Meet College of Sciences Alumnus and Ateneo de Manila University President Jett Villarin

Advice to students: As you deepen your expertise, broaden your horizons

Jose Ramon T. Villarin, or Fr. Jett to colleagues and students, is the Filipino Jesuit priest and scientist who has led Ateneo de Manila University as president since 2010. Founded in 1859 by the Society of Jesus, the private university, which is located in Quezon City, is the third oldest in the Philippines. Ateneo serves more than 20,000 students, from elementary to graduate school. Its alumni include José Rizal, the Philippines’ national hero, and several former Philippine presidents and government leaders.

Villarin himself is an Ateneo alumnus, graduating from Ateneo de Manila High School and then earning a B.S. in Physics (magna cum laude) in 1980. The scientist/priest’s journey to the presidency of a major Philippine university includes the Ph.D., Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, he received from Georgia Tech in 1997.

What attracted you to study in Georgia Tech?

What attracted me to Georgia Tech were the faculty members whose expertise I had learned about from their publications.

Aside from helping me develop deep competence in my field, Georgia Tech also brought me in contact with leading scientists in the field. My classmates were smart, kind, and generous. The programs I took exposed me to both the experimental and theoretical fields of my science. Tech also broadened my horizons through some courses I took in Public Policy.

Georgia Tech deepened my love of learning and taught me the discipline of learning how to learn.

What is a vivid memory of your time at Georgia Tech?

I have lots of wonderful memories: Working during the 1996 Olympics, when Georgia Tech was the Olympic Village. Field work with people from the best labs—such as the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency and Brookhaven National Laboratory—in an open farm in Nashville, Tennessee. Setting up air-monitoring stations, such as the one on Blackjack Mountain. Several months of back-and-forth discussion with a notable scientist and peer reviewer of our Nature publication, “A new perspective on the dynamical link between the stratosphere and troposphere.” The presentation of our work at the 1997 American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco

How did you get to your current position? Which professors made a big impact on your career path?

After graduating from Georgia Tech, I joined the Climate Studies Division of the Manila Observatory. This appointment opened up several possibilities for me, such as working on climate concerns from the perspective of developing countries, working with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change as a reviewer of the greenhouse gas emission inventories of the Parties to the Convention on Climate Change, as well as doing environmental science and policy work domestically in the Philippines. All these became possible because of the training and degree I got from Georgia Tech.

Ateneo de Manila must have recognized the breadth and depth of my various experiences when they selected me as university president.

The professors who made a significant impact on my career path are Dana Hartley, Robert Black, William  Chameides (now at Duke University), Michael Rodgers, Robert Roper (deceased), and Douglas Davis. They all had their unique way of sharing their passion for their profession and discipline.

What do you like most about your current job? The least?

Like most: Strategic leadership. Like least: Balancing the myriad details of administration.

What has been the greatest challenge in your professional life so far?

Running a university is not a walk in the park. I have to contend with different publics. Fund raising continues to be a challenge. Keeping myself updated in science while in administration is a tough balancing act. I try to overcome these challenges by being in touch with students and faculty and immersing myself in the urgent challenges of climate and sustainability.

What has been the most gratifying experience of your professional career so far?

Every graduation is an occasion to celebrate. It is truly gratifying to see young people grow in character and in their learning over the years.

In my own field, I am delighted to see many young Filipinos now taking up atmospheric sciences as a viable career choice. I think they see me as a mentor, which I am only glad to become for them. As a member of the National Panel of Technical Experts of the Climate Change Commission of the Philippines, I am able to give technical input that gives guidance and direction to national policy. I was also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was given to the scientific body and Al Gore.

If you could have taken an alternative career path, what would you be doing instead?

I’d still be teaching, but probably flying on the side too, as a pilot.

What advice would you give to incoming first-year students at Georgia Tech?

Keep the wonder. Discover and nurture your passion. As you deepen your expertise, broaden your horizons and don’t confine yourself to just one dimension. Make friends. Don’t forget people, especially those who live at the fringes of society.

What’s something about yourself that’s not obvious to your colleagues?

When stressed, I like to code Web stuff. I compose music and play the piano.

If you could have dinner with any person from history, whom would you invite?

Pope Francis. Even if I already got to talk to him briefly, it would be grand to have a one-on-one with him over dinner.

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    Jett Villarin

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