Part of what Prof. Kathleen Aviso does is developing mathematical models to aid agencies and companies in making sound environmental decisions.
Culture Spotlight

This Filipina engineer was recently cited as one of Asia’s rising scientists

Prof. Kathleen Aviso creates mathematical models so countries and industries can make sound decisions that may curb climate change 
RHIA D. GRANA | Sep 23 2020

It’s not often we get to consider mathematical equations as tools to help curb the effects of climate change, or maybe formulate strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

This field is called process systems engineering, which is not so popular in the Philippines but is a well-established discipline internationally. It is the nature of Prof. Kathleen Aviso’s work. The engineer, who is also the current Assistant Dean for Research and Advanced Studies at the Gokongwei College of Engineering at DLSU, was recently cited by as one of Asia’s Rising Scientists, for her relevant contribution to environmental research.

Aviso has received awards for her increasingly important work. In 2008, she won the Outstanding Scientific Paper Award from the Philippines’ National Academy of Science and Technology. She was also one of the finalists at the 2016 ASEAN-US Science Prize for Women.

With her collaborators from China and the UK, receiving a grant from the British Council. Their project meant to develop graduate programs on sustainable energy, which will be an integrated program for three institutions—DLSU, Dalian University of Technology and University of Exeter

Curbing the effects of climate change

The professor graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, and later on took up Master of Science in Environmental Engineering and Management and her PhD in Industrial Engineering at DLSU.

Part of what she does is developing mathematical models to aid agencies and companies in making sound environmental decisions.

ANCX is conducting an online interview with Prof. Aviso this late afternoon in September. She is upbeat despite having come from a series of meetings. Her bright disposition radiates while talking about the math and science behind some of the most pressing problems we face now. 

“When I was taking up my PhD, I looked into the possibility of reusing water or establishing water networks, wherein the wastewater from one particular plant can be utilized as a raw material for another plant,” the 41-year-old professor shares. The objective of the research was to develop ways to minimize the overall consumption of our water resources.

Her collaborators at Laguna International Industrial Park (LIIP) found the concept interesting but it turns out there are laws which make it impossible to completely implement waste exchange.

At the moment, Aviso is exploring energy systems—systems that are “integrating renewable energy with traditional fossil fuels so that these can provide the required energy demand with reduced environmental impact.”

She says the problem with renewable energy systems is that they’re not always reliable. “Halimbawa ang solar [energy] is highly dependent on the availability of the sun, ang wind ganun din, intermittent. So sometimes you need a hybrid system to integrate the two.”

One of the projects she did with the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) was geared towards reducing our greenhouse gas emission. “What we did was try to identify potential strategies on how we can achieve the reductions we committed,” she says.

The Philippines' commitment at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) was to reduce its greenhouse gas emission by 70% by 2030. The COP21 is the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference where they stressed the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“We did some simulations on that so we can account, for example, the increasing renewable energy penetration in our electricity system. We also looked into more efficient technologies so that we can have more power for fewer amount of fuels. We saw that even if we try to combine these strategies, we can only achieve about 30% reduction in our carbon dioxide emissions,” the professor explains.

Unlike other scientists who work with microscopes and test tubes, Aviso works with equations to unriddle scientific quandaries.

“For instance, if you want to know the environmental impact of a particular type of fuel, then you have to know its carbon dioxide emission. There’s an equation for that,” she offers.

The principles she had utilized for developing her models have actually been used as planning tools to achieve carbon dioxide reduction in New Zealand. In Malaysia, companies use her process integration techniques to improve their water consumption by identifying areas where they can reduce water use and integrate recycling.

With her DLSU family during a conference in Prague.

COVID-19 strategies

Another relevant area where process systems engineering can be applied, says Aviso, is in our COVID-19 response strategies.

In their current research, the team she belongs to at DLSU devised a model for the efficient allocation of the COVID vaccine.

“I’m not sure if anyone’s thinking about it already na pag dumating ang vaccines, for sure hindi siya enough for everyone. So how do we distribute them? How do we prioritize who to give them to in order to minimize mortality?” she points out.

For their study, they considered the level of efficiency of the vaccines, the available hospital resources, and the severity level of the COVID cases, among others.

“Essentially, we considered 2 types of antivirals with different efficacy, and then considered different levels of infected individuals based on severity, provided data as well on available resources for healthcare (e.g. ICU units, hospital beds) and assumed that data for mortality is available.”

They also posed several scenarios to illustrate that allocation strategy can make a difference in the number of the mortality rates we will experience. “We also assumed scenarios where there will be limited available antivirals and limited healthcare facilities,” says Aviso. 

The engineer also worked with Prof. Krista Yu, an economist, in developing mathematical models for post-pandemic recovery. “We looked at sectors who are most affected by this pandemic and determined which particular ones the government needs to focus on in terms of resource allocation so that the benefits would ripple out to the economy,” she shares.

During a conference in Hungary

Undervalued and underappreciated

Aviso laments the reality that many Filipinos don’t believe in the great capabilities of research, sometimes even of basic science, to help us overcome the problems that beset the world. “Undervalued and underappreciated siyahere in the Philippines,” she observes. “Kasi we want to have the final output or product right away–but that takes time.”

She cites Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity as an example of a scientific finding found only to be useful many years after it was developed. “It took so many years before we found out that we can use it for satellites, for Geographic Information System (GIS),” Aviso says.

A more pressing example, she says, is our research on vaccines. “Now, we realize that developing a vaccine doesn’t happen in an instant. And since we don’t have the expertise and the infrastructure, when this COVID-19 pandemic occurred, we were caught flatfooted,” she points out.

A believer in the capabilities of the Filipino, Aviso says it’s time for us to contribute our own knowledge to the world. “Hindi dahil third world country tayo, lagi tayong recipient lang sa mga pag-aaral na ginagawa ng ng mga siyentipiko sa ibang bansa. We should realize that we can actually do something and contribute, kasi kaya naman natin. It’s our responsibility also,” she says, adding that the government should allot more funding to scientific researches.

And to fully utilize the benefits of these studies, Aviso proposes scientists should have more interactions with the implementers in order to have the same level of understanding on the issues at hand and the technology that can be applied.

Thriving in her engineering career for two decades, Aviso says there’s so much more interesting research to venture in—and part of what she wants to explore are emerging technologies. “If we can develop tools which can help us predict or project which technologies will be successful in the future, that would be a huge help to our government,” she says.

While she recognizes her work may look small when considered within the whole supply chain, she hopes that the computational tools she had formulated—and will formulate in the future—will help the next scientist or researcher develop technologies that can benefit the world.