“My journey in Science started as a fortunate stroke of serendipity.”
Although our Pinay of the Month wanted to be a scientist when she was little, her run of luck began when she was offered a scholarship by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST). A recipient of the DOST-merit scholarship, Erika Legara originally wanted to take on a different career growing up. “I had always wanted to be an engineer because both my parents are civil engineers,” she recalls, but due to the limited course offerings covered by the scholarship, Erika chose Physics since it was the closest science to civil engineering.
Even then, choosing a science course is totally different from staying in it. Erika reveals what keeps her committed to the field of Physics. “What made me really want to continue pursuing the field were my research mentors,” referring to her instructors at the National Institute of Physics and her days at the Instrumentation Physics Laboratory. It was then she found joy in research and collaboration.
Currently a data scientist, Erika’s days as a Physics student led her to her pursuit of knowledge, specifically writing simulations and algorithms to explore some what-ifs of day-to-day living. In particular, she has quite a number of interesting research projects under her belt. Not a fan of traffic? Data can solve that! Erika has done research on cities and transportation systems to find ways to make them smarter, more efficient, and more reliable. Bothered by the trolls that plague the internet? Data can offer some perspective on that, too! She has also done some work in Computational Social Science, describing how bots and trolls behave online. “With the right information, the right lens, and the right tools, I, together with our research team, get to help enterprises make better decisions that improve both their business processes and products.”
While a successful, self-made Pinay in science, Erika would not be where she is today without a little help from some people. “The four biggest contributing factors in my pursuit of STEM are my parents, the DOST, my research mentors, and the field of Science itself.” It was the first which exposed her to career options related to civil engineering, the second which opened doors for her, and the third which kept her committed to Physics. But at the end of the day, it’s science itself that makes her stay. “Even if we have the most inspiring parents and mentors, if the field of Science were not as interesting and as mind-blowing as it is, I really wouldn’t have stayed in STEM and continued this pursuit. There’s this deep sense of fulfillment in discovering and creating things, and this is what keeps me in the field and in my profession as a scientist and a professor.”
As for young Pinays who would want to explore the same path, Erika mentions that the road doesn’t come without any challenges. In particular, she mentions that the country doesn’t have a deep appreciation for the sciences, which is reflected in how little scientists and researchers get paid here, relative to the years of studying and investment. That being said, while outside factors may be to blame, Pinays themselves have the guts to pursue their dreams. With a little exposure, aspiring scientists can go a long way! Erika hopefully says. “I am not that worried about building the confidence of our young Pinays. We just really need to expose them to the wonders of STEM.” Nowadays, in the midst of a health crisis, there are still opportunities to be found indoors, such as online internships and webinars which Erika recommends. Some examples include gathering scientists to volunteer or take part in mentoring activities and project-based programs where they can guide young girls in building AI models to perform classification tasks or teach them how to write cellular-automata models in order for them to learn more about segregation and/or land-use design, or to figure out how to best represent social interactions through complex networks. With all this excitement and enthusiasm, she hopes to bring STEM closer to the public, especially the Filipino youth.
Her final motivational words for us are about STEM Pinays as more than just inspirational figures. “We are aware that as women in science, we have the responsibility to inspire more women to get into science. But more than information disseminators, we are also very much capable of becoming discoverers and generators of ideas and knowledge—something that I would really love to see more of. Just keep on pushing and persevering. STEM is gender-neutral. Keep on learning, exploring, and creating!”
Knowing the stories of others can truly give us a better look at what options we have, but Herdeline also conversely says that our journeys could help others make sense of theirs as well. “There is no single, best path for girls who want to pursue a career in STEM. It is up to you to find and follow the path where you’ll be most excited. This is not an easy career path, but it is your enthusiasm towards small steps that will lift you towards bigger successes. Always remember that those successes will not only serve you but can also open the doors for the next generation of girls behind you.”
Erika Legara is a data scientist who completed her bachelor’s, master’s, and postgraduate degrees in Physics under the University of the Philippines. Currently, she is the Associate Professor, Aboitiz Chair in Data Science, and the Program Director of MSc Data Science in the Asian Institute of Management.