. These genes are identified first through molecular marker technology before undergoing the transfer process. Desiree’s efforts in proposing this branch of biotechnology at IPB ultimately led to the Bt eggplant—her most revolutionary breakthrough to date.

Weeds and Other Pests

Much like the plants that she studies, Desiree also has her own weeds and pests to deal with. But even if she is attacked unexpectedly and persistently, Desiree remains resilient as a strong plant would stay firmly on the ground. She never retreated even when they came repeatedly and fought to stay. Sometimes though, holding on or even fighting back is not enough. At one point, Desiree had to adapt to a situation by transforming herself into an all-around woman. Since the money allotted for most of her projects did not often cover hiring experts—she had to become her own communication specialist, economist, and lawyer.

In every project, her goal remains the same: produce tangible solutions for the majority. Desiree always prioritizes the needs of her intended audience. She studies fields far from her own expertise so she could better understand farmers and come up with projects that could reap for them the greatest benefits.

In some cases, weeds and pests turn into recurring problems which one could not face alone. Among these include lack of funds, unavailability of resources, and the public’s fear of innovation. Desiree recognizes that from time to time, she does need a little help. Desiree views each problem as a challenge. She believes that there is always a way to work around these problems.

“Every time there’s a challenge, I always try to look for solutions. Most of the time, I think out of the box…I’m also very impatient so I cannot wait for others to solve things for me.” Although Desiree is more than capable of cutting down weeds and protecting herself from pests, she does acknowledge that other people may have better ideas to beat them. She shares that she might have actually learned a lot more from being in the coffee room than sitting in a classroom.

“…In the coffee room, you discuss…You have people with different perspectives on a certain issue. When things don’t work, you throw it out in the open and you’ll be surprised that some of the most innovative ideas that make it work comes from people who are not too myopic,” says Desiree. Of course, the conversations in the coffee room can still be insufficient at times. This is when Desiree would turn to reading just about any source she has access to.

Apart from people and books, she also picks up several things from attending seminars. She enjoys reflecting on newfound knowledge and refuses to accept the concept of wasted time. Desiree believes at least 10% of anything she spends her time for would be valuable and applicable to her life.

Breeding the Next Generation

Desiree prefers to see only the goodness in others. She believes people are generally willing to help if we only knew how to ask them. “To me, there are no closed doors…it is just a matter of knowing how to knock,” says Desiree. In this regard, she thanks her bosses and co-workers; Dr. T.T. Chang; Dr. Dolores A. Ramirez; and a research team in Utah, USA. These people extended material support, gave her academic freedom, and opened doors for her. They brought sunshine into her life which supported and nurtured her research work through the years.

Desiree hopes to provide for others the same opportunities and more. This is the main reason why she chose to stay in the university. Whenever she hears of someone receiving a failing grade, Desiree often tells her students, “Ay nako, walang taga-UP na bobo…Bakit kayo nasisingko? Hindi dahil bobo kayo, kasi tamad kayo…Kung matalino ka edi matalino ka…It’s a given. But to succeed, that’s not all you need. I have seen many who are very smart but fail to succeed because their attitude is all wrong.”

Desiree believes learning should be a continuous process and to succeed, we must never get tired of learning how to learn. As one of her college professors once said, “What is taught are not the facts. What is taught is how to learn.”

When asked what her message is for young and aspiring researchers and scientists, Desiree says, “Live for what UP stands for…service to the nation or rather to the people…Sabi nga nila life is more meaningful when it is shared. It’s a lot like food...nakakatamad kapag kumakain ka mag-isa o magluluto ka para sa sarili mo lang.” She laughs at this and pauses a bit to let out a beaming smile. She continues with, “Don’t do things just for yourself…Good things come to those who share their gifts with others…”

And with this, she recalls one of her early statements on living life with a selfless purpose. “I cannot work for money…I cannot work without a sense of mission. It must deem a certain meaning that is beyond me.” ■