The Identifying Factor

IN October 2012, an international conference was held in Cape Town, Africa.

Here, four of the world’s top forensic DNA experts did a presentation on “Forensic DNA Profiling and The Law.”

Leading the DNA experts is Chris Asplen, former Assistant US Attorney and Executive Director of the National Commission on the Future of DNA Evidence for the US Department of Justice.

Among the four experts was a young Filipina who brings recognition and pride to her country with her expertise. Dr. Maria Corazon Abogado De Ungria is the head of the DNA Analysis Laboratory of the Natural Sciences Research Institute, University of the Philippines, Diliman and the Director of the Program on Forensic and Ethnicity of the Philippine Genome Center.

In Forensic Magazine, Chris Asplen wrote this about De Ungria: “ She has been one of my favorite speakers to recommend around the world to those looking to implement DNA with limited resources. Dr. De Ungria’s work for the past ten years, culminating in the launch of the official Innocence Project Philippines Network at the National Bilibid Prison, is proof that vision and leadership can drive change in the face of significant systemic and financial limitations.”

De Ungria almost single-handedly built the DNA forensics database in the Philippines in the late 1990s.

Her work has been crucial in enabling the country to conduct DNA analysis for forensic applications. She has played a major role in resolving forensic cases, bringing justice to victims of abuse and heinous crimes, and those who have been wrongfully accused or convicted.

The Innocence Project

The Innocence Project, which De Ungria launched in the Philippines, pushes for the use of DNA testing to bring hope to the wrongfully convicted and to empower law enforcement to leverage the power of DNA, in order to give a broader impact on the judicial system.

Appointed in 2011 to lead the Program on Forensic and Ethnicity of the Philippine Genome Center, Dr. de Ungria has expanded her work in the development of DNA forensics, as well as in studying Filipino ethnicities — tracing the genetic evolution of the Filipino people.

In an article she wrote for The Philippine Star last month, Dr. de Ungria explained her work at the Genome Center.

“More recently, genealogical DNA tests gained popularity because of the relative ease in determining relationships, e.g. paternity and maternity, between an ‘alleged’ parent and a child,” wrote Dr. de Ungria.

Her work has opened possibilities for traditional genealogists and historians.

“Genetic genealogy may now serve to supplement the traditional genealogical research. In the Philippines where many government records are difficult to find, contain inaccuracies or are no longer available, the availability of genealogical DNA tests provides an alternative option for individuals, including historians, in tracing family histories,” she said.

De Ungria admitted that very little is known about the genetics of Philippine population but studying our genetic diversity “will help us define our common DNA and understand our genetic history as a people.”

Scientist ng Bayan

The multi-awarded scientist knew her calling from a young age.

At age 12, she signed an “iskolar ng bayan” (government scholar) contract with Philippine Science High School (PSHS) to pursue a science degree in college.

De Ungria finished her Bachelor of Science with Honors in Biology degree at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and subsequently, her Doctor of Philosophy degree in Microbiology at the University of New South Wales also in Sydney, Australia.

Despite many offers to work abroad, where she could have earned more financial rewards, De Ungria decided to return to the Philippines.

She was challenged to lead a team of young researchers in developing forensic DNA technology in the Philippines at the time that the technology was fairly new.

As Head of the DNA Analysis Laboratory since 1999, she advocates for the use of forensic DNA technology at the service of society, especially in assisting the more vulnerable members of our community such as abused women and children as well as those who have been wrongfully convicted, in their struggle for justice.

Awards and accolades

De Ungria has received several prestigious scientific awards such as the Outstanding Young Scientist awarded by the National Academy of Science and Technology in 2003, the UP Gawad Hall of Fame for Best REPS in Research in 2005, the Outstanding Young Scientist award by the Third World Academy of Science in 2006 as well as being named as one of the regional fellow affiliates of the Academy of Science in the Developing World from 2007-2012.

A Gawad Chancellor Hall of Fame Awardee at UP Diliman, De Ungria received the university’s highest distinction for excellence in the research category, having been recognized for three consecutive years (2002-2004).

In 2003, she was given the Outstanding Scientist Award for Molecular Biology by the National Academy of Science and Technology.

The following year, she received the Gerry Roxas Leadership Award from the Gerry Roxas Foundation, Inc. and The Outstanding Young Men Award (TOYM) by the Philippine Jaycees Inc. and the TOYM Foundation.

She was also the recipient of the Asia Society Young Leader Award in 2006, The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS) in 2007 and the one of the Philippine Graphic’s Young Leaders in 2008.

In 2009, Dr. De Ungria won the search for the Outstanding Woman Researcher in the Life Sciences organized by the Third World Organization of Women Scientists and Elsevier in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

She is currently the Philippine representative to the DNA working group of the Asia Forensic Science Network (AFSN).

She received the Outstanding Research and Development Award for Applied Research from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). The award recognized De Ungria for her significant research on “Y-STR Analysis of 154 Female Child Sexual Assault Cases in the Philippines.”

According to the Dept. of Science and Technology (DOST), this research has “enabled the detection of male DNA in samples collected from the bodies of the child victims. Of the 154 samples, the study reported the detection of male DNA in 63 samples that were collected within 72 hours post-contact, even in the absence of positive detection of sperm cells via microscopy.

In many of these cases, the children had difficulty in providing names of the perpetrators. With the availability of the male DNA profile/s in each case that should be compared with suspects’ DNA, the study hopes to assist Philippine courts in the identification of the human origin of male DNA found in these children.”

In 2011, she was named as one of the first National Fellows of the L’Oreal-UNESCO “Women in Science” program because of her work in pushing for a greater understanding of Filipino genetics, including those of indigenous communities.

Justice through forensic science

Recognized for her expertise in DNA forensics, De Ungria appeared in the fifth episode of the C&I (Crime & Investigation) Network series, Partners in Crime, which features real cases from different Asian countries.

In the episode, De Ungria related how DNA testing was done in a couple of cases where it helped bring about justice.

In an article in The Manila Times, De Ungria noted Supreme Court statistics, which showed that because of DNA analysis, about 75 percent of cases it reviewed have led to either an acquittal, a remand or review by the Court of Appeals, or a modification of sentence.

“That is why, really for me, forensic science has a lot of appeal, a big challenge in criminal investigations, to find out who is guilty and who is not.  Really, we have to make sure that we put order in our lives—that there is justice.”

The humble doctor-scientist has said that she simply tries to “touch the hearts of people.” De Ungria does not glorify herself in her accomplishments. She finds satisfaction in the fact that she is able to serve society and help people.

“In my small little ways, I help people have a better life,” said De Ungria.

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