Mangoes hold a special place in Ms Maria Cecilia (Cel) Alaban’s heart and mind. As a Science Research Specialist at the Crops Research Division of the Department of Science and Technology, Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (DOST-PCAARRD), Ms Alaban manages mangoes, among other tropical fruits.
‘Mango was assigned to me in 2017,’ Ms Alaban says. ‘My supervisor was handling mango and it was handed to me.
‘My father is from Guimaras, which is an area known for mangoes, and we got extra income from selling mangoes as a child, so I have an emotional connection to mangoes.’
She also loves eating them and says Philippine mangoes are sweet and delicious. ‘If I was given a different commodity, that would also be fine,’ she adds with a characteristic smile. Indeed, when she initially began work after completing a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture, she worked on rice for four years.
‘After graduation I accepted any job—I was excited to earn and support myself,’ Ms Alaban says.
Heart in horticulture
But her heart was always in horticulture and she returned to the University of the Philippines to complete a Master of Science in Horticulture. From there, she progressed to her current role at DOST-PCAARRD and on to mangoes.
Ms Alaban’s willingness to embrace whatever comes her way and to grow and learn at every opportunity, along with her impressive academic and professional experience, earned her a place as a 2021 Meryl Williams Fellowship (MWF) recipient. The ACIAR-funded fellowship supports female agricultural researchers across the Indo-Pacific to improve their leadership and management skills.
Dr Rebecca Spence, MWF Program Coordinator at the University of New England (UNE), says Ms Alaban’s enthusiasm and commitment to leading projects and programs in horticulture makes her an ideal Meryl Williams Fellow.
‘Her position in DOST-PCAARRD gives her the opportunity to contribute to shaping agriculture policy for the Philippines,’ she says. ‘The MWF program comprising a suite of training and mentoring activities will build her leadership skills and support her capacity to influence.’
The 2021 Meryl Williams Fellows officially started their program in February. So far, all activities have been online due to COVID-19 but Ms Alaban says she hopes the planned face-to-face gathering at UNE will go ahead later. In any case, she’s excited to be part of the program.
‘I am a junior staff; it’s the right time to be in a leadership program,’ she says. ‘I hope the program will enable me to learn a deeper understanding of myself and the people around me. I think that would be a great takeaway from the program. If I am able to understand myself, it will be a good thing to learn to address problems and come up with better solutions.’
Ms Alaban says she also hopes to gain some clarity about potential PhD projects. Project managers at DOST-PCAARRD are encouraged to do a PhD and Ms Alaban plans to take study leave in the next few years. She says her PhD will definitely be in horticulture, but she hasn’t decided on specifics yet.
‘I hope my mentors in the MWF will help me to narrow down a project,’ Ms Alaban says. ‘I am keen to learn more and to improve myself professionally.’
Managing mango R&D
In her day-to-day job at DOST-PCAARRD capacity, Ms Alaban manages the mango research and development projects, which include the mango breeding program at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB). This project is seeking to enhance varietal selection of mangoes for various traits.
‘One project is looking for resistance to diseases for mangoes, working with the whole mango genome,’ Ms Alaban says.
‘A huge part of my day is communicating with clients, farmers and researchers in the R&D network. I also facilitate and manage ACIAR projects on horticulture.
‘I get to travel a lot through the ACIAR projects. I get to interact with growers and researchers in the field, although COVID has limited access with stakeholders.’
Ms Alaban says her job is interesting and she thoroughly enjoys it.
One of the ACIAR projects that has most excited Ms Alaban is the mango fruit fly project, which has been a joint project with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries and several research institutions in the Philippines such as UPLB, UP Mindanao and the Province of Davao Del Norte.
‘The mango fruit fly project is an area-wide management program started in the Philippines in 2018,’ Ms Alaban says. ‘Mango fruit fly is a problem for the Philippines because fruits for export have to go through vapour heat treatment.
‘The partnership of DOST-PCAARRD and ACIAR is support to improve not only R&D but also the capacity building it extends. The partnership is more than 30 years and I’ve seen the support of ACIAR for the Philippines and it is really great.
‘We really appreciate the partnership with ACIAR and research organisations in Australia. We have access to technology that we would not otherwise have.’
More information: Meryl Williams Fellowship.