How one scientist is bringing South Korea’s high-tech culture to the Philippines

Myongji University
Limjuco preferred the fact that South Korea had better research resources and facilities to conduct his studies. This is something he has future plans to implement in his home country. Source: Lawrence Limjuco

It started with durians. Specifically, how they were discarded and piled up at Filipino researcher Dr. Lawrence A. Limjuco’s local district in an unsightly manner. It wasn’t part of his Ateneo de Davao University’s degree but it spurred the then chemical engineering undergrad to find more sustainable ways to dispose of them, which included using them as bedding material for edible mushrooms. 

The test results were promising, launching a project to adopt it into his high school’s tech and livelihood programme. “The output was fulfilling as my efforts were recognised and I was chosen to represent the Philippines during the 2009 Eco-Minds International Youth Forum in New Zealand, sponsored by Bayer and the UN Environment Programme,” explains Limjuco. “Thus, my energy was sparked to focus on energy science and technology.”

Then, he hit an obstacle: limited to none in terms of access to research facilities. Unable to materialise his ideas for research, Limjuco chose to leave behind his production supervising role in the leading beer industry in the Philippines to apply for scholarships to further his studies.  

“While waiting for feedback, a Korean professor went to my alma mater and asked for a recommendation from the School of Engineering and Architecture of the Ateneo de Davao University,” he explains. “It turns out he was looking for a prospective student for a scholarship programme in South Korea and I was recommended by the school faculty.”

Myongji University

An award-winning journey that began with durians. Source: Lawrence Limjuco

Since then, he’s earned his master’s degree and PhD in Energy Science and Technology at Myongji University. It’s been a prolific journey. We caught up with the award-winning Filipino scientist to learn more about his work, research and time in South Korea and beyond:

Why did you choose to pursue your PhD at Myongji University? Do you think it would have made a difference if you studied at a local institution?

The deciding factor for me to stay at Myongji University was the fact that I was confirmed to be a scholar of the Woojung Education and Culture Foundation of Booyoung Group. This meant that aside from the uni scholarship I got for my PhD, I also got a scholarship from a private institution.

I personally believe it would have made a difference if I had done my PhD in the Philippines. Research is not that highly prioritised yet in the general education system in my country, whereas in South Korea, learning is gained through it. The curriculum in the Philippines is generally designed to be centred for board and licensure examination. 

Myongji University

“While waiting for feedback, a Korean professor went to my alma mater and asked for a recommendation from the School of Engineering and Architecture of the Ateneo de Davao University,” says Filipino researcher Lawrence Limjuco. Source: Lawrence Limjuco

While this is important, other facets of learning through research might be overlooked. South Korea is known to be one of the key leaders for scientific research and opened many opportunities for me to realise my aspiration to be a material scientist for energy and environmental remediation application. 

Tell us more about your career trajectory now as a professor, researcher and more.

Determined to go that extra mile, I applied for a fellowship programme sponsored by UNESCO and the government of the Republic of Poland in the field of Materials Science which I was granted. However, the duration of that coincided with my schedule for my dissertation. I had to choose between Poland or my PhD. 

Although I turned down the fellowship, my decision has opened other opportunities in my career. After being awarded with the Research Honour Award during my graduation, my professor recommended me to the uni to be a research professor. In less than a year, I managed to secure funding from the National Research Foundation of South Korea for the development of high-capacity and porous composite materials based on inverse vulcanised polysulfide for removal of heavy metal from contaminated water sources. 

My outputs from this project enabled me to contribute to environmental science and to be recognised by the Korean Society of Environmental Engineers which led to me getting a Young Research Award. I was blessed to be offered a postdoctoral research position at the Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy and at Tsinghua University in China. 

I thought life was messing with me because at that time, COVID-19 cases were the highest in those two countries. I ended up choosing Tsinghua University because of the schedule flexibility which hopefully will lead to me heading back to the Philippines and render my service as a Balik Scientist of the Department of Science and Technology.

In my short-term engagement (two months) as a Balik Scientist, I promoted the field of Materials Science by delivering a series of lectures and webinars about green (polymer) chemistry and sustainable thermal energy storage materials hosted by the Philippine Institute of Chemical Engineers. I also conducted learning sessions about writing for publication, thesis and research proposals. 

To add to that, I also linked with Universiti Teknologi Petronas and the institution from the Chinese Academy of Sciences by drafting research proposals for future funding. Unfortunately due to the pandemic, my stint to be a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Environment at Tsinghua University has been postponed indefinitely. 

Myongji University

Limjuco secured funding from the National Research Foundation of South Korea for the development of high-capacity and porous composite materials based on inverse vulcanised polysulfide for removal of heavy metal from contaminated water sources. Source: Lawrence Limjuco

As a Senior Science Research Specialist of the Mindanao Renewable Energy Center, I provide expert supervision on the implementation of the concentrated solar power project and lead in the conduct of resource assessment activities. I also lead in the writing, packaging and submission of final reports to the Department of Science and Technology along with articles for publication and patent application. This is just a small part of what I do at the moment, the list goes on! 

What exactly does your research now involve?

My research focuses on materials science and engineering with a special emphasis on polymer chemistry, materials fabrication, characterisation and green chemistry for energy and environmental remediation applications. Specifically on critical raw materials recovery and heavy metal pollutants sequestration.

Various recovery technologies have been developed and improved from their respective limitations. Among these, adsorption shows greater potential due to its simplicity, relatively low cost and proven effectiveness in water purification. After designing and synthesising the host adsorbents, the next challenge involves how to practically use these host adsorbents since they’re usually in powder or liquid form. I design material rendering them easy to handle and also recyclable.

Myongji University

Limjuco was also offered a postdoctoral research position at Tsinghua University in China. Source: Lawrence Limjuco

How do you use the knowledge and skills gained in your course at Myongji University now?

Materials Science is an interdisciplinary field where we are surrounded by materials and therefore indispensable. I am able to use my background and training as a chemical engineer and as a material scientist in my current assignment as the Senior Science Research Specialist especially with designing alternative thermal energy storage for concentrated solar power plant application.

Aside from the technical knowledge, the life lessons I learnt molded me to be the passionate researcher that I am now. One of the significant lessons which I adapted from the Korean working culture is the “Pali-pali (빨리 빨리) Culture”. This means being able to effectively manage your time to productively multi-task and deliver quality inputs on time. 

What skills or knowledge do you wish you had learned more during uni?

I wish I was exposed to research and scholarship opportunities to do research when I was still in uni. During college, our training was designed for us to be professional in industrial settings. This doesn’t make sense for those who have different inclinations — like me with regards to research — which made my path seem like I was groping in the dark.

Myongji University

“One of the significant lessons which I adapted from the Korean working culture is the ‘Pali-pali (빨리 빨리) Culture’,” Limjuco says. Source: Lawrence Limjuco

I did not know where to start as in the beginning it took me a while to find my topic since I had little knowledge on research. Knowledge ranging from research motivation development and technical skills, had I learnt this in uni, would have made my transition to this field much easier.

What advice do you have for students who are planning to study abroad in South Korea?

South Korea is known for its notorious and rigid working culture that makes balancing work and personal life difficult. I find this to be true for postgraduate studies, at least based on my own experience. 

As a result, my advice would be to determine what you like and what you’re passionate about. My passion enabled me to be focused on my purpose and objective surpassing all the hardships.  

Next, take utmost care of your health and exercise regularly. I firmly believe that a healthy mind is a healthy body. My studies in South Korea demanded a lot of overtime hours that resulted in days where I slept for three to five hours. Despite the workload, I always made sure I had time for the gym as exercising has a refreshing effect — mentally and physically — for me. 

I also would advise having a circle of friends outside your uni or workplace as a support group. I’m an introvert, so this made it difficult for me to open up about my problems (which are usually about work demands). I was blessed enough to find a church community to find a sense of belongingness and work-life balance. 

Lastly, be passionate about learning and don’t be too hard on yourself. Postgraduate studies, just like research experiments, involve successes and failures. Celebrate the success and acknowledge the failures. The most important thing is that we are passionate about learning through your failures.  

Myongji University

“My passion enabled me to be focused on my purpose and objective surpassing all the hardships,” shares Limjuco. Source: Lawrence Limjuco

In 10 years, where do you envision yourself?

Conducting my research plans is one of my aspirations. Ultimately, I aspire to promote sustainability research in Davao City, if not in Mindanao or the whole of Philippines. I desire to create a laboratory back home which will specialise in materials science for sustainable energy and environmental remediation applications. 

I envision this lab to coordinate with collaborators such as the Philippine government, industries and international institutions. All with the objective of promoting sustainability research, boosting research-based materials science curricula, providing research assistance to STEM students and coping with research of developed countries through collaborations. With this, I aspire to create access for students to technical resources for them to be encouraged to research for greater causes. 

What’s one thing you missed from home and how did you substitute it?

I missed my family. They have been my ultimate support system. Being far from them makes it very difficult for me to cope with hardships at times. However, thanks to technology, I am able to communicate with them easily. Also, being busy deviates my sadness and my church family also gives me that sense of belonging I miss.