Light, color, wonder and joy

byTony La Viña

“Many praised her excellence in doing science and recalled her warmth, compassion, and kindness.”

Dr. Gemma Narisma, who died last Friday, 5 March 2021, was the Director of the Manila Observatory (MO), a Jesuit scientific institution. She was also a professor of physics at the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU), and member of the Board of Trustees of various Jesuit institutions. She was a month shy of 49.

We are heartbroken—those of us who worked with Gemma. While her death is a personal loss, it also leaves a big void as the country and the world combats the climate emergency.

Dr. Narisma earned her BS in Applied Physics and MSc in Environmental Science degrees from the University of the Philippines Diliman. She received her PhD in Atmospheric Science from the Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. For her exemplary contributions to science, she received the following awards: NAST Outstanding Young Scientist in Atmospheric Science in 2012, The Outstanding Women in the Nation’s Service (TOWNS) award in 2013, and the National Research Council of the Philippines (NRCP) Achievement Award in Earth and Space Sciences in March 2018.

Dr. Narisma was an active member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and was one of the leaders of CORDEX-SEA, a network of climate scientists in the region. On the first funeral wake mass, dozens of our international colleagues and partners joined and some paid tribute to her—praising her excellence in doing science while also all recalling her warmth, compassion, and kindness.

Indeed, Gemma was a world-class scientist. She was also a woman of deep faith. She believed in the Ignatian mission and for MO that meant doing science for the people and for the greater glory of God. She appreciated the Spiritual Exercises and was committed to the spiritual formation of MO’s scientists and staff.

Many of us witnessed the depth of her faith in the last few years of her life when she struggled with grief over losing her parents, and especially in the last few months when she battled serious illness.

The saving grace in the life of Gemma, as she struggled with grief and pain, is that she had a loving family and good friends who accompanied her in that suffering.

Dr. Obie Cambaliza, ADMU Physics Department Chair and an MO senior scientist, has been her friend since they were 17-year-old students in UP Diliman. Among others, Obie and Dr. James Simpas, also of the Physics Department and likewise an MO scientist, was there singing and praying with her on the last days of her life.

But what has struck me most is the testimonies of her younger colleagues.

Dr. Julie Dado, a former RA and now an MO climate scientist herself recalls: “I remember seeing how genuine really Doc Gemma is with what she does. She really wants to help those who are most at risk, those most affected by bringing them the knowledge and empowering them that they can do something to help themselves. And because of that, those people too, gravitated towards her.”

Dr. Monica Ortiz, currently based in England, posted in Facebook: “I am but one of the many whose life has been changed by Dr. Gemma Narisma. Without exaggeration, Doc Gemma is one of the reasons why I am where I am in the world and why I am the way I am. She believed in me from the very beginning. I learned so much from her humble spirit and passion.”

Richie Antonio, who works in the Regional Climate Studies (RCS) Laboratory in MO that Gemma led for years, shared: “I recall the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matt 20:1-16). It can be thought of an an analogy for those who worked for and with Doc Gemma. For some of us, we worked in her vineyard since the morning and for others, late in the afternoon. I can consider myself entering her vineyard at midday, or slightly after. As in the parable, the workers, no matter what time of day they entered the vineyard, received the same wage. In the case of Doc Gemma, her wage for us was her love, concern, guidance, humanity and the brightness of the light that shined out of her.”

Gela Magnaye, also of RCS, also recalls: “We went to places to promote the kind of science MO has been doing since 1865 – the science to serve the people. She always said it’s that kind of mission that brings the community together, but in fact it really was Doc Gemma, the embodiment of faith and science that even pulled us closer. Her impact in this world touched so many hearts and minds. I think this inspired many of us to pursue and stick to climate and atmospheric sciences, risk and resilience.”

I recall a Facebook post of Gemma about her RCS colleagues of their kindness to and friendship with each other: “When the world seems harsh, sarcastic, cynical, and unkind, being with them, not only of good minds but especially of good hearts, is restful.”

As the officer-in-charge of Manila Observatory, I currently use Gemma’s MO office. It is gorgeous, full of light and color. One can rest and hope here. That was Gemma Narisma—always bringing light and color, wonder and joy, wherever she went.

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