Thursday, July 19, 2018
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Pinoy Kasi

Gelia Castillo, scientist

/ 05:18 AM August 18, 2017

I’ve been following a TV program and appreciating how children can be, as the program’s name goes, “Little Big Shots.” The other week the show had this whiz kid who was pitted against its host, Billy Crawford, in a contest involving countries and flags.

Before Billy could blink, the kid had identified the flags of countries and named the countries of each continent (for Africa, he even differentiated Sudan from South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo from the Republic of Congo). Most amazing of all, the kid could identify a country just by looking at its map, without the neighboring countries.

My children, who are hard to impress, were captivated and were still talking about the kid the day after the program, so I realized that here was another opportunity to plug the sciences to them. I told them: That kid will make a good scientist, and if the science is about maps and places, he would be called a …? I asked what the science was.


I got them there. It’s geography, and geographers are scientists. But even when I do things in reverse, as in lectures to medical students on the social sciences, they do get stumped in explaining what geographers do.

It’s easier to describe most other professions: Architects design houses, musicians produce music, etc. Doctors or physicians, well, kids say they give injections—aray—but later learn that they heal, and better still, they keep people healthy.

But social scientists? Even little big shots might find it hard if you give them a quiz on what we do.

When people hear I’m an anthropologist, they smile and politely say it must be interesting to dig up bones (oh, that’s archaeology), interview people (oh, that’s right, but more of what journalists do) and, from an American who had one too many, that’s great, it must be really interesting looking at ants.

The best way kids learn about the sciences is to meet the scientists and hear them talk about their work—and why that work is important for society, for people.

Rural sociology

Which is why I wish more people had met National Scientist Gelia Castillo, who died last Aug. 5 at the age of 89.

Gelia was a rural sociologist. The stereotype of the sociologist is someone who studies, well, society. Back in the 19th century, it was presumed that only advanced countries had societies (read: complex societies) to study. Anthropologists studied remote tribes and magic and all that, while sociologists looked at city life: religion, gangs, suicide.


Those were stereotypes even in the 19th century because sociologists and anthropologists were already looking at how the world was rapidly changing, in different settings.

Gelia devoted her life to looking at changes in the Philippines. She was born in Santa Cruz, Laguna, and taught at UP Los Baños all her life, even beyond retirement when she became professor emeritus. She was appointed a National Academician in 1983 and a National Scientist in 1999.

Gelia’s first degree was in psychology, and in her work it was clear how that first degree was important for her future work. She was part of a generation of Filipino social scientists who received training in the United States in the 1950s, as part of postwar reconstruction efforts. She got an MS and a PhD in rural sociology from the Pennsylvania State University and Cornell University, respectively. She returned to the country in 1960, right in time to join the many development programs being launched in rural areas.

People in rural areas were, and still are, characterized as being resistant to change, hard to convince when it comes to adopting new technologies. But Gelia showed, through her studies, that farmers were in fact very receptive to change but were doing their own kind of cost/benefit analysis, which is based, not merely on yields of agricultural crops for each hectare, but on their own perceptions of costs of labor and of inputs.

The Green Revolution was heavily promoted out of the International Rice Research Institute in the UP Los Baños compound, and was a good example of how farmers were doing their cost/benefit analysis. Yes, the yields of new Green Revolution varieties were much higher than those of the traditional ones, but the costs were seen in terms of more inputs like irrigation, fertilizers and pesticides. The resistance to new varieties was based on a perception of higher costs and risks.

Laguna could not have been a better “laboratory” for rural sociology, being fairly close to Metro Manila and yet far enough to be “rural”—so well exemplified by UP Diliman having its UP High School (now UP Integrated School) while UP Los Baños had its Rural High School. Again, rural sociologists like Gelia were there to point out that, yes, while rural, Laguna was rapidly developing, as we know all too well with the way Los Baños now has its own traffic gridlock.

Her books—“All in a Grain of Rice,” “Beyond Manila, How Participatory is Participatory Development?” and “The Filipino Woman as Manpower”—were deeply humanist, trusting people to chart their own lives, and their own community development.

‘Nanay,’ ‘Lola’

Long before I met Gelia in person, I had read her books and was fascinated by the way she described our extended family system in terms of constant exchanges of labor, gifts, and loans, and how all these exchanges were embedded in moral support and solidarity.

I first met her through a close Dutch friend who invited me to join her in a visit to Gelia in Los Baños. This friend described Gelia as being a very well respected scientist in their university in Wageningin, the Netherlands. I also knew Gelia’s daughter, Nina, who was also studying in the Netherlands when I was there.

The first meeting with Gelia was like one of friends who had known each other for years. She was motherly: No wonder she was “Nanay Gelia” to so many. And when, years later, I brought my then toddler son, she was like a doting lola.

I’m obsessed with my kids learning about what different scientists—natural, social, medical—do beyond the stereotypes, and wish that Gelia were around to tell them, firsthand, about her work, set against the backdrop of a very long and interesting life. Then they’ll understand that social scientists, defined briefly, are people who look for solutions to social problems.

I was never Gelia’s student, but she was a mentor through our work together in the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). Despite the distance from Los Baños, she rarely missed our meetings and symposiums, the last few ones she attended in a wheelchair. What most impressed me was her awareness of the work of her younger colleagues in UP Los Baños, who she would nominate for awards and grants. It was this collegiality, this openness to learning even as a senior citizen, that made her the great scientist she was.

Our Social Sciences Division in the NAST is a small one, and now we are even smaller with Gelia’s passing.

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