“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.
STEM doesn’t just happen in the confines of your room or inside a lab! We peek through the Field Notes of these STEM women on the field —and find out what happens right where the action is!
Through these past few months, we’ve gathered notable Pinays, (friendly) girl gangs, and SHS ates that can help us pave the way for our STEM journey. This time around, we’re sharing the spotlight with the women working right where the action is.
These longtime scientists, researchers, and everything-ists have been living the dream—and now, they’re sharing vital ‘field notes’ to us. Who knows? They could well be your mentors someday.
Science Researcher, National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NHCP)
Gracile has been a longtime researcher at the NCHP, involved in the conservation of tangible heritage in the country. Through her multidisciplinary work, the NCHP is able to recognize material and come up with conservation efforts on important artifacts like documents, books, clothes, artworks and furniture in 27 museums.
She pursued STEM not because of the love for Science or Math, but actually because of Jose Rizal! Gracile was inspired by the national hero’s selfless deeds in introducing new medicinal techniques to farmers, tutoring young kids, and studying animals. Since then, cultural heritage conservation has been her calling.
Gracile’s Field Notes on becoming a multidisciplinary scientist
‘Conservation of tangible cultural heritage is multidisciplinary in nature—it cannot be classified as a purely artistic endeavor nor purely scientific because it considers the integrity of the material components a heritage object as well as its historic, artistic and cultural value. I get to work with people coming from different educational backgrounds and experiences, not only within NHCP but also in the communities we are serving.’
Gracile’s Field Notes on her early years
‘I realized that I should go beyond that if I really want to become a good conservation science researcher. For example, if you want to study a painting, it helps if you know how to paint and are familiar with materials used by painters. If you want to document and assess the condition of a vintage terno, you would less likely miss the most important details if you are familiar with garment construction. Until now, I have been taking every opportunity to improve my artistic skills and learn new crafting techniques that might help me in research and conservation work.’
Aiko del Rosario
Marine Scientist, UP MSI Physical Oceanography Laboratory
Aiko is a champ in the field of physical oceanography, as she analyzes the ever-changing physical attributes of the ocean (‘swirls and blobs’ she describes) using satellite data, oceanographic equipment, and high-frequency radars.
She frequently visits the Cagayan coasts for field work, maintaining two radars in monitoring the ocean currents of the Luzon Strait located between Taiwan and the Philippine islands.
Aiko’s Field Notes on being confident on the job
‘I did my first fieldwork [in] February 2018. [We] had to scour the coasts of Cagayan to find a good spot for our ocean monitoring site. Rain or shine, we walked along the coasts of different barangays. I used to fear talking to people I do not know.’
‘These days, I now have a go-bag with a week’s worth of fieldwork clothes in case we need to go to the field to troubleshoot our sites. I am also already used to the locals now and I love every chance I get to talk to them about the science behind the work we do. I also now have a mental map of the place, most of it are places where we get to taste local delicacies!’
Aiko’s Field Notes on the best part of being on the field
‘Doing fieldwork means you have to think on your toes and be present most of the time. We had to make decisions and think of solutions on the spot. One time, we had to lay 500 meters of heavy electrical cable under muddy soil. We did not have a vehicle to pull all of that, so we made a “Pajero”. Basically, we used a carabao with a cart at the back to lay the cables. We also have to be weatherproof. Rain or shine. Day or night.’
Sarah is a Geophysicist who achieved her PhD at Tulane University in Louisiana. She pursued the field because it was a ‘marriage’ of her two favorite fields: Physics and the Earth.
Before she heads on site, Sarah first does most of her work in front of the computer, detecting and extracting earthquake waves using waveform analysis. When she is needed on the field, she’s in charge of installing and maintaining seismometers so they can accurately record incoming earthquakes. She’s since done fieldwork in Tanzania, Kenya, Ecuador, and Galápagos.
Sarah’s Field Notes on doing field work in a different country
‘I was a first year PhD student and new to the US. It all happened so fast and I had to learn most things on the spot in the field. I remember I did not even have the proper gear and they had to drive me over to Walmart to buy some gloves and an extra pair of non-jeans pants. We stayed in a small town and every morning we had to drive a few hours to the middle-of-nowhere where there was nothing but farmland for miles and miles.’
‘Within those few days, I met a lot of interesting people, including many chatty folks. Overall, those few days of fieldwork made quite an impact to me, in terms of learning actual hands-on fieldwork but also in getting to know a bit more of the country I was in. If it hadn’t been for that experience, succeeding fieldwork travels might have turned out different.’
Sarah’s Field Notes on her biggest inspiration
‘The largest contributing factors to my pursuit of STEM are my supportive parents and teachers throughout the years. Thanks to them, my environment growing up was conducive to curiosity-driven pursuits and science. I had volumes of illustrated science books and encyclopedias at home. For some time, my dad grilled me regularly with tedious, repetitive, math exercises until I could quickly do calculations in my head (I did not enjoy those, but I benefited greatly from them).’
‘This might sound trivial to some, but in the simplest sense, one important contributing factor to my pursuit of STEM is that nobody told me I couldn’t.’
She adds, ‘Surround yourself with supportive like-minded people. Reach out to local STEM people that inspire you, they might become your mentor and guide you through your own career. Approach us. We were once novices like you and most of us would jump at an opportunity to help you make an informed decision on whether or not to pursue our field as a career. Ask. Ask questions. Ask for help. Communicate.’
Dr. Aimee Dupo
Entomologist & professor at the Institute of Biological Science, UPLB
Dr. Aimee is an entomologist who graduated in Agriculture, majoring in Entomology, from UPLB back in 1999. She now serves as professor at UPLB, as her work in the classification of insect life earned her the 2015 NAST Outstanding Young Scientist award and the 2017 Bato Balani Many Faces of a Teacher Award.
She started her fieldwork when she served as the University Extension Associate of the UPLB Museum of Natural History, curating samples of spiders and moths for the gallery. With fieldwork being her position’s norm, she shares that there were quite a few days when I was not out on the field.’
Dr. Aimee’s Field Notes on the freedom of field work
‘Going on field always feels like an adventure. You would never know what you are going to discover next. All of your senses are exposed to so many stimuli but at the same time you are also worried about what would happen in case of an accident. Fieldwork tends to bring you to places where hospitals are far away.’
Dr. Aimee’s Field Notes on the power of mentors
‘I had a lot of mentors and colleagues who helped create and enable [the] environment for me to pursue STEM. They pushed and encouraged me to do more because they were that supportive. There were no words like, “You can’t do that,” only, “Try and see what you can learn from it.” More importantly, there was no mention of the concept, “You’re just a girl.”’
Noreen “Kubi” Follosco
Coastal Systems researcher, Marine Environment & Resources Foundation, UP Diliman
Noreen is a researcher working on the resilience of local coastal adaptation, marine protected areas, and ecosystem services in the Philippines. She mostly works as a trainer, developing resources and building capacity on climate change adaptation for coastal communities.
She studied Biology at the University of the Philippines Baguio for her undergraduate degree, and Environmental Science at the Institute of Environmental Science and Meteorology at the University of the Philippines Diliman for her master’s.
Noreen’s Field Notes on changing roles on site
‘When I began doing fieldwork, it was mostly for biophysical surveys. For example, I’ve joined surveys for both upland, as well as mangrove, forests. The surveys in mangroves were to better understand how they stabilize the coast, and protect coastal communities.’
‘Over the years, my work transformed into communicating, and finding ways to apply science meaningfully in conservation & management. So, I found myself interacting more with local governments and communities, rather than being in the water (or the mud, as is often the case in mangroves).’
‘I always look forward to what I can learn in the field. Spending time in coastal and fisher communities is an instructive and humbling experience—I’m reminded that I actually know so little. We have much to learn from indigenous and local knowledge.’
Noreen’s Field Notes on the goal of the job
‘In my work, one of the challenges is effectively translating technical information for practical use. A key aim of our work is to transfer knowledge generated through scientific research to settings where people are directly interacting with their environment. My ultimate goal is to build capacity so effectively that the coastal communities (we’ve worked with) can self-sustain, and are empowered to continue sharing the knowledge forward themselves.’
Irene is a jill of all trades in the STEM world, as she’s hailed from the different fields of Physics, Geology, then Geoecology. While attending a workshop on weather radars, she said to herself: “This is it! This is what I want to do.”
Since then, Irene has been in the US focusing on studying the rainfall-measuring instruments called weather radars. She researches the data that weather radars collect, and develops possibilities to reduce errors in measurement and interpretation. Her postdoctoral project involves looking at strong winter storms in the West Coast.
Irene’s Field Notes on the rush of being on site
‘Doing a masters in Geology introduced me to doing fieldworks. It was incredibly exciting, going to different places and being able to physically touch the things I’m studying in their natural location. As a young student then, the added bonus of traveling to obscure locations that I would not have otherwise reached gave a big sense of adventure.’
‘On top of that, I had good company with my labmates. Doing fieldwork with other people forms bonds with them, as you see each other in various modes of being human—from the work mode in planning and coordinating, to seeing each other exhausted from walking all day and carrying rocks or water samples, to knowing what they are like when you’re all hungry and stinky after a long day of work.’
Irene’s Field Notes on fieldwork’s little learnings
‘No two fieldworks are the same. Even if you’re going to the same location twice, to collect the same data (whether it’s rocks, soil, water, temperature), the environment is always changing because nature is unpredictable. But all these challenges also teach you how to adapt to different situations. It teaches you how to be flexible, and to think fast and make quick decisions, and knowing the priority of the group (for example, safety).’
Dr. Deborah is an experienced Geologist with expertise in micropaleontology, biogeochemistry, and paleoclimatology. Her work literally goes way back, as she studies the tiniest of Earth’s fossils to get history’s answers on today’s climate crisis.
Under the University of the Philippine’s National Institute of Geological Sciences, most of her fieldwork happened on land. Later on, she focused on studying marine sediment cores in places like Bohol, Sulu, the Sibuyan sea, and even the Pacific Ocean. With a geologist’s laboratory essentially being “the Earth”, Deborah has literally done her work across the border.
Deborah’s Field Notes on the country’s STEM challenges
‘Of course, there’s always the problem of limited funding allotted for research, or science in general—in the Philippines. When I went abroad for my Ph.D. and eventually for Post Docs, there were a lot of funding grants and opportunities but competition is too high. It’s difficult when you are just beginning to establish a “home” in one place and then realize that you have to move out again. Well, with a lot of opportunities for scientists here, I was never afraid to try anything.’
Deborah’s Field Notes on the thrill of exploring
‘There are a number of exciting parts to being a geologist, especially with my field of specialization: I get to travel to places I never imagine I could ever go to. I have travelled to many Philippine provinces, a number of countries, and oceans. A memorable one was the equator crossing when we were sailing in the Pacific Ocean. Research expeditions at sea for several weeks or months have allowed me to meet and work with fantastic people and scientists onboard, some of them became my mentors and collaborators in my future research endeavors.’
She adds, ‘One example is how I got my Ph.D. position in Germany. I was half-way down my MS degree program when I met this scientist whose papers I’ve been reading for a while. Several months past and I was set that I wanted him to be my Ph.D. supervisor so I wrote an email asking him if by any chance, there will be an open Ph.D. position in his university. He gave me advice and reminded me that even if he already “wanted” me for the position, I still need to convince the other members of the panel that I deserve the position. I got the position.
You cannot work alone. Collaboration and networking are key components of doing science.’
It’s not everyday that we can take a peek into the field notes of our idols, but if their notes could talk, they’d likely say that though every field of work will be difficult, following your passion requires love and passion that just comes easy.
Making waves in quantum physics, Dr. Jacqui Romero shares her journey, from her youth to her vision of the future of women in STEM.
Ever since her childhood, Dr. Jacqui Romero’s interest in STEM was nurtured by an ever-supporting family. “They have nurtured my interest in mathematics and science from a very young age. I remember my father driving me to weekend MTAP lessons!” Eventually, she took a particular interest in physics. Her passion for the discipline started during her high school years in Philippine Science High School. Physics was her favorite subject, and she would even read beyond what the curriculum would require. In particular, quantum computing was her gateway into the more daunting field of quantum physics.
This feat did not come without difficulty. Dr. Romero mentions two most challenging parts to her journey: getting into the field and landing a job. “I found it hard to get into a research program abroad for a PhD [because] there [was] just a lack of awareness of [programs] then.” Because of this, she became more vocal about the programs in the field of Physics. She then landed a scholarship to do her PhD, which she accomplished all while pregnant with her first child. While earning her doctorate, she also contributed to 11 publications, 5 of which were led by her.
Eventually, after completing her post-graduate degree, Dr. Romero encountered her second challenge: the job hunt. She came to realize that entering the field is one thing, but landing a position is another. Due to the scarcity of jobs in the academe, it is quite difficult for each expert in the field to be afforded a position. She mentions, “it is really sad that we have a lot of talented people and not a lot of jobs in the universities.” Her way around it was to put herself out there, gaining media attention from her work on slowing down the speed of light in free space and winning fellowships and awards that put the spotlight on her. To name a few of her accomplishments, Dr. Romero has once been selected as one out of fifteen L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science (FWIS) International Rising Talents. In 2016, she was also awarded a fellowship by the Australian Research Council, then received a fellowship from the Westpac Foundation afterwards. As Dr. Romero proudly exclaims, “I made sure that I cannot be ignored!”
When asked about the future of women in STEM, Dr. Romero hopes that the Philippine government would invest more on research and development. While it is great to have scholarships for science, what follows after a science degree is still unclear without opportunities for research. “It often happens that one finishes a PhD and then pursues a career in administration[.] That is good, but that is really not what a PhD is for. As abstract as it sounds, we need to generate new knowledge so we can solve more problems. Some of these problems will be unique to the Philippines, and we would need Filipinos who have the expertise and passion to solve them.” Hopeful, she mentions that the Philippines has a wider pool of talented young women based on the number of female students who, as she would observe, would attend Physics conferences each year. It is then a matter of making the most out of this culture through policies and systemic changes.
Dr. Romero’s advice to young Pinays looking to venture into STEM is “Be good! Whatever it is you choose to do, be very good at it to the point that you cannot be dismissed. Also, always remember to have fun!”
Dr. Jacquiline Romero is a quantum physicist currently working for the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems at the University of Queensland, Australia. She is also a loving wife and a mother to three children.