Dr. Maria Corazon A. De Ungria: A Scientist’s Quest to Use DNA to Find Justice for All

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Dr. De Ungria working in a laboratory in UP Diliman. (Photo from UP Diliman Information Office)

“She was stabbed on the left side of her body with blood on her abdomen spilling out on the floor.”[i]

This grisly observation may sound like it came from a popular crime drama series, like CSI. The source, however, is someone much closer to home. And behind the criminal cases and powers of deduction that many have associated with this source is a vision for the field of DNA analysis that is changing how justice is delivered in the country.

Since 1999, Dr. Maria Corazon A. De Ungria has been working at the DNA Analysis Laboratory (www.dnaforensic.org) of UP Diliman’s Natural Sciences Research Institute (www.nsri.upd.edu.ph). Currently serving as its head, De Ungria is one of the driving forces behind the laboratory’s research, training and extension work centered on enhancing the country’s capacity to conduct DNA analysis for forensic applications.

Earning her PhD in Microbiology from the University of New South Wales, De Ungria says she had knew very little about her current passion when she first took on the job. “I became interested in forensic science when I was first offered the job in 1999,” she says. “I didn’t know much about forensic science back then but learned in the process.”

And learn she did.

Dr. De Ungria

Dr. De Ungria (Photo from UP Diliman Information Office)

As one of the country’s greatest resources for the applications of DNA analysis to fields like law enforcement and criminal justice, there are very few awards that have eluded De Ungria. She was named Outstanding Young Scientist by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) in 2003, gained the first UP Diliman’s Gawad Hall of  Fame for  REPS in Research in 2005 and became the first Filipino Affiliate Fellow of the Academy of Science for the Developing World (TWAS) in 2007 to 2011. Among her other distinctions are being named one of Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) in 2005,The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS) in 2007 and one of the first LOreal UNESCO Women in Science Fellow in 2011.

This year she added another recognition to the list, when with 16 other UP scientists she was conferred the Scientist Rank by the Scientific Career System (SCS) Of this distinguished field, De Ungria was the only one to attain the rank of ‘Scientist II’ from UP Diliman.

The SCS is administered by the NAST and recognizes non-faculty research personnel from state universities and colleges as part of its program’s initiatives “to help harness the research capabilities of and at the same time, establish a system of reward and recognition to researchers in academic institutions.”

A glimpse of what sustains her prolific career can be gleaned by leafing through her writings. Not only popular because of her scientific achievements, De Ungria is an example of a researcher who is equally popular as a communicator of science and its benefits. And far from being an immovable resident of the ivory tower, she has years of experience of assisting the resolution of cases in courts of law, in pushing for better management of disaster scenes and police investigations and in aiding policy makers to incorporate science into legislations to support her personal commitment for a socially-conscious research agenda.

Clearly the belief in the ability of science to serve Philippine society is one of the driving forces behind De Ungria’s research and advocacy.

A demonstration of this philosophy in action can be seen in one of the cases where De Ungria’s expertise, with the efforts of her lab at the UP NSRI made the difference in court.

In 2000, a man named Joel Yatar was accused of raping and killing his 16-year old niece.[ii] When the case was reviewed in 2004, the Philippine Supreme Court did not only uphold the ruling of the lower court, but made a very clear statement that the right against self-incrimination applied only to testimonial evidence, thereby preventing other cases from using this argument to delay the conduct of DNA testing, when found relevant for their respective cases.

“And finally in October 2007,” De Ungria said, “the Supreme Court promulgated the Rule on DNA Evidence which serves to guide the judiciary in the use of DNA evidence in Philippine courts.”

“The Rule does not only provide guidance to trial court judges regarding the admissibility, relevance and probative value of DNA evidence, but it also opens the possibility of post-conviction DNA testing to re-open cases which have long been final and executory to determine whether an accused may have been wrongfully convicted.” Behind the formulation of this rule was the technical assistance provided by De Ungria’s lab at the UP-NSRI.

Instead of slowing down after such a significant body of work, De Ungria took a step further. Last year, together with faculty and researchers from the Office of Legal Aide (UP-OLA), De La Salle College of Law (DLSU Law), Ateneo de Davao College of Law(AdDU Law), the Coalition Against the Death Penalty (CADP), the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), the Philippine Jesuit Prison Foundation (PJPS) and the DNA Analysis Laboratory, De Ungria formed and launched the Innocence Project Philippines Network (https://sites.google.com/site/innocenceprojectphilippines/). It is a network of law schools, clinics, laboratories and non-government organizations that seek to make justice accessible to the wrongfully convicted.

“It may be that DNA evidence may help some of these persons eventually find justice that they have been yearning for so many years,”[iii] writes De Ungria. “It will be a clear step towards putting science at the service of society that will be initiated by private individuals.”

“It is hoped that the executive, judiciary and legislative take on their own challenges in maximizing the use of forensic DNA technology for the benefit of our local communities.”

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[i] OurVERYownTELLY. “Partners in Crime S02 – Ep. 5 Preview”. Online video clip. Youtube. Youtube, 1 May 2012. Date accessed: 1 September 2013

[ii] De Ungria, Maria Corazon A. “The Double Helix in Court: DNA Analysis as Catalyst for Change”. The Philippine Star. Star Science. 18 April 2013. Date accessed: 3 September 2013

[iii] De Ungria, Maria Corazon A. “The Use of Forensic Evidence in Effective Governance of the Local Community”. The Philippine Star. Star Science. 4 October 2012. Date accessed: 3 September 2013.

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