The following is an excerpt from Fearless Filipinas: 12 Women Who Dared to be Different. The book features stories of Filipina women who broke barriers across a wide variety of fields, including sports, entertainment, academe, business, and more. Authored by Monica Padillo, this chapter tells the story of what made Erika Legara a Fearless Filipina.
Changing a dream
When she was a child, Erika Legara wanted to follow the footsteps of her parents, both of whom worked as civil engineers. Her parents handled various public infrastructure projects, designing and building roads and establishments for the benefit of the people in her hometown of Cotabato City, and she wanted to be part of that world. She sometimes snuck behind her parents and peeked over their shoulder as they drafted plans late at night, only illuminated by the lamp on their desk. Erika found it so fascinating that she set her eyes on civil engineering as a course in college and as a future career.
However, freely choosing which course to take and what school to attend were luxuries that Erika didn’t have. The Legaras were a low-middle income class family―they had just enough money to pay bills and tuition and buy essential items like food, leaving no room for anything else―but Erika’s parents didn’t see that as a hindrance in sending their children to the best schools in Cotabato as they greatly valued education. They would take out loans every year just so their children could receive quality education. Her parents didn’t show it much, but Erika knew deep down that they had a difficult time regarding their finances. She would sometimes see them calculating receipts late at night and taking note of family expenses. She would also occasionally hear her parents talk about their financial worries.
In one instance, Erika asked her father why she and her siblings were sent to private instead of public schools considering that they had financial strains. “We would have sent you all to any public school in the city but we didn’t; we’re obviously not struggling that much. Edukasyon niyo ang priority namin ng nanay niyo (Your education is my and your mother’s priority),” her father said.
Still, knowing her family’s standing, Erika needed to find an affordable way to attend college to lift some financial burden off her parents’ shoulders. They were set on sending her to one of the country’s premier universities, the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman in Metro Manila. Yet, instead of celebrating―UP Diliman was her dream school, after all―Erika constantly worried about how her parents were going to pay for the college education.
Sure, I get to go to my dream school, but at what cost to the family? she thought.
She could already envision how her college life would go. Her parents would take another round of loans just to pay for her tuition and her living expenses. The standard cost of living in Cotabato was not the same in Manila; the latter was significantly more expensive as it was the capital of the country after all.
As an alternative to UP Diliman, Erika considered attending Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU- IIT), which was a highly esteemed school in the country for engineering. It wouldn’t be that bad of a choice if she had to go there; the tuition would be affordable and she wouldn’t have to move to Manila as MSU-IIT was located near Cotabato.
But then again, the voice at the back of Erika’s mind said, it’s not UP Diliman. Erika was at a crossroads. Attend her dream school but pay a huge amount of money or remain in her hometown to save on expenses but go to a different college?
Her answer came in the form of the Department of Science and Technology-Science Education Institute (DOST-SEI) Merit Scholarship Program. As she was filling in and sending admission forms to various universities in Mindanao and Metro Manila, Erika also decided to apply for the scholarship in the hope of getting accepted.
A few months later, Erika received a white envelope addressed to her from the DOST-SEI. Erika felt her heart beat faster than normal. She opened the envelope and read the letter.
Erika felt ecstatic upon finding out that she had been qualified for the DOST scholarship. However, to her dismay, she found that the scholarship didn’t support civil engineering courses. What she did discover, though, was that DOST gave the biggest allowance to physics students.
Erika weighed her options. She still had the opportunity to study civil engineering, but she would have to do it in MSU-IIT and pay a cheaper tuition fee. If she still wanted to pursue civil engineering in UP Diliman, she would have to pay the full tuition there.
Given the financial standing of her family at the time, she had to make the most economic choice. It wasn’t all too bad anyway. Erika ruled that physics was applied in civil engineering. After all, you have to learn about the force, pressure, and gravity of things before you start building roads, bridges, dams, buildings, and other infrastructure. This will have to do, she thought.
And so in the summer of 2001, Erika graduated from high school and packed her bags.
“Mag-ingat ka doon (stay safe there),” her father said at the airport.
“Don’t forget to eat and sleep on time. Make sure to call or text us when you can,” her mother added.
After hugging her parents, Erika pulled her luggage, entered the airport, and boarded her plane for Manila. Upon settling in the bustling capital of the Philippines, she finally entered UP Diliman to pursue a bachelor’s degree in physics.
In her first few years in college, Erika felt lost. Her heart wasn’t in physics, so she wasn’t as motivated to study as much as she would have for civil engineering. Sometimes, Erika found her classes boring. Whenever she went back to her dorm to do homework, she’d feel frustrated but hunkered down to do them anyway. Even then, throughout the lengthy lectures and difficult exams and homework they were assigned to do, Erika worked hard to pass her subjects. She was still determined to finish what she started—that was her motto in life. She wasn’t the type of person to start one thing and quit halfway; she needed and wanted to see college through, even if it meant not being fully in love with what she was studying.
It wasn’t until her third year in college when she finally became genuinely interested in physics, particularly in its relation to data science. She joined a research group at the National Institute of Physics (NIP) for her undergraduate thesis requirement.31 Guided by scientists working at NIP who also served as her mentors, her love for scientific research and data science blossomed. She became particularly fond of finding patterns in data and how they could be highly instrumental in uplifting actual lives in the Philippines such as in making transportation lines more efficient, predicting which communities will be affected by typhoons, and more. As a Filipino who had first-hand experience of the harsh realities of conflict and
economic uncertainty, she found that data science and research could improve conditions in the Philippines.
For her undergraduate thesis, Erika studied the dynamics of multilevel marketing (MLM)―a strategy used by direct sales companies to encourage their distributors to recruit new distributors who receive a percentage of their recruits’ sales. MLMs were somehow still in their infancy at the time, having been introduced in the Philippines in the 1990s. However, there were already several accounts of MLMs causing people to go into financial ruin.
Using computational social science, Erika conducted a Sim City-like
simulation wherein she monitored a network of people who were recruiting their peers as part of their networking scheme. Data from her study revealed that MLMs were unsustainable because of the social network structure of individuals.
For example, if a group of five friends entered an MLM scheme, they wouldn’t be able to recruit anyone else from their own circle. They would also have four less people to invite to their business. As they went along their scheme, inviting as many people as they can, their networks would shrink until eventually, they would run out of people to recruit.
Erika also proved through her study that MLMs were bound to fail if they didn’t have a product to sell, or if their product wasn’t generating much profit. When the commission from recruits was larger than the profit from selling, she recommended potential or existing recruits to be wary of MLM companies, no matter what they disguised themselves as.
Through her study, Erika was able to marry social science and physics, something that she had wanted to do since she became interested in her major.
Considering that MLMs were still ripening in the Philippines at the time, the young and wide-eyed Erika was amazed at her findings. Her research could save people from financial ruin, alienating their family and friends, or getting stuck with goods they could not sell.
Moving on to greener pastures
Shortly after earning her bachelor’s degree in 2006, Erika remained in UP Diliman to obtain her master’s and doctorate degrees in physics, inspired by her mentors at NIP.
For five years, she juggled her studies and work at the Instrumentation Physics Laboratory, where she contributed to research on the applications of statistical mechanics, network theory, and agent-based modeling. Their studies at the lab focused on the mechanisms behind various socio-economic systems and paradigms such as multilevel markets, telecommunication services, and news and media framing methods.
She also continued working at NIP and entered the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) Complex Systems Summer School as a scholar to advance her knowledge and skills in multi- and cross-disciplinary research.
By 2011, she had accomplished her advanced degrees and already published numerous international scientific papers in complex systems science with her mentors at NIP.
When she clocked in at the institute one day, Erika was excitedly called over by her colleagues.
“Got your bags packed, Erika?” one of them said.
“What do you mean? What do I need to pack my bags for?” Erika asked.
“Apparently, the Singaporean government found our papers and now they want to hire us for their urban system project. Here, check their email.”
Erika walked towards her colleague’s desk and hunched over to read the email on his computer.
A*STAR, the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, is working on making Singapore the first smart nation in the world. In order to do this, we need exceptional scientists from around the world to look into the country’s financial, economic, and social systems and derive and study data to help the government devise an urban plan...
Upon seeing your international publications, the agency would like to conduct an interview with you and your team...
Erika couldn’t believe it. All their hard work the past few years was clearly not in vain as they now had an opportunity to work with the government of Singapore to improve their country. You don’t just wake up one day and find a government agency telling you that they’re impressed with your research work. The opportunity was simply too good to pass up.
Within that day, Erika and her team sent their confirmation to be interviewed. Shortly after their actual interview, she received a notice that she was selected to work with A*STAR as part of Singapore’s pioneering complex systems team starting in 2012.
When Erika finally settled in Singapore, she worked as a postdoctoral fellow for four months at A*STAR’s Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN) under the complex systems modeling group. She was later promoted as a scientist at the agency’s Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) where she was tasked to address the research needs of various government agencies and industries, work with big and long data to model the dynamics of various complex systems, and study land use and transportation systems to work on urban complexity projects, among other things. The Singaporean government at the time was eager to further urbanize the country and they believed data from A*STAR would help advance their smart nation initiatives and improve the lives of Singaporeans through technology.
Much of her work at A*STAR was similar to what she did at NIP back in the Philippines, only Erika now was able to work on several datasets derived from the real world. For instance, she and her colleagues conducted research on commuter behavior inside the Singapore Rapid Transit System. They explored various what-if scenarios to help improve commuters’ experiences and studied train overloading and overcrowding behaviors. Erika was delighted for being part of something so grand and, not to mention, tangible.
However, her experience in Singapore wasn’t all that smooth sailing. As a woman in a typically male-dominated field, Erika knew of the prejudices towards female scientists―throughout history, only male scientists gained the spotlight when it came to innovation and scientific breakthroughs. There was even a term for it in the science community: the Matilda effect, named after women’s rights advocate Matilda Gage who wrote about how the work of women scientists have been erased by historians.
In one of their research meetings, a male colleague, whose position was below her in the job hierarchy, disrespected her and discarded her opinions and comments about their studies. When they were discussing the authorship of an international publication, this colleague of hers regarded her numerous ideas as “minimal contribution.” Erika knew her worth and she wasn’t going to just stand still and watch her colleague downplay her efforts like that.
“If you’re just going to put my name in the acknowledgement like I was just a mere contributor, better if you don’t put my name at all,” she told him.
Erika raised her concerns to her fellow data scientists and superiors as well. While it may have also been just a cultural concern, she was still bright enough to realize that the treatment, no matter how subtle it could be, could discourage her and possibly other female scientists from finding success.
Considering that their team was composed of different scientists from Asia, the least they could do was treat each other with respect. We’re in the 21st century, she thought. Why are we still treating women as inferior to men?
“If this is how a colleague treats women, I don’t think that’s a very good sign, especially if we’re in a very academic and research- driven institution where all of us are educated,” she bravely told her superiors, which they agreed with. Erika knew that the scientists and other employees at A*STAR supported female scientists as much as their male counterparts, but she knew that she still needed to raise this concern to everyone.
While she was aware that she couldn’t completely change the mindset of her male colleague, Erika remained strong and persevered through the prejudices placed upon her and other women in their field. And when needed, she spoke up.
Changing the Philippines for the better
For nearly six years, Erika worked through the judgement of some of her colleagues and strived to accomplish everything that she could to prove that she was as competent as them. She was even promoted to Scientist III, a higher scientist rank in A*STAR. That ought to teach those naysayers, she thought.
In 2016, she was given yet another groundbreaking opportunity― Dr. Jikyeong Kang, the President and Dean of the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), invited her to return to the Philippines and start the first graduate program in data science in the country. As much as she was excited for it, Erika also felt intimidated at the idea of creating an actual data science curriculum for Filipinos. But she also marveled at the idea of finally expanding data science education and opportunities in the Philippines.
Erika discovered at the time that the Philippines alone was losing billions of dollars in revenue because of the lack of data science talent in the country. Data science has always been key in identifying and resolving various problems in society, but inefficiency and corruption in the Philippine government have made it more difficult to do so. AIM knew that Erika could help in that matter.
Confused, Erika sought the advice of her mentor at A*STAR. Together, they weighed the pros and cons of her returning to the Philippines and accepting the job at AIM.
“Pros: you get to go back home with a beautiful job offer,” her mentor said.
“But cons: a lot of new responsibilities will be placed on my shoulders,” Erika countered.
“As if you haven’t gone through that before. You’ve earned a doctorate degree in physics, published numerous international papers on data science, and you’re literally in Singapore right now working for their government,” he said.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Erika replied.
“All I’m saying is, you’ve reached many milestones in life that probably no other people could do. Now you have the chance to make history, not just for yourself, but for the Philippines, too. Isn’t that worth considering?”
Erika didn’t really think about that. She always knew there was going to be a time where she had to give back to the Filipino people, but she didn’t know that it would happen so soon.
After a day of pondering, Erika gave her resounding “yes” to Dr. Kang, talked to her parents about the new path she was about to take, and began planning her move back to the Philippines.
Creating a data science curriculum for Filipinos became an exciting experience for Erika. It was also just as daunting as she had no template to go by.
As a start, she asked herself what she would’ve wanted to learn if she went back to grad school and enrolled in a data science program. She conducted some online research, recalled her experiences working with governments, industry, and the academe, and collaborated with Dr. Christopher Monterola―a Filipino physicist who also worked at A*STAR―and different industry practitioners to create a comprehensive curriculum―one that could help produce highly skilled data scientists in the country.
The result: a 15-month, full-time, intensive course that fuses business and technology together.37 Erika and her fellow data scientists were able to combine applied mathematics and computer science into AIM’s Master of Science in Data Science (MSDS) curriculum.
In the first two years of the program, AIM’s data science students already achieved amazing feats. Their first cohort, which consisted of 42 students, was able to apply data science and artificial intelligence in seven out of the top 10 key employment generating (KEG) sectors identified by the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE).
Through their research, experiments, and consultations with Erika and other data science educators in the program, the students were able to use data to automatically classify convenience store products, predict flight delays, and identify healthy and sick swine for livestock management. The other projects focused on solutions for banking and finance, hotel restaurant and tourism, health and wellness, and information technology and business process management―all of which were involved in the daily lives of Filipinos today.
Because of the projects’ relevance to the Philippines, MSDS’s first cohort was able to generate an estimated potential revenue of US$10 million.
Meanwhile, their second cohort applied artificial intelligence and machine learning to revive Baybayin (a pre-Hispanic Philippine script), predict stock market movements using commodity prices, check illegal drug vulnerability of a community, and determine the objectivity of news and opinion pieces, among other things. The second cohort proved to be more successful than the first as it generated US$40 million worth of potential revenue.
These projects would not have been possible without Erika and her fellow data scientists. Their drive to develop more Filipino data scientists led to great feats―what more in the future when the data science community in the country has completely grown and matured. Aside from the business aspect of things, Erika also found the program successful as their alumni would sometimes message her and tell her how grateful they were for studying in a program that changed and accelerated their career path.
The MSDS program landed in the top three in Far East Asia in Eduniversal’s Best Masters Ranking in Data Analytics, affirming Erika that even without a benchmark to go by, she was able to do something right.
Erika wondered how her career would have turned out if she had the opportunity to do what she’s always wanted. From dreaming of taking civil engineering in college, to choosing physics instead, and eventually falling in love with data science―her career journey was certainly one thrilling roller coaster ride. If she had taken civil engineering from the start, her future would have been extremely different.
But she had no regrets. Physics and data science led her to achieve great academic and career feats that no other people could possibly do. Not only that, but she has broken barriers in terms of gender bias in science. She showed that women are just as capable of being in the scientific field as men and can bring forth a better world through their knowledge and skills.
Before she started her lecture one time, she took a good look at the entire class and focused on a particular female student who reminded her of herself. Erika was once a wide-eyed, clueless student who had yet to learn about data science but was determined to see her challenges through. She was curious and, more importantly, fearless.
While the Philippines has a long way to go in terms of data science, Erika is excited to enable this next generation, and the generations to come, to continue the legacy and progress that she started.
To get more insights from other Fearless Filipinas like Erika Legara, please check out the full book, available for purchase here.
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