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Women Scientist Behind the Secrets of Chilean Honey

With over 250 cientific publications, the researcher has dedicated her work to innovation and scientific production, including the anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties of honey.

Alt: Gloria Montenegro in her laboratory.

photo_camera After almost two decades of research on the properties of Ulmo honey, Gloria Montenegro developed the Active Patagonia Factor, a technology that certifies the antibacterial power of the native honey, which recently won the London Honey Award 2021. (Photo: Karina Fuenzalida)

According  with the scientist, honey's anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties can vary depending on its origin: monofloral honey is more valuable, while honey from endemic plants is more desirable."We developed the first Chilean honey that certifies their antibacterial power and we exported them to promote the country’s identity,” said Montenegro.

She was the first Latin American to win the L'Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Award (1998). She has more than 250 scientific publications, 23 books, 37 patents and several worldwide awards. 
The last recognition was the London Honey Award 2021, in the platinum and bronze categories, for the development of Terra Andes honey with Active Patagonia Factor (APF).

Gloria Montenegro Rizzardini tells the story of her life and works in a soft voice. She is happy with her accomplishments and proud of her family, teams and alma mater. With a prodigious memory, she spares no effort in recognizing those who have accompanied her over the years. 

"You have to take the opportunities in life, and I think I have seized them. I always encourage young female researchers to take on challenges, if something goes wrong, next time it will be better. You have to be daring, you can also learn from your mistakes."

Her blue eyes, with ad-hoc eyeliner, convey liveliness and enthusiasm. 

She has been invited to speak about the Quillay tree in Dubai and to be part of a jury that will recognize the work of women scientists in Paris. 

She has lived in the United States, admires Costa Rica’s biodiversity and its pioneering environmental protection laws. 

She has travelled all around our country from Arica to Chiloé and from the mountains to the coast; but, above all, she is amazed by the south of Chile, "for its wonderful endemic temperate forest and its enormous variety of ecosystems."

She loves swimming and Italian food, which she also prepares. She loves boleros and some tango; she enjoys costumbrista novels –"now I'm rereading Baldomero Lillo"–; and during the pandemic, she read books by Mario Vargas Llosa and Isabel Allende. "I also read poetry, because it helps me write better.” 
She has been working –"with great pride"– at Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile for 51 years, where she graduated as Professor of Biology and Natural Sciences in 1964. Today she is a professor, researcher and academic secretary at the Faculty of Agronomy and Forestry Engineering.

She also took several courses and internships at the universities of Houston and Texas and brought the first scanning microscope to campus. "It cost about US$120,000 at the time. I went to the Japanese embassy in Chile and presented my argument in two pages with a list of scientists who could benefit from this device.”

Her passion for the countryside and rural life.  

"I was born in Santiago, but I always liked the countryside. As a child, I lived in a large house near the road to Maipú. I used to study among the most amazing orange trees, and always wondered how the essential oils that emitted from these fruit trees could smell so wonderful. Maybe they were my beginnings in bioprospecting.”

This is Gloria Montenegro's first memory of her hobby of studying nature to discover organisms and substances to benefit humans.

She treasures a happy childhood.

Her mother –widowed at a young age– passed on to her and her sisters a love for reading and the importance of going to college. “She had an open and free mind that pushed us to strive, all four of us are scientists.”

After a difficult time in a nuns' school –"I was very restless and curious, the nuns would lose their patience with me”– she arrived at Liceo N°1, a school which she acknowledges for its academic excellence.

Afterwards, she joined UC Chile without any problems and enjoyed her university life to the fullest:
"I enjoyed learning, going out into the field, sharing with the communities where we worked, and I was active in Catechesis (UC Chile Campus Ministry)"

She married her late professor Claudio Barrios from whom she says learned a lot.

"He was my great mentor, he pushed me, supported me and was the first one to read my papers. He understood the importance of my work, the long hours in the lab and the trips out of town. The experience of living in the United States –where he did his doctorate and where I took several courses, because doing a postgraduate degree without a scholarship was impossible– enabled us to share roles and raise our two children. It was a patriarchal time, where Chilean men were used to women being housewives and, as a result, many colleagues were unable to continue."

How do you feel about the feminist movement?

I agree that there should be gender equity: that women should have the same opportunities, positions and salaries as men. I also think men and women should share household chores and parenting. Women's work must continue to be appreciated. But we need dialogue and know-how to open spaces without violence, with respect. I value differences and believe it is important to move forward in life.

Though she has always been able to reconcile scientific publications with applied science, the latter was “frowned upon as something disparaging. People didn't know what was going on in the labs. Fortunately, this has been changing. What we do must benefit the community, we must transfer our knowledge, with the respective patents that protect the research.”

Because of her work with native plants and bee products, Gloria Montenegro is always in contact with farmers and is interested in how they live.

"I am not only attracted to native plants, but rurality: talking to them, visiting their homes, their apiaries and plantations, and seeing how we can help vulnerable populations in our countryside, protecting biodiversity.”

The Honey Factor 

Professor Montenegro shows a jar of honey.
According to Professor Montenegro, the phenolic extract of ulmo honey – where most of the bioactive compounds such as phenols and flavonoids are found – has an important activity in controlling bacteria, many of which are increasingly difficult to contain with synthetic antibiotics. (Photo: César Cortés)

She trained as a botanist, studied the properties of native plants and worked on fungi and bacteria.

“One day, while working on a project funded by the National Institutes of Health, a student beekeeper asked to do a thesis with me on the floral origin of his honey. That’s how we started to do research. We extracted the nectar from a specific medicinal plant, from which the bee produced honey, analyzed the chemistry and bioactive compounds, and the bees transmitted that property to the honey through these chemical compounds and the enzymes of their metabolism. It was a success.”

According to her, the phenolic extract of ulmo honey –where most of the bioactive compounds such as phenols and flavonoids are found– has an important bacterial control activity (especially Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Escherichia coli, which are increasingly difficult to control with synthetic antibiotics).

After almost two decades of research in this area and following the promotion strategy used in New Zealand –through its Unique Manuka Factor (UMF) label–, the faculty and UC Chile partnered with the company JPM Exportaciones.

With a 40-year contract, they developed the  Active Patagonia Factor (APF), a “Chilean factor” that certifies the power of honey as a natural antibiotic and produced APF certified honey that they already export to several countries in the world, and won the recent award in London.

They have also had very positive results with two monofloral honey that can control the bacteria that cause tooth decay. "Imagine making toothpaste with honey extract!", she stated enthusiastically. 

The Desire to Enjoy Life and Keep Working...

What are your worries?

"I worry about the lack of funding for science in Chile. Although COVID-19 has brought it to the forefront, it is not enough. There is a lack of resources for research and this has been something transversal to all governments.

There is a need for greater rapprochement and synergy between universities and companies. The UC Development Plan considers this and we are moving forward. We must transfer our knowledge to society. I have been able to publish my basic science research in high impact journals and apply the results through innovation or prototypes. I work with beekeepers, farmers, those who sell medicinal herbs; we share experiences and do training workshops.

Before the pandemic, I visited the markets a lot, especially in the regions, to talk about the native plants they sell, how they are harvested and for what they are used. We have also provided certificates of origin to honey produced by the Mapuche communities of Afunalhue.

We must take better care of the environment. In the late 1980s, I gave my first lecture on climate change at a meeting of the International Biodiversity Group and many of the phenomena we discussed at that conference in California are now occurring such as extreme temperatures, floods and drought.
In Chile, the water issue is very, very worrying."

How would you explain your success?

"I am curious, enthusiastic, hard-working and demanding, but I have a good character. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to develop and the support I’ve received from my family, my professors, the university authorities –especially from President Ignacio Sánchez, Vice President Pedro Bouchon and my dean Rodrigo Figueroa–.

Also from colleagues like Ady Giordano from the Faculty of Chemistry & Pharmacy; my laboratory assistant Víctor Ahumada, Gabriel Núñez; Catalina Bay-Schmith, from the Office of Transfer and Development; my students, my son, grandchildren and my daughter, my best friend and companion."

For Gloria Montenegro, it is key to promote a collaborative environment –like the one at UC Chile– to develop academic and interdisciplinary interactions. "We must continue to actively seek how to promote and value our natural resources in Chile, with the designation of origin, such as ulmo honey, which is a superfood."

What are your next challenges? 

"I would like to continue enjoying life. I want to continue my research and work in my laboratory. I am interested in sharing my knowledge and experience. To educate students with integrity and ethical values.

I believe in my discoveries, I love all bee products: I have royal jelly, propolis and a teaspoon of honey almost every day. I am happy, I feel whole.

When God calls me I’ll be ready; I am not afraid of death, but I will not wait for it lying down."

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