What is a chemist (in the Philippines)?

Matter. The grade school definition states that it is anything that occupies space and has mass. The study of matter and the changes it undergoes is chemistry. The one who studies chemistry and uses it for the benefit of mankind is a chemist. However, those things have a different meaning in my country. They associate you with things you don’t really do. They ask you questions that is supposed to be a taboo to the chemistry world.

On times I need to be introduced by my friends, they usually tell the nature of my work (I teach in a university, by the way). But when they ask what I teach (which is Chemistry), it’s typical that they would ask, “ Do you know how to make drugs? Do you know how to make bombs?” Sometimes, I replied using a joke. But this triggers me much because it is just too stereotypical. I am uncomfortable when people ask me about drugs and explosives because what I just know is how drugs act on the body and the molecular basis of things exploding. I think these people believe that it is in our curriculum to make drugs and fire explosives; yet the reality is that the only drug we synthesized in college is aspirin and the firing I only experience is on the M-16 practicals that we had at ROTC (Reserved Officers Training Course). But in the end, did they ever think that those are the only roles chemists can do? What is a real chemist anyway?

A person can only be considered as a chemist in the Philippines according to law if they have taken and passed a licensure examination and registered under the Professional Regulation Commission. Here is the definition of a registered chemist according to the Republic Act 10657, also known as the Chemistry Profession Act:

Registered chemist refers to any person who is engaged in the professional practice of chemistry, as defined herein, who is duly registered with the Board of Chemistry and the Professional Regulation Commission. A registered chemist shall have the authority to undertake the professional practice of chemistry

And here is the definition of chemistry according to the law.

Chemistry refers to the study, analysis, modification and calculations of physico-chemical or biochemical properties of matter. Chemistry includes the atomic, molecular, surface and supramolecular composition and structure of matter, properties and reactions, the changes which matter undergoes, the energy involved, and the conditions under which such changes occur. Biochemistry, which is defined as the study of the chemical compounds and processes in biological organisms, is included within the scope of chemistry for purposes of this Act

You will notice that the definition of chemistry here is similar to the ones in the textbooks. That is because chemistry is a science, a “systematic body of knowledge.” The practice of chemistry is not just a subject but also a profession. Chemists are scientists whose role is to understand how the physical world works and to create solutions to world’s problems.

It was nice that the law recognizes the essential role of a chemist to the Philippine society, but the society itself have mixed views on such because of the circumstances that associates chemists to clandestine work. The law transcends the work of a chemist other than just those, or even jobs like “tagatimpla ng juice at kape (the one who prepares juice and coffee).”

  1. A chemist aims to find ways of making new substances that benefit society. The chemist’s goal primarily is to improve the quality of life, so they keep on discovering new drugs, new formulations, and new methods for the benefit of humanity. Little did people know that some synthetic substances now labelled as bad are actually works of chemists with good intentions. But despite the harm these substances made to society, chemists learn from those mistakes of the past and move forward to discover new things.
  2. Chemists are good, emprical analysts. One of the roles of an chemical analyst is to find and quantify different components in different materials. Without the chemist, no one knows if your water is still safe to drink or your food is safe and healthy to eat. No one will also do the DNA analysis to prove a person’s relationship to another, or even identify the suspect of a well-planned crime. He is not swayed by mere heresay, but he lets his observations and experiments tell the tale.
  3. A chemist is not a chemical engineer nor a pharmacist. Some people thought that it would be better to have a three or six-syllable occupation than a two-syllable job description. A chemical engineer specifically works at a plant and monitors the processes in bulk scale. A pharmacist knows every drug, prepares the medicine, and sells them to the people in need. A chemist’s job is apart from those two, despite the interchange of these three to different industries in the Philippines. The expertise of a chemist is to formulate compounds (make new or improve old), analyze samples (in aid of monitoring), and do research and development in a chemical industry. By law, a licensed chemist must head every laboratory, not the engineer, not the pharmacist.

The Philippines is one of the few countries who regulate the practice of chemistry, which I believe is good because that makes the profession much more disciplined and focused on its benefit towards the Filipino people. Despite the “mema” and the “edi ikaw na” of people when they think about this noble profession, chemists press on and move forward, for sticks and stones thrown at us are part of the challenge on becoming heroes of tomorrow.

(Postscript: This blog post was intended for the triggered reaction against the “memas” on Facebook regarding the news report on the open letter of the Integrated Chemists of the Philippines towards irresponsible use of the word chemist which associated to the convicted microscale manufacturer of cannabis-added food products. The network who reported the news seemed nonchalant about the letter, directing the blame to the persons who coined it (the policemen who caught the criminal and the ones who are buying these goods). Despite the anger I’m currently feeling, I think no one is to blame but the current stereotypes of Filipinos towards chemists which became the subject of this blog. I hope that you liked it. Comments and suggestions are much appreciated. Positive critisism is encouraged. Thanks!)

Notes and scribbles of a (still ‘struggling’) Chemistry PhD Student at National Sun Yat-sen University, Taiwan. Made in the Philippines.