By Kristelle Bechayda
It’s amazing how a simple inquiry can lead to groundbreaking discoveries.
Sixteen-year-old Maria Isabel “ZsaZsa” Layson had no inkling of the opportunities that lay in wait for her when she looked into the anti-diabetic and antioxidant properties of the aratiles plant for her thesis requirement.
A few months ago, ZsaZsa made headlines with her research “Bioactive Component, Antioxidant Activity, and Antidiabetic Properties of Muntingia calabura Linn. An In Vitro Study,” which she presented at the prestigious pre-college science competition Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Phoenix, Arizona last May.
Prior to that, this 11th grader at Iloilo National High School already introduced her study at the Department of Education’s 2019 National Science and Technology Fair (NSTF), where she was awarded the Best Individual Research in Life Science. Because of her brilliant discovery, ZsaZsa was one of the first batch of students to receive the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation (GBF) Young Scientist award.
All of this was inspired from the disease that many of her loved ones have suffered from. “My family is afflicted with diabetes and a lot of people I know have experienced a death of a loved one because of that disease as well,” ZsaZsa says. “When I was a child, we had aratiles growing in our backyard. It’s abundant here, but people give little attention to it.”
ZsaZsa delved into similar studies that looked into the anti-diabetic properties of the aratiles plant parts. The high amount of antioxidants in its fruits prompted her to study the potential of the plant as a whole. With the help of her parents and thesis adviser, the young scientist was able to lay out the groundwork for her research.
For three months, ZsaZsa conducted her study and even flew to Manila a few times for her experiments at the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI) laboratory. The results, she says, took her by surprise. “I did not expect the fruit, as well as the other plant parts, to contain anti-diabetic properties and antioxidants. I’m delving deeper into [more] possibilities and potential of the aratiles,” Layson says.
Her study has a lot of potential. It was listed to be presented at the Division Science and Technology Fair, then later on at the regional level where ZsaZsa was chosen to represent Western Visayas at the nationals. Though she may have surpassed her dream of competing in the NSTF, the young scientist’s main goal is to share what her study has to offer.
“I did not join the competition because I wanted to win or just so I could have an award. My main goal was to help raise awareness. I want younger people to be inspired with nature’s bounty and its intelligence because it’s a gift given to us by God. We should use that to help others who are afflicted with other diseases aside from diabetes,” she says.
Anyone who would listen to ZsaZsa talk about her research can see her passion for science. When asked on who inculcated that love in her, the 16-year-old gives credit to her mother Celia Theresa, a dermatologist.
“She’s the person who really inspired me to take up STEM,” ZsaZsa says, recounting her mother’s unwavering support for her study. “When I was doing my research paper, she was the person who stayed up with me late into the night so that I would finish it. She was also there when I was presenting my paper. She helped me understand all of the concepts relating to my study.”
With a keen interest in nature, particularly plants, ZsaZsa has learned to understand more about the environment and its connection to spirituality and God. The same goes to the important role of STEM, which can connect everyone to make a better community.
When asked about her tips for students who wish to pursue the said academic track, ZsaZsa says, “My advice for them is to dream big and to never stop believing in themselves. STEM is very important for nation building as well. So if they want to give back to their country, it’s a good avenue to use toward development.”