Defining Elison Blancaflor is a bit of a challenge. Family man? Yes. Scientist? Check. Athlete? Absolutely. Musician? A little bit. Yes, Blancaflor, Ph.D., is as multi-faceted as the cells he studies every day in his laboratory as a principal investigator at the Noble Research Institute.
Growing up in Manila, capital of the Philippines, Blancaflor was intrigued by many fields of study, eventually graduating from the University of the Philippines at Los Banos (UPLB) with a Bachelor of Science in agriculture.
His agricultural expertise soon led to him serving as an agricultural supervisor in the pineapple fields for the Del Monte Corporation. After meeting his wife, Corazon, on the job, Blancaflor became enamored with the inner workings of plants. His scientific curiosity placed him on a career journey that would take him to Louisiana, Pennsylvania, the Noble Research Institute and then space. Below, Blancaflor discusses his amazing journey from the Philippines to the stars.
What was it like growing up in the Philippines?
The Philippines has such beautiful scenery. I fondly remember road trips with my family, exploring the tropical countryside. My uncles would tell me fascinating tales of werewolves, vampires and other mythological creatures that people in rural Philippines firmly believed existed.
How did such scary stories impact you?
These stories permeate the culture. They scared me a bit. But more importantly, they piqued my inquiring mind. I recently took my family back there for the first time since we left for the United States in 1991. I deeply enjoyed sharing our heritage with my daughter, Saleah.
How did you go from agriculture to biological science?
Working in the pineapple fields, I was naturally curious about how the plants worked. I asked a lot of questions, but my lack of understanding seemed to stifle me, so I started to pursue more education.
Who helped you during this time?
After writing to many graduate programs, Dr. Karl Hasenstein, a biology professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, took an interest in me. He was a major inspiration. He introduced me to a more analytical way of thinking. I went on to earn a master's and a doctorate in biology.
What was his primary lesson for you?
He taught me that in order to be successful in science, I would have to be persistent and ask the right questions.
Was the move from the Philippines to the United States difficult?
Corazon and I left stable jobs for me to take the graduate position at the University of Louisiana in 1991. We were newlyweds. We did not have a car. And, on top of that, she was pregnant. It was tough for a while, but she supported me in everything.
What was it like becoming a dad?
One day in my cell biology class, I received an urgent phone call from Corazon that she was in labor. Thankfully, a good friend of mine gave us a ride to the hospital. We made it at 11:30 a.m. and our daughter was born 20 minutes later. Despite the close call, there are no words for the joy of seeing your child for the first time.
What drew you to the Noble Research Institute?
It was 1999, and the Noble Research Institute had just purchased its first laser scanning confocal microscope and was looking for someone with experience to use this new system for plant biology research. I had worked with similar microscopes during my postdoctoral fellowship at Penn State, and my Ph.D. research was directly related.
What do you do at the Noble Research Institute?
I manage a research program that seeks to further understand how plants grow and develop, and how they respond to environmental signals. Hopefully what we learn can be translated into producing better crop plants that will benefit agriculture.
Explain your NASA experiment.
We have received two grants from NASA in three years. The goal is to understand how minimal gravity in the space environment can affect plant growth and development. It has been interesting to see how genes can change their expression when gravity is reduced. Plant growth in space could be vital to support life in future deep space exploration, and this is why NASA is funding this research through these grants. Understanding plant growth and development in the harsh space environment also has implications for agriculture here on earth.
What sparked your love of music?
My family always had a great appreciation and talent for music. My mother was a music teacher, and my brother is a professional musician in the Philippines. I may not be the musician in the family, but I take my keyboard and guitar out every chance I get.
Who are your favorite musicians?
I love artists like Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles and Jim Brickman. Their styles are soothing to me.
But you also like to play sports, correct?
I enjoy playing all kinds of sports, especially the ones I'm not supposed to play because of my small stature. (Blancaflor stands 5'1.") Whether it is tennis or basketball, I just try to have fun. Sports are always a good place to make new friends.
What words of wisdom would you give to young scientists?
Science can be quite stressful. There are always deadlines for grants and papers. I now know, those aspects of the job are not as important as I thought. These pressures can be managed better, and one can get similar, if not better results, if one puts things in perspective. I wish early on I had managed my stress levels better and spent more time with my family. I try hard every day now to focus more on what I have than on what I lack.