Scripps Student Spotlight: Denise Alcantara

Journalist and current MAS Marine Biodiversity and Conservation student works to improve coral reef policy in the Philippines

Born and raised in Manila, Philippines, Denise Alcantara is a student in the Master of Advanced Studies program in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (MAS MBC) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. In the Philippines, she studied communication arts at De La Salle University. In the fall of 2022, Alcantara served as a delegate at COP27, the United Nations climate conference. She wrote about her experience as a first-time delegate in this story.


explorations now (en): Why did you choose to attend Scripps?

Reef assessment survey in Cagayancillo, Palawan, Philippines.

Denise Alcantara (DA): I seriously considered going back to school when I got involved in reef research in the Philippines almost five years ago. In late 2017 or early 2018, I met the national scientist and founder of the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute, Dr. Edgardo Gomez. My mentor, Dr. Wilfredo Licuanan, whose mentor was Dr. Gomez, shared with me that Dr. Gomez was an alumnus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and like me did not obtain a science degree for his undergraduate studies. Dr. Gomez studied education and majored in English and social science at De La Salle University, the college I attended. He became my inspiration to take that leap to another discipline and to look for programs at Scripps as well. 

I thought that the best way to catch up with the marine science world was to get a marine biology graduate degree. However, as I got exposed to the different facets related to marine science, I realized that having an interdisciplinary lens is critical for science to make an impact on people. Surprisingly, Scripps offers one of the best interdisciplinary programs related to marine science in the country. 


en: What are you researching at Scripps? 

DA: I decided to pursue graduate studies in the United States instead of the Philippines when I learned that the U.S. has a Coral Reef Conservation Act. The Philippines is at the apex of the Coral Triangle, where the highest biodiversity of corals and reef-associated organisms is found, yet we do not have a law that specifically protects, conserves, and manages coral reefs. The responsibility of managing coral reefs in the Philippines is spread out among different agencies, which means a lot of confusion and dilution of accountability. For my capstone project, I will be reviewing reef-related laws, policies, and programs in the Philippines to evaluate gaps and assess the needs of the country to effectively manage its coral reefs. I aim to produce a roadmap toward a Philippine version of the U.S. Coral Reef Conservation Act.


en: How did you become interested in science and your field of study? 

DA: I was exposed to National Geographic magazines at a young age. I would always flip through its pages and spend hours in awe of photographs of the ancient pyramids, underwater scenes, and even space. Growing up, I wanted to become one of these three: an archaeologist, a marine biologist, or an astronaut. But when I learned that these occupations are  not very lucrative in the Philippines, I thought that maybe one way to be an explorer is to learn how to write and take photographs. So, I took up communication arts and became a lifestyle writer and editor in Manila right after college. 

Alcantara exploring a pristine reef in Cagayancillo, Palawan, Philippines.

I then pursued the life of a freelance journalist to chase stories that I really wanted to write. I was always interested in writing stories related to the sea. That was when I chanced upon the nationwide coral reef assessment project in the Philippines. I interviewed its project head, Dr.  Licuanan, for a story for CNN Philippines and before the interview ended, I shamelessly asked if there was any way I could be involved in his lab as a science communicator. This was my chance to become a marine biologist, I thought. After two or so weeks, he sent me an email that he had an upcoming project that involved some science communication. I immediately replied yes. 

I was involved in a project that trained researchers and government staff from all over the Philippines on coral reef assessments and coral taxonomy. As the science communicator, I had to learn how to conduct reef surveys and know how to identify corals, too! In a matter of months, I was certified to become an open-water diver and learned the reef assessment and monitoring methods. With a lean team, I also became more and more involved with reef assessment surveys and was deployed to different parts of the country to conduct them with the team. Fieldwork is my favorite part of the job! Apart from developing training modules and lectures, I became more and more of a scientist over the years.  

I realized early on the importance of implementing what our lab is doing in relation to reef science and management. So, I looked for policies around the world related to reef management and that was when I stumbled upon the U.S. Coral Reef Conservation Act. Ever since, I was bothered by why the Philippines did not have an all-encompassing law meant to protect, conserve, and manage coral reefs, when we have so many reefs, and the health of reefs is intertwined with the well-being of the Filipino people. 


en: What’s life like as a Scripps student? Describe a typical day. 

DA: As a Scripps student in a one-year program, every quarter is a very different experience. Our program starts during the summer. It’s basically a summer boot camp on anything and everything related to marine science. During the summer, we had classes from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day. Then, I would try to go to the campus early to spend time by the sea before class to ground myself before the whirlwind of lectures that lay ahead. Our cohort tried to get together outside of the classroom by hanging out by the pier and taking a quick dip at the end of the week. 

 Alcantara spent a day diving in the Red Sea before the 27th UN Climate Change Conference began in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt.  

For the fall quarter, we were required to take Ocean Law and Policy, Economics of the Environment as an elective. We had more time outside of the classroom. My typical morning would involve a ten-minute meditation, yoga, making coffee, and going through readings like case laws and our economics textbook. Classes were usually late mornings or afternoons, so I would usually have the entire morning going through readings, which was never enough time. Then, I clean and cook when I get home.  

During winter quarter, I took two electives and had two internships on top of preparing for my capstone project. Almost all my classes were on the main UC San Diego campus, but I tried to work at Scripps when I could to be motivated. 

This spring, I attended California Ocean Day in Sacramento with other students from my cohort. It was a full day of lobbying for ocean policies and connecting with ocean people from all over California. I’m also working on completing my capstone project.


en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work (in the field or in the lab)? 

DA: I am happiest when I’m underwater! As a reef researcher from the Philippines, I love diving into new places the most. With over 7,100 islands, I am always in awe of the diversity of corals and fishes in our reefs. One of the things on my bucket list is to dive into major coral reef regions in the world. So when I attended the 27th UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm-El-Sheikh, Egypt, I made sure that I got to dive in the Red Sea. Before coming to the U.S., I was also involved in a citizen-science reef-monitoring project, which meant being engaged with the coastal communities to learn about their relationship and perceptions of the reefs. 


Alcantara was one of the selected Scripps students who helped in the first-ever Ocean Pavilion during COP27.

en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way? 

DA: I am always grateful to Dr. Licuanan for taking a chance on me, a person with no science background, and for acknowledging the need for a reef research team composed of people from different disciplines. Dr. Ed Gomez, one of the pioneers of coral reef conservation in the Philippines, will always be my role model and inspiration. 


en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student? 

DA: As a student in an interdisciplinary program, I get whiplash from different disciplines every single day. Switching from one subject matter to another in a short amount of time is definitely the most exhausting part of the program. 


en: What are your plans post-Scripps? 

DA: I plan to return to the Philippines and present my roadmap to policymakers, national agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the academe.


You can find Alcantara on Instagram @dnsalcantara.

About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

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