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Meet Princess Cabotaje, the Pinay scientist who made an international award-winning thesis for a greener Earth

By Melanie Uson Published Jun 19, 2024 5:44 pm

Princess Cabotaje made her mark as a Pinay scholar overseas with her innovative study aimed at making the Earth a better place for all.

The Sweden-based Pinay became one of the three finalists and won 1,500 euros (over P94,000) in the prestigious 3-Minute Thesis (3MT) competition by Coimbra Group held in Turku, Finland, besting around a hundred other scholars across Europe. Her thesis, titled “Learning from Nature: Turning Air Into Electricity,” explored the potential of enzymes, called hydrogenases, to be used as green energy fuel in the future.    

The 29-year-old recently made the rounds on social media with her minutes-long presentation, which she described as her "defining moment" and dedicated to "every Filipino dreamer."

"I stand on the shoulders of giants. It’s an honor to present the significance of hydrogenases in an accessible manner to a broader audience—one that even the technical crew backstage understood!" she wrote in the caption of her video.

In an interview with PhilSTAR L!fe, Cabotaje said that she thinks her paper “is the most engaging and the most interesting for a broad audience because it's amazing to see how an enzyme can just extract hydrogen from thin air.”

She also pointed out its potential use for energy conversion. “I still can't believe that this is possible, but it is possible,” she continued. "Although this is still at in the nascent or starting stage, maybe centuries later, this will become a reality and people will use this in their daily lives. I will not be here on Earth anymore, but maybe in the future it's gonna be, it's going to happen.”

She noted that there are many more enzymes that are waiting be explored as she expressed her hope for more scientists, especially Filipinos, to pursue the same field, especially since such enzymes are the “best source of inspiration” to develop a hydrogen economy in the future.

On developing an interest in enzymes

Prior to becoming a PhD student in chemistry, the 29-year-old earned her bachelor's degree in chemistry at the University of the Philippines Diliman, where she also worked as a research associate. She later earned her master’s degree in the same field at the University of San Carlos.  

Cabotaje admitted that pursuing a doctorate abroad was not a smooth ride as she faced numerous rejections along the way.

“It wasn't a very smooth journey getting PhD offers because I was rejected many times. From applying to different universities [and] different programs, I only got an acceptance letter from one university, and that is from Uppsala, which is where I am now,” she shared with L!fe, adding it was all thanks to her supervisor who took a chance on her even though he was not that familiar with Filipinos.  

Princess Cabotaje with her thesis after her 3MT presentation

Since she started her PhD journey, she focused on thriving in her field—from long hours of studying to writing research papers with a focus on biochemistry. Her interest in the subject grew during her time at the Philippine Science High School in Cebu, which exposed her to chemistry and biology, and eventually inspired her to learn more about enzymes.

“From then on, I just didn't stop loving [and] studying different enzymes from food, industrial purposes, to cleaning the environment and trying to get alternative ways of getting our energy from renewable sources of energy, not just from burning fossil fuels,” she told L!fe

The Pinay scientist said her “impatient” attitude somehow shows her interest in enzymes, too.

“I think I am generally a very impatient person because I want to see things develop fast, or I wanna see results fast. And I think that kind of reflects my interest in enzymes because enzymes speed up things. A small, slow reaction that could take years and enzyme can capitalize that same reaction in seconds,” she explained, adding that what motivates her more is its real-world impact, including its potential of mitigating climate change

On work-life balance

When asked about her secrets to success in her field, Cabotaje stressed the importance of work-life balance.

“In college, it was more like, okay, well, walang tulog, or like study during weekends. And if you're not sleeping during the night because you're studying, you're getting praised, and stuff like that,” she said.

It all changed when she studied in Sweden since it's a country that values rest just as much as work. “I think it's valid because how can you do the best of your work if you [are] burned out or you don't have the mental capacity [and] physical capacity to do your best job? So I think I am more of a balanced person now.”

When she's not working or studying, she serves as a mentor and executive member of GradMAP Philippines, a grassroots organization that helps Filipino students with their application materials for their master's or doctorate abroad. 

Cabotaje makes it a point to unwind by dancing three times a week, playing tennis or badminton, and bonding with her cats.

“I have so much things in life other than work, which is what makes my work better, actually. It's counterintuitive for some. They would say, 'You need to do more work so that you have better work' but no, I don't think so. I think you need to have a balance between work and life.” 

Advice for aspiring international scholars

For those who are hoping to get a scholarship to study and make waves abroad, Cabotaje said it's all about finding something that sparks their interests and inspires them to excel in more ways than one.

“Find something that inspires you or is interesting for you because everything else will follow. The purpose of joining this three-minute thesis competition was for me to have fun and try to improve my science [and] communication skills. Being in the finals is just a bonus,” she advised.  

She also emphasized the importance of finding the right mentors for you. “Mentors are very important to get feedback or to get wisdom," she explained.

Princess Cabotaje during one of her travels

Believing in yourself could greatly help you go places, she added. “You've heard this many times when you were a kid, but just trust yourself. If you want to do something, if you want to pursue something, go for it whatever people say. If they say you cannot really do it, just ignore them because if that is what you really want, you will get it eventually.”