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DOST says science community mourns recent death of national scientist

By Danny O. Calleja

LEGAZPI CITY, Nov. 10 (PNA) – The country lost a great Filipino scientist who possessed the genius and goodness traits combined in the person of Dr. Benito S. Vergara whose recent death is being mourned by the science community.

Vergara — who was recognized and will be remembered by his colleagues, friends, fellow academicians and national scientist for his significant role in the science sector, particularly in agriculture — succumbed to a cardiac arrest last Oct. 24, DOST Bicol Regional Director Tomas Briñas on Tuesday here said.

Before his burial at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Taguig City, Vergara was tendered a necrological service at the DOST central office in Bicutan City last Oct. 29, according to Briñas.

In their eulogies, National Academy of Science and Technology Philippines (NAST Phl) president William Padolina and Academician Ruben Villareal, chair of NAST Phl’s agricultural sciences division, recognized Vergara’s significant role in the field of agricultural science that significantly contributed to the modernization of the industry, Briñas said.

Science and Technology Secretary Mario Montejo said in a statement that the DOST and the whole science community will always remember and honor Vergara’s contributions and achievements, most especially his life passion in making “Aling Maria” and “Mang Juan” feel the main theme of science and technology in their lives dubbed as “Agham na Ramdam.”

In particular, Montejo said, Vergara was the man behind the development of the Riceworld Museum and the Philippine Heritage Center in NAST Phl and recognized for his exceptional contributions to scientific knowledge on plant physiology and for promoting Philippine science locally and internationally.

His fascination with plants led Vergara to his decision to pursue agriculture, the DOST national chief said.

Montejo narrated that Vergara obtained his Bachelor of Science (BS) in Botany degree from the University of the Philippines-Diliman in 1955; Master of Science in Botany degree from the University of Hawaii in 1959, and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Plant Physiology from the University of Chicago in 1960.

Afterwards, he worked as an assistant professor at UP-Los Baños in 1961, followed by a long stint at the then newly launched International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) as associate plant physiologist in 1969, as plant physiologist in 1970 and finally, as head plant physiologist in 1984.

At IRRI, the Vergara focused on three major research areas — the flowering response of rice to photoperiodism (the plant's ability to flower in response to seasonal changes), rice physiology, and deep-water rice.

He then worked on the physiology of deep-water rice and flood-tolerant rice plant and developed techniques and methods for the development of rice growing—which were later adopted by national breeding programs and other rice-growing countries.

Vergara was also behind the conceptualization of a model for the super rice for higher rice yield, Montejo said.

In addition, his group pioneered research on the possible effects of ozone depletion in the atmosphere on the growth, development and yield of rice.

Vergara’s passion in promoting science to the public, Montejo said, led to the publication of his book “Farmer’s Primer on Growing Rice”, published in more than 50 languages and used around the world.

In addition, he also published a plant catalogue and a children’s literature about rice plant.

For his achievements, Vergara was elected as Academician to the NAST Phl in 1987 and was conferred the title National Scientist in 2001, the highest award accorded to Filipino scientists.

His colleagues recalled that despite all his feats, he remained kind, humble and generous, Montejo said.

“While many recall Dr. Vergara’s lessons about the value of patience, the importance of education, knowledge and skills in science, and of seeing and keeping in mind the good, our family remember him as a good father,” his first-born son Benito “Sunny” Vergara Jr. said in his eulogy, according to Briñas.

Even after retiring, Vergara continued to serve tirelessly inside and outside of his work in science — the church, started scholarships and mentored aspiring scientists, among others.

He received numerous awards not only for his outstanding scientific achievements but also for being a good man and one of these was as “Outstanding Citizen of Los Baños” given in 2004.

Until his last days, Montejo said Vergara’s love for the land remained, primarily evident in his beautiful and bountiful gardens.

As written by UP Mass Communications Professor Dr. Clarissa David in a feature article on Vergara published in the International Journal of Philippine Science and Technology in April 2015, he was truly “a man at home among the plants and leaves and flowers that he loves.”

“We must tell ourselves that he is not gone. He lives in the lives of the many students that he mentored, he lives as he had touched the lives of the people that he helped, he lives in the dreams of scholars and young scientists that he inspired and will continue to inspire, and he will always live in our hearts,” Briñas quoted Vergara Jr. assaying in his eulogy, Briñas said.

Padolina fittingly summed it up in his eulogy, “Dr. Vergara’s life is truly a life lived well,” the DOST regional head added. (PNA)

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