Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Bernidos: A love story

Both Theoretical Physicists, you'd expect a constant stream of heavy science when you talk to them. Well, that's just half right.

Commenting on husband Cristopher's schoolboy addiction to Marvel Comics and its mutant heroes, Maria Victoria Bernido, 'Marivic' to friends says, “Mutation is very possible now. You're synthesizing; if you go down to the molecular level of nature and combine it with engineering, it is possible.”

Before the topic of mutants, the couple talked about tackling the biological application of Physics for their 6th International Workshop in 2012. They said these kinds of conversations relax them.

It was during the middle of a no-class day at the Central Visayas Institute Foundation (CVIF), the high school the Bernidos revived in 1999 which earned them a Ramon Magsaysay Award last August 2010. They had most of the day off, and they revel in the fact that they could talk about Science without running the School at the back of their minds.

Still, they were in School that day, both alternately leaving the table to check on things.

The self-proclaimed workaholic couple, who admit to being jaded by “the same interview questions,” laughed when I said was writing their love story.

Not Too Bored After All

When they met in 1982, Marivic was an instructor at the University of the Philippines Department of Physics and had no intention of marrying anyone. “I didn't want to get bored,” she recalls thinking at the time. Marivic was a girl who spent high school solving the most difficult mathematical problems simply because they were difficult.

Little did she know she had a male equal, Cris Bernido. When they met, Cris was a visiting professor at the University of the Philippines while taking his doctorate Physics degree in Albany, New York.

Cris eventually became department chairman and he and Marivic had frequent conversations on the backwardness of the Philippines in terms of science, among other things. Marivic was slowly realizing that before her was someone who shared her views and aspirations. And, soon enough, love was born.

Lovers' Talk

Never in the young couple's wildest dreams did they imagine that, 28 years later, their love would serve the cause of Philippine Education in a way that would make the world sit up and take notice.

The cornerstone of CVIF is the Dynamic Learning Program, a student-focused teaching strategy. The program has earned the couple admirers from the global academe. The local media, meanwhile, focused on their decision to leave the Big Apple to live in Jagna, the rural part of Bohol where Dunkin' Donuts is as rare as the couple's decision to leave the First World.

The Bernidos say moving to Bohol was no sacrifice. “We have long fantasized to live close to nature,” Marivic quips.

Cris says that when they talk of love, a lot of it has to do with the trees, the silent breeze, solitude, meditating and, of course, science. Their dream is to build a Research Center atop the Ilihan Hill, a 10-minute trek from the mercado (market) where a small chapel stands overlooking Jagna's main roads.

Although that dream is yet to become reality, the Bernidos have been hosting the Jagna International Workshop for Physics for the past 15 years. It has been attended by such luminaries of the world stage as Nobel Peace Prize Winners Gerardus 't Hooft (1999) and Frank Wilczek (2004).


In the 1990s, public secondary education in the Philippines became free, so private school enrollment dropped and many teachers began transferring to public schools. Thus began the decline of CVIF.

When the Bernidos took over, students didn't know their decimals and fractions, and couldn't even compute the circumference of a circle. Cris found it lamentable since, he recalls, in high school he was already predicting the distance and time of projectile motion.

Your goals are high, and reality is just way below,” Marivic points out. To remedy the situation, the first thing the Bernidos did was to ban calculators. Second, they reduced non-class days.

In Jagna, as in most remote provinces, the town fiesta is a big deal. So big that the school had to hold off classes for a month to focus on festivities. This led to the Bernidos' most drastic transitional act: fire some teachers.

For 70 years—starting from when Cris' great grandfather was Bohol Governor—CVIF had been run a certain way. Then came these rich physicists from New York changing too many things. People were angry. “There were very painful decisions,” Marivic admits, “but we had a goal for the school.”

The drastic measures taken by the Bernidos led to a drastic improvement in the quality of teaching as well as CVIF graduates.

Before the Bernidos took over, the passing rate for the University of the Philippines College Admissions Test (the UPCAT, what many consider the toughest in the country) was 0. This year alone, nine CVIF students have passed the UPCAT. An increasing number of CVIF students have gone on to college.

The One

“We didn't want to be just consumers of science and technology. We wanted to have a chance at a bigger success,” Marivic recalls, sharing that this mutual vision was what told her Cris was The One. Cris had proposed through a letter, telling her they should get married because together they would “build a nation.”

After a six-year, long-distance relationship—Marivic took her post-grad studies in New York, while Cris returned to UP to teach and flew across Europe for his post-doctorate studies—they finally married in 1988.

What about babies? “After realizing we were not having kids, we accepted that there was another plan for us,” Marivic says. “And that was to have 498 intellectual children instead.” The couple never bothered to find out why they couldn't have kids. They focused on building their own version of home.

“But there's still so much more to do,” says Cris. Among them will probably be the reconstruction of the 1930s main building, which used to be a cinema house, as well as modernizing the school in terms of structure and equipment. Marivic admits progress is slow. “Hindi pa namin nasusundan, naluluma na yung nasisimulan. (We haven't even resumed the work, and already, the structures we built are wearing down.)

Despite the tight budget, the Bernidos are determined to “never ask for dole-outs.” It has been their principle from day one. “Breaking points came often,” Cris says. But they were set to do anything to stick to their no-handouts policy. Once, they even took advantage of an airline overbooking mix up to receive US$400 worth of compensation, right at the time their bank account had been depleted to a mere US$10.


Although 78% of their students are scholars, they still have to help out others—especially those who bucked the odds and were going off to college. “There was a time when all of them asked for an allowance at once, and we didn't know where to get the cash,” Marivic recounts. “We are never really childless. We actually have a handful.”

Like busy parents, the Bernidos hardly have any time for themselves. They've never been to a real vacation in a decade and have not had a television for 11 years (the latter, by choice). Cris affectionately blames his wife for their lack of downtime. “She feels her time is better spent on research,” he says.

The Bernidos' day starts at seven in the morning for the flag ceremony. They're home by five. During their free time, the couple does research on the Internet. On weekends, they speak at conventions. More lecture invitations pour in during summer breaks. “One day, we will,” Marivic promises when asked when they would take a trip to relax. Cris only smiles.


From time to time during our visit, Marivic would ask her husband if she looked nice. At one point, she teases Cris into singing the song he used to her during the early days of their romance. Cris finally agrees. Marivic gets up and stands behind Cris' shoulder, her hand resting on it as she sings along. After 22 years, they are still passionately in love.

Their love story will continue against the backdrop of Jagna. “Manila or New York has no appeal for us anymore,” Cris says. When asked if there is nothing more they desire, Cris chuckles and replies, “For a climber, there's always another mountain to climb.”

“Ad infinitum,” Marivic agrees.

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