’56 B.S. IN CHEMISTRY
1983-1988 Founding President, UPAA-SD
My freshman year at UP Diliman was rather overwhelming. Very quickly I began to feel like I was the big teen-ager on campus. Enrolling as a Math major and a college scholar, I developed enough of a new “teenage crush”, a fantasy of sort, on my General Chemistry professor that led me to change my major to Chemistry in the second semester.
I joined the UP Chemical Society, UP Women’s Club, UP Mathematics Club, and the Chemical Society of the Philippines. For my thesis, I analyzed the amino acid composition of fish acid hydrolyzates or “patis” by paper chromatography.
In December 1956, armed with a B.S. Chemistry degree, I hopped on the Bicol Express train to UP Los Banos, Laguna, where I had been appointed as a research assistant instructor in the Chemistry Department. In November 1957, the Big News came out! I garnered number 3 in the Philippine Board of Examination for Chemists in the entire country.
August 1960 was a historical event in my hometown of Mandaluyong, Rizal, when I left for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA to pursue graduate studies at Duquesne University, a Catholic university run by the Jesuits. The entire town practically saw me off at the airport!
A Teaching Assistantship and subsequent fellowships from the U. S. Public Health Service and National Institute of Health made it possible for me to finish a doctorate degree majoring in biochemistry in four years, bypassing the masteral program.
My major professor was amazed (shocked even) by my ability to sacrifice a pigeon (the way my stepmother taught me how to do it in chicken-style) to extract an enzyme from its liver for my thesis (mea culpa to the ASPCA).
I had saved enough to send for my father who came over on the SS President Cleveland. It took him 21 days from Manila to San Francisco! He willingly type-wrote my thesis “On the Mechanism of Action of Succinic Dehydrogenase” in quadruplicate (word processing was unheard of, let alone a computer, in those days). He was extremely proud to see me walk up the stage as his daughter was called “Dr. Juanita Francisco” for the first time.
Accepting a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California at Los Angeles, I flew into Long Beach where I did my research at the VA Hospital Medical Research Programs. Thereafter, a research associate-ship at the University of Southern California School of Medicine followed.
Subsequently, I accepted a research fellowship at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and this precipitated the fortuitous relocation of my family to La Jolla, California.
My years at Salk Institute were very memorable. At one of Dr. Salk’s many gatherings at his home, my husband and I met Drs. Francis Crick and James Watson of London and Harvard, respectively, of the DNA Double Helix fame.
Our focus was identifying the active site of the basic protein associated with the experimental model disease for multiple sclerosis (MS). In the scientific research period of my career, I am co-author of several scientific papers; one that stands out in my memory was presented at the Seventh International Congress of Biochemistry held in Tokyo, Japan. When the research team relocated to New Jersey to join Merck, I chose to remain in San Diego (aptly called America’s Finest City because of its excellent temperate climate) mainly because the harsh winters in the East were no longer appealing to me.
An internship in Clinical Chemistry at Sharp Memorial Hospital opened up an entirely new field for me. Leaving the research field, this new venture in Laboratory Medicine led me to the San Diego Institute of Pathology and Maas Diagnostic Laboratory where I served as Clinical Chemist and also a lecturer at the School of Medical Technology at Sharp Memorial Hospital.
I developed a laboratory screening method for neonatal hypothyroidism, one of the causes of mental retardation in newborns. The Presidents’ Council of Women’s Business, Professional and Service Organizations of San Diego presented me with a second “Woman of Achievement” award for this work.
In the same year, the Maria Clara de Pilipinas Sorority founded and headed by Lucy Gonzales honored me for my achievement with its “Lady of Elegance” in Medicine award. Employment at National Health Laboratories, later to become Laboratory Corporation of America, capped my professional career in Laboratory Medicine.
In addition to my having been the founding president of the UP Alumni Association of San Diego in 1983, my passion for the arts and a deep desire towards preserving my rich Filipino cultural heritage gave me the impetus to get involved with the Samahan Philippine-American Performing Arts and Education Center since its inception in 1974. I am one of the charter members, serving as its President in 1989-1990. I am still a very active member of the board. Our “Rondalla”, a stringed musical ensemble, became my focus, as a “banduria” player, teacher and its Musical Coordinator.
The UPAA of Seattle, Washington hosted the Samahan Performing Arts during the Pacific Northwest Folklife Festival in 1996 which drew over 100,000 visitors from across the globe. With much pride, our performance at the Seattle Opera House was the only one given a standing ovation. Other musical ensembles I take part in are the “Kulintang” (gongs) and “Anklung” (bamboo percussion).
Since voice is my second passion, I have joined the Pacificaires Choral Group in North Pacific Beach, which hosted the L’Esterelenco Choir from Saint Raphael, France in July 2007. A reciprocal tour to Nice, France is scheduled for joint performances with the French choir in April 2008.
In my spare time during my retirement now, I help in the family-owned travel business. My travels have taken me to several countries, including a skiing trip to Mt. Arosa, Switzerland. Another memorable trip took me to Grenoble, France, where my daughter spent a semester at the University of Grenoble, a study-abroad program of Swarthmore College.
My family includes my husband, Romeo (Ronn) Alcantara Caccam from Baguio City. Being both true-blooded Filipinos, it is interesting to note here that when I first met Ronn I mistook him for a Malaysian “mestizo” and he mistook me for a Chinese!
We have two children Stephen (married to Ann Bainbridge Clarke of New Jersey, a direct descendant of John Alden who came on the Mayflower in 1621 at Plymouth Rock) and their three children: Emily Michele, Blair Thomas and Paige Caroline (born in London); Melissa (married to Craig Robin, Esq., of Manhattan, New York) and their two sons, Shawn Michael and Nathaniel Francisco.