Every year, hundreds of students apply for the Regent Levi Barbour Scholarship program at the University of Michigan. Its focus is to help women from Asia and the Middle East who are in pursuit of higher education. The late Philippine senator Miriam Santiago was a Barbour scholar when she attended law school in the university.
Among the six beneficiaries this year is Felichi Mae Passion Arines also known as 'Peach." A native of Camarines Sur, she is the only Filipina recipient this year.
The 30-year old is a PhD candidate in molecular cellular and developmental biology. She says her passion in studying molecular biology began when she was studying at the Philippine Science High School.
"Para sa akin, yung DNA, yung mga molecules, parang halos pare-pareho siya sa bacteria sa halaman, hayop, tsaka sa tao. So parang once na maintindihan niyo kung paano gumagana yung mga biological molecules, kung ano man po yung natutunan sa isang type ng organism, pwede niyo siyang magamit para makagawa ng gamot para sa tao (For me, the DNA and molecules are quite similar to the bacteria in plants, animals, and humans. So it's like once you understand how biological molecules work and whatever you learn about a type of organism, you can use that to make medicines for people)," Peach says.
After graduating from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a major in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Peach worked at the International Rice Research Institute to find ways to genetically engineer rice with high iron and zinc. It is a project that was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"The goal is we want the rice healthier especially for third world countries including the Philippines... If we can put more nutrients into rice then we can make everybody healthier, so our project tries to increase the amount of zinc and iron in rice."
As a PhD candidate, research assistant, and instructor at the University of Michigan, Peach says her studies and research aim to answer the fundamental question in cell biology that could generate novel strategies to treat membrane protein-related diseases.
She notes, "Our bodies are composed of cells. Our cells have even smaller biological molecules like DNA, proteins. Habang tumatanda tayo, parang yung mga biological molecules na yun ay kumbaga nae-expire. So yung ginagawa ng cell natin, tinatapon nila yung mga matatandang proteins na yun kase pag naipon sila sa katawan, parang toxic sila. Yung iba sa kanila, pwedeng maglead sa Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, tapos even cancer (As we grow older, those biological molecules are expiring. So what our cells do, they remove those old proteins because if they accumulate in the body, they can be toxic. Some of them may lead to Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, and even cancer)."
Peach says her work is driven by her goal to contribute to the improvement of human health. "Once we fully understand it, we can find maybe new therapeutics to prevent diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and cancers."
After she completes her PhD, Peach says she will proceed with her postdoctoral training in the US. She also hopes to one day bring her work to the Philippines to give back to her homeland, to inspire young minds, and to help improve the country's scientific research.