Though currently living in Manila, Philippines, Chona grew up in the coastal province of Bataan, known for its rice lands and fisheries. Although she doesn’t live there anymore, she says that her hometown made a subconscious impact on the nature of her work and her passion for sustainability. A scientific researcher and inspiring woman in aquaculture, she was innately drawn to her field as she grew up around farms and fisheries, and drew inspiration from wanting to help address the needs within the community she grew up in.
Bringing smart technology to traditional aquaculture
In her many years as a scientific researcher, Chona focused on research projects related to agriculture, working with farmers and crops to develop smart technology and improve crop sustainability. An aquaculture project she began during her PhD and is still actively engaged with today is her research project on mangrove crabs, or more commonly known as mud crabs. The mud crab industry in the Philippines is significant: in 2018, over 18,000 tons of mud crabs was exported from the Philippines to the global market. For the past eight years, Chona has been developing technology to help fishers with crab species identification, to ultimately create a more productive and sustainable crab farming industry.
Chona’s research solved a long-standing problem for crab farmers: there are three common mud crab species, but only one is desired by farmers as it grows faster, and up to 40% larger than the others. This matters, as during the younger stages of a crab's life, it is significantly harder to differentiate between species. Fishers resort to over-farming to compensate for projected loss in case they source the wrong juveniles from a trader or catch the species they do not want in the wild. Chona and her team harnessed their research to develop an easy-to-use mobile app, called Crabifier, which uses image analysis to help farmers easily identify juvenile crabs. The ability to rear the right breed meaningfully impacts the livelihoods of crab farmers. Improved productivity also reduces the need to clear as many mangroves to build nurseries for fattening crabs, reducing the ecological impact of crab fishing.
Building trust in science
Crabifier has been well received, but it wasn’t always this way. In the early stages of her career as a young scientist, she experienced significant doubt and resistance from the public who did not trust biotechnology.
Rural farming communities were hard to engage with as they were even more reserved and distrusting of new science. As such, Chona and her team had to do a lot of relationship building, engaging with communities, and learning their languages. It was through these experiences that she realized the importance of science communication.
“Oftentimes, scientists have these grand and complex ideas in their head that they themselves understand,” Chona says. “But if we want people to be accepting of these new technologies, we have to involve them in the process and when talking to them, must always be reminded that we too have a lot to learn from them.”
When engaging with these communities, she understands the importance of respecting their traditional methods and finds a way to incorporate new and improved technology and practices to make their farming more efficient.
Overcoming challenges as a woman in STEM
As a woman, she says that there were a lot of people who were doubtful of her capabilities during her journey as scientist and researcher. People often assumed that agriculture and aquaculture were too laborious for a woman like her. This led her to feeling as if she had to work twice as hard to prove herself.
Throughout her education, she saw a lack of female representation, but was lucky to have a female advisor during her PhD who taught her that it’s possible to be both feminine and resilient. Now, after many years in the industry, Chona is happy to see many more strong women in the field who motivate her. Feeling inspired by others and wanting to empower other women, Chona launched her own YouTube science channel, SHE-ensya, which also showcases women in STEM and their stories.
A message for other women in agriculture
She wants to share a message with all women in the agri-sector:
“Thank you. Thank you for existing and helping feed the world. I feel that the field of agriculture and aquaculture is very under-appreciated even though our very survival is dependent on it. Women help to create a softer and nurturing side, which is the key to making the field more sustainable.”