Fr. Jett Villarin — Jesuit, Scientist and Musician
by Julie Javellana-Santos
When Fr. Jose Ramon T. Villarin SJ, or “Fr. Jett” to many, was a sophomore in college, Fr. Bienvenido S. Nebres SJ was the college dean. He relates it was then that Fr. Ben began recruiting him and other student leaders.
“He would take us up to Antipolo to attend workshops where they taught us to do social analysis and where they trained us for leadership,” Fr. Jett recalls.
Years later, after Fr. Jett entered the Society of Jesus, he went overseas to take further studies in Physics at Marquette University in Wisconsin, a Jesuit university known for its Jesuits engaged in science.
Fr. Ben was already the Provincial Superior of the Philippine Province then, and while Fr. Jett wanted to be assigned to Mindanao with his brother scholastics who were going there on regency, Fr. Ben gave him a physics book and said “you go to Marquette University and study.”
“Had I not gone, I would have lost my interest in science,” Fr. Jett says although he remembers sorely wanting to join his brother Jesuits who were out rallying with the rest of the country then during the People Power Revolution in February 1986.
After Fr. Jett obtained his master’s degree in physics in 1987, he went home to do theology, “not knowing that four years later, I would again be sent out to study.”
After completing his theological studies, he was ordained a priest at Sta. Maria Della Strada in April 1991. Immediately after ordination, he did campus ministry work at the Ateneo de Manila, while studying Japanese in preparation for doctoral studies in laser physics. When his plan for Japan did not push through, he went instead to Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta to study atmospheric sciences.
In 1997, Fr. Jett returned to Loyola Heights to begin work as a climate scientist at the Manila Observatory and to teach Physics at the Ateneo de Manila. He eventually became Associate Director for Research before the Jesuit Provincial, his old friend and classmate Fr. Danny Huang SJ, made him available for mission as president of Xavier University (Ateneo de Cagayan) in 2005.
Fr. Jett served in Cagayan for six years and is now Ateneo de Manila University’s 30th president succeeding Fr. Nebres. He was elected last June 29, 2010 and his first term as university president is from June 1, 2011 to March 31, 2014.
Early life and education
Fr. Jett was born in Manila on January 30, 1960. He started formal education at Lourdes School in Sta. Mesa Heights, Quezon City and was introduced to Jesuit education when he entered Ateneo High School in 1972.
He took his undergraduate studies at the Ateneo de Manila University and in 1980 received a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics, graduating magna cum laude and class valedictorian.
Right after graduation, Fr Jett went to Ateneo de Davao to teach Physics at the invitation of his high school mentor, Fr Francis Glover SJ, and to work in campus ministry. It was also in Davao where he was invited to join the first batch of Jesuit volunteers who were then already assigned to a mission in Bukidnon and Cagayan de Oro.
The formation years
It was in Davao that Fr Jett discerned whether or not to join the Society of Jesus. After several months of praying via the 19th Annotation or retreat in daily life program of the Spiritual Exercises, he decided to become a Jesuit, entering Sacred Heart Novitiate in Novaliches in May 1981.
He returned to the Loyola Heights campus in 1983 where he combined his Juniorate, Philosophy, and advanced Physics studies for two years until 1985. After finishing his masteral degree in Physics (1987), he completed his bachelor’s degree in sacred theology at the Loyola School of Theology (summa cum laude) and was ordained priest in 1991. He left for Georgia Tech in 1992 to study for the doctorate in Atmospheric Sciences until 1997.
As a scientist Fr. Jett served in various capacities throughout his career as a scientist. While he was studying theology in the late 1980’s, he was teaching and doing research at the Laser Laboratory of the Ateneo de Manila.
While he was a graduate research assistant at Georgia Tech, he did experimental fieldwork on urban air quality and theoretical studies on global atmospheric circulation models.
But it was the issue of global warming in the early 1990s, which ignited his academic interest and passion. He was a Global Change scholar at Georgia Tech and while he was a PhD student, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) gave him an Outstanding Student Paper Award for what he presented at the AGU conference in San Francisco in 1995. At the end of his studies, his work won for him the school’s Best Graduate Student Research Award.
Fr. Jett was awarded National Outstanding Young Scientist in 2000 by the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). In 2001, he edited a book titled “Disturbing Climate” which was conferred the National Book Award (Sciences) by the Manila Critics Circle, the National Book Development Board, and later in 2002 by the NAST.
Because of his work on greenhouse gas emissions, Fr. Jett became part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a team of climate scientists that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize together with Al Gore.
He is also an active member of several local and international environment and climate groups. Internationally, he is lead reviewer of the UN Convention on Climate Change and has worked with UN Consultative Group of Experts for Developing Countries. Nationally, he is part of the advisory board of the Climate Change Commission, among others.
However, Fr. Jett is not just a priest and a scientist but also a musician. In an unobtrusive part of his office at the Ateneo de Manila sits a keyboard, under wraps just like his 35 year old guitar. He confesses that music is his solace and ever-reliable stress dissolver. He would rather play these instruments in solitude and quiet, but he yielded once when students prevailed upon him to play with a band at Xavier University. He has also been youtubed playing the piano with students in a relaxed moment at the Main Chapel of Xavier.
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam
Fr. Jett – Jesuit, scientist, musician, dreamer of great things. As he comes back to the Ateneo, he acknowledges the Ateneo as “the place where I first learned to dream, to dream of greater things, to do greater things. I honestly believe this place is where heroes are made, where our heroic desires are nurtured. And so my plan is just to continue building that Ateneo ambience which has been known to grow those great dreams for our selves, for our people, and as we say, for the greater glory of God.”