When Estrella Alabastro ’67 graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of the Philippines, she was, by her own admission, “immature.” She knew she wanted further education. She knew she wanted to be an educator. When an uncle recommended that she look at Rice, she took his advice, and counts it among her life’s great decisions.
“I grew up at Rice,” she said. “David Hellums was my adviser. But the other professors were mentors. They taught me to think. My talents were shaped and molded at Rice.”
After earning a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, Alabastro returned to her home country and worked for a private company, then decided it was time to fulfill her dream of working in academia. She wanted to teach, but there were no female engineering professors at her alma mater; she was named chair of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition.
“I guess I’ll have to learn food engineering,” she said to herself.
That appointment opened the door to what would become a life in public service. Alabastro went on to serve as dean of the College of Home Economics, then led the Philippine Council for Industry and Energy Research and Development and later, the Philippine Council for Advanced Science and Technology Research and Development. In 2001, she became the first woman appointed secretary of the country’s Department of Science and Technology.
“Engineering gave me very good training to be logical in my approach to problem solving,” she said. “It taught me how to think.”
Alabastro said that logical approach was an asset when she was developing a program to give Filipino researchers better access to funding and more opportunities to improve the quality of their work. Although the program was intended to assist with university-level research, it turned out that stronger foundations needed to be laid at the high-school level in order to produce higher caliber scientists.
“We identified 110 public schools and provided them with teacher training and facility improvements, all the things we felt a good high school should have to prepare students to go into science and engineering,” she said. “We sent teachers all over the world to visit engineering schools and learn best practices. We made great improvements in education, and today our engineers are some of the best in the world.”
Alabastro, now retired, is still taking on new ventures. Together with her daughter, Stella Quimbo, she developed a shoe design and manufacturing business, creating fashion-forward footwear at reasonable prices. Although the business was Quimbo’s brainchild, she has handed the reins over to her mother, as she was recently appointed head of the National Competition Commission.
“My daughter loves shoes. She taught economics at the university and her husband is a congressman. The area he represents is known as the shoe-making capital of the Philippines, so we’re creating jobs for the region. It’s an exciting and interesting venture.”