Dr. Edgardo Gomez (1938-2019)
National Scientist Dr. Edgardo Gomez was a man of many causes, and therefore many barkadas, rubbing shoulders with the world’s most respected marine scientists, but also always making time for generations of students whom he mentored and who are now renowned, in their own right, as scientists.At his funeral last Saturday, one of his former students and now professor, Dr. Gil Jacinto, recalled how Dr. Ed had visited when Gil was doing postgraduate work overseas. Dr. Ed insisted on staying at Gil’s tiny room… and sleeping on the floor!
Let me share some other stories from his exciting life, with its many lessons for all of us. (I’ve incorporated parts of a eulogy I delivered at the funeral.)
It was in La Salle high school when Dr. Ed first developed an interest, and later a love, for the sea, from a biology teacher who had taken them on a field trip — a reminder of the importance of good high school science teachers, and that giants stand high on the shoulders of those who preceded them.
At La Salle, as an undergraduate, he took a degree in education, major in English and the social sciences, graduating summa cum laude. I learned about his undergraduate degree only recently, but when I did, I suddenly realized it was that social science background that probably made him acquire so many interests in life, ever curious about the world and about people.
Dr. Ed taught briefly in his alma mater high school, served as dean of student affairs in La Salle Bacolod, then took a Master’s in Biology as a Fulbright scholar at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota.
Later, he chanced on an ad in the National Science and Development Board (NSDB) for PhD scholarships, applied for one and got to study at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at University of California San Diego, obtaining his PhD in Marine Biology.
His love of the sea from high school was now transformed into questions: As an archipelago, our seas were our greatest resource, yet why was so little being done to safeguard and develop that wealth?
He joined UP in 1973 and dreamed of establishing a mini-Scripps. UP allowed him to develop a Marine Science Institute (MSI) but from scratch: no building, no equipment, no staff. What we see today, an entire MSI complex and a research field site in Bolinao, Pangasinan, was largely because of Dr. Gomez’s dreams, and his being a visionary — a visionary being a dreamer who is “makulit,”persistent.
He developed the first national coral reef assessment, the first of its kind in the world, and directed many research projects that have allowed us to finally begin to recognize our maritime wealth.
When the Spratly Islands controversy broke out, he had maps of the Philippines to prove our claims. In a 2014 interview with the Inquirer’s Dona Pazzibugan, he was quoted: “Instead of the military and the politicians arguing, let’s get the best scientists to work together to help our environment and restock our reefs.”
One important project in Bolinao is the conservation of giant clams or “taklobo” (Tridacna gigas), now the target of smugglers feeding a demand for these shells in China. Six pairs of these shells from Bolinao are now in Barcelona’s famous Sagrada Familia church as holy water founts — donated legally, of course.
There is another side of Dr. Gomez many people may not be aware of, and this was his love of plants. He was a practicing botanist all his life, pushing for environmental conservation, especially of plants. Some years back, he created, in the premises of MSI, a GIFT or Garden of Indigenous and Flowering Trees.
The day of his funeral, I went early in the morning to the GIFT, scooped up some soil and leaves from one of the trees and wrapped them in an inabel weave with a kusikos or whirlpool design. This kind of woven cloth was used for sails, supposedly because the design would confuse evil spirits.
I presented the inabel with the MSI soil to Dr. Ed’s widow, Phoebe Abaya-Gomez, and son Jed (who also teaches at UP Diliman), and they deposited this small package in his grave at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. In a rare recognition of the importance of scientists, the government allows National Scientists a state funeral in the Libingan. National Artists are also buried in the area.
I can imagine Dr. Gomez, with his many interests, enjoying the company of national scientists and national artists, even as he prepares to set off to sail and explore the oceans of the sky.
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