Being a scientist was never part of his career plan, but this young researcher is already making waves in aquaculture research with his award-winning study on the giant grouper, a “threatened” fish locally known as lapu-lapu.
Peter Palma and his team recently bagged the prestigious Dr. Elvira O. Tan Awards – Outstanding Published Paper in the Aquatic Science Category for their paper that studied the sexual development of the hermaphrodite fish and debunked presumed norms on the origin of the male giant grouper.
Their paper titled “Reproductive development of the threatened giant grouper Epinephelus lanceolatus,” published in the Aquaculture Journal last July 2019, presented evidence that male giant grouper do not need to pass through a female stage at an earlier stage in their lives, contrary to the belief that males only arise from mature females.
The 28-year old Palma and his co-authors monitored caged giant grouper in the Philippines and Vietnam for over three years to establish the onset of their sexual maturity in the hope of promoting the breeding and farming of the fish over their capture from the wild.
“Determining when these species reach their sexual maturity is fundamental when it comes to captive breeding,” emphasized Palma who is currently a researcher at the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center Aquaculture Department (SEAFDEC/AQD) in Tigbauan, Iloilo.
Palma’s research paper was selected by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) to receive the Dr. Elvira O. Tan Award, a recognition conferred to studies that made significant impacts in their respective fields.
SEAFDEC/AQD Research Division Head Dr. Leobert de la Peña pointed out that “captive breeding is a priority research area which is hoped to address the problem of fry insufficiency of various high-value marine species being farmed in Southeast Asia.”
“I wasn’t actually expecting this paper to win so I was already psyching myself up to try again next year. Now, I’m very happy with how things turned out,” stated Palma, who hails from Sipalay City, Negros Occidental.
First steps in science
“My relationship with science as a kid wasn’t something special. Mathematics was the subject I enjoyed the most. I saw science as an ‘okay’ subject—I don’t hate it, but I don’t have any strong feelings for it either,” shared Palma, the son of a policeman father and a mother who was a high school science teacher.
Not long after he graduated valedictorian and got accepted into the business administration program of the University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV) in 2009, an opportunity to pursue science came to him in the form of a scholarship from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) which eventually led him to pursue a bachelor’s degree in fisheries.
It was not until his senior year in college that he decided to pursue a career as a researcher after being inspired by Dr. Erlinda Lacierda, his thesis adviser and a former SEAFDEC/AQD scientist.
Lacierda shared that Palma had the makings of a good scientist as he exhibited patience, an eye for detail, and a sharp mind while he was working on his thesis.
“He was so hungry for knowledge, so eager to learn new things, always excited to do lab work. Aside from that, he was also humble, knowing how to look back and acknowledge people that were part of his journey,” said Lacierda.
Making a mark
Palma later joined SEAFDEC/AQD in 2013 as a research assistant working on fish microbiology, before joining the giant grouper research project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR).
Palma then pursued a master’s degree at the University of Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia from 2016 to 2018 wherein he began working on the paper in 2017 along with Vietnamese and Australian collaborators.
SEAFDEC/AQD Chief Dan Baliao commended Palma for his recent achievement, stressing the importance of quality research in the advancement of the aquaculture industry.
“In line with SEAFDEC’s mandate to serve our constituents, these kinds of discoveries by our researchers serve as the foundation of science-based aquaculture practices that sustainably boost productivity, improve incomes, and create jobs.”
From here on after
Contrary to his initial relationship with science, Palma admits that he grew to love his job as a researcher through the years.
“It’s the freedom. I find it funny and sometimes weird that in my line of work, you’re paid to ask research questions and conduct experiments to answer those questions. So in a sense, we’re being spoiled,” shared Palma with a laugh.
Now, Palma is determined to conduct more studies and expand on the literature on reproductive biology of fishes in the Philippines as “there is still a lot to do.”
“The wonder of research is that we learn new things every day and, in my case, I get to apply them in developing aquaculture technologies that will benefit fish farmers,” said Palma. /JR PAGADOR