A Filipina scientist completing her PhD at the University of Michigan could hold the key to eventually finding the cure for diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and even coronavirus. She is University of the Philippines Diliman graduate Felici Mae “Peach” Arines.
The molecular biologist is one of six scholars studying at the esteemed University of Michigan awarded with the century-old Barbour Scholarship grant. The fellowship is one of most prestigious awards in the university given to female students from Asia and the Middle East.
The University of Michigan has a reputation for excellence among public schools in the US with a strength in research. Barbour scholars, meanwhile, study modern science, medicine, mathematics, and other academic disciplines and professions critical to the development of their native lands. They are chosen after a series of rigorous selection processes.
Peach is the only Filipina selected this year. Among the well-known Barbour scholars were former senators Maria Kalaw Katigbak and Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Filipino writer and diplomat Pura Santillan-Castrence, and Maria Lanzar, the first Filipina Barbour scholar who earned a doctorate in Political Science at the University of Michigan.
Junk in our bodies
The 31-year-old scientist specializes in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. Her doctorate study is about a special type of proteins in our cells that she refers to as decluttering enzymes—these are also technically called the E3 ubiquitin ligases.
According to the Filipina molecular biologist, like our homes, our bodies can also accumulate junk and clutter. And if there’s too much of those in our bodies, we can get sick. Thankfully, the cells in our body have a mechanism for decluttering and taking out these junk.
“When these proteins are no longer useful, they have to be destroyed,” Peach explains in her virtual presentation to the Barbour Scholarship panel. “Otherwise, they can become too many, they lose their function or they become too old and they expire. All of these are toxic to the cells.”
The decluttering enzymes or E3 ubiquitin ligases act like a surveillance system looking out for junk proteins all the time. Once these decluttering enzymes identify the bad proteins, they attach a signal that tells the cell to start destroying these proteins before they can do harm to the body.
Why it’s important
What’s novel in the UP grad’s study is that she was able to find out how the body decides which proteins to keep and which ones to eliminate. “In my research, I use genetics, biochemistry, and computer modeling to answer this question,” says Peach in her presentation. She uses a powerful electric microscope to take pictures of the proteins’ actual shapes at the molecular level.
“What I found is that these proteins have a certain shape when they are functional, but then they become misshapen when they are starting to go bad,” she explains. “What’s fascinating is that as these proteins change shape, they become more attractive to the decluttering enzymes, making them susceptible for degradation.”
As previously mentioned, having too many junk proteins is harmful to the cells in our bodies. In some cases, these proteins can cause Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Cancer cells, on the other hand, over produce proteins that deactivate anticancer drugs making them very hard to treat.
A virus can overproduce proteins that make them more effective in infecting human cells. “One such protein is the spike protein on the coronavirus, which unfortunately keeps mutating,” explains Peach. “If we can fully understand how cells naturally declutter and degrade harmful proteins, then maybe we can harness this knowledge to design new therapies and drugs.”
Art meets Science
When Peach finished grade school, she was choosing between two schools of interest—arts versus science and math. She was contemplating to either study at Pisay or at the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA) since she is also very creative and comes from a family or artists.
One could say fate played a part in Peach’s decision to take the science route. Having missed the deadline for the submission of requirements in PHSA, she ended up applying only at Pisay and passed.
“Pinaka naging interested talaga ako sa biology kasi gusto kong nalalaman ang explanation sa mga bagay-bagay. Paano sila nangyayari,” she tells ANCX. “Nung nag-start na magkaroon kami ng lessons about DNA, about cells, super naging interesting sa akin yun. Sabi ko, parang ito ang gusto kong i-take.”
She decided to take up Molecular Biology in UP, and eventually worked at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), where her work involved developing more nutritious rice varieties.
She gets to harness her artistic side illustrating for science journals. Just as she finds ways to make complex concepts understandable with the right words, she is able to do the same through her drawings.
“I think part ng success sa science ay pag kaya mong i-communicate at i-illustrate yung science in a way na mas madaling maintindihan at ma-appreciate ng ibang tao,” Peach says. “Lagi kasi kaming may mga presentation, seminars, at papers na mas makakatulong kung may clear na illustration. Kaya thankful ako na meron akong ganung talent na nakuha ko from my family. So parang ‘soft’ skill siya na naging advantage talaga.”
Peach says working on scientific research is not easy. It means putting in long hours even on weekends, whipping out an air bed and sleeping in the lab, sometimes even at Christmas time. There’s a lot of experimenting and therefore a lot of failures—which can sometimes put so many months of work to waste. “Sometimes, it can also be really isolating. Marami sa PhD students dito na nade-depress,” Peach reveals.
The field is also highly competitive, and their advisers and lab heads really push them hard. “Kapag kasi naunahan kami ng other groups, possible na hindi kami makakuha ng funding. Cutthroat talaga ang competition, lalo dito sa US.”
What continues to drive the Pinay scientist other than the thrill of discovery is knowing that her research could eventually lead to knowledge that can help the world. “Sa IRRI, yun yung healthier rice varieties. In my work at University of Michigan, it’s the possibility that it can lead to the design of new drugs or therapeutic strategies that can cure diseases.”
Photos courtesy of Peach Arines