Math is the language of the universe. From education to mat weaving, it is also how Dr. De Las Peñas came to understand the world.
Most people see math as daunting and complex, a universe of its own irrelevant to the everyday and familiar. However, for Dr. Ninette De Las Peñas, numbers are sometimes the best portals to other worlds, especially from our own selves to the greater world around us.
Growing up, Dr. De Las Peñas has always been fond of math. “I [have] loved math since I was a kid and was always intrigued by what I could discover through numbers.” From deciding to be a mathematician as early as her high school days until today, she has had a thriving career in her chosen field. Over the years, she has won several research awards, written over 60 journal articles in mathematics and mathematics education, and mentored over 40 thesis students.
Currently the Associate Dean for Research and Creative Work of the Loyola Schools, Ateneo de Manila University, her most recent project is leading a research team that developed mobile apps for math education. Known as Mathplus, the project aims to instill critical thinking skills in children grades 1 to 11 while also aiding in transitioning to online and blended learning amid the current health crisis.
Aside from being an educator, Dr. De Las Peñas has also used the language of mathematics to communicate other topics of interest as she is best known for her work on woven mat patterns. Alongside two co-authors, she talks about the symmetry of mats from Philippine indigenous groups using the language of mathematics in their work called “Weaving Mat(h)s”. The paper was also presented in 2014 in collaboration with mat weaver Janeth Hanapi, showcasing a live demonstration of the weaving process. For their work, the authors received a grant from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).
This is a huge leap from the state of the academe during Dr. De Las Peñas’ early professional days. She recalls, “I realized that there were only a few mathematicians from the mathematical community in the Philippines that were published in prestigious and indexed math and science journals,” thus her will to develop a culture of publishing as an educator. She also mentions a lack of opportunities to do further research and participate in conferences abroad, among others.
In spite of the larger forces that can hinder a STEM Pinay’s career, Dr. De Las Peñas still thinks that encouragement and role models for young girls can go a long way, particularly from family and media. She cites Nancy Drew as an example, describing the titular character as “very scientific in the way she found clues to solve her mysteries,” as well as assertive and headstrong.
She believes that things will only go upwards for women in STEM. “They think differently and have more confidence. There are more opportunities now for women to succeed.” As words of wisdom for young girls aspiring to do the same, Dr. De Las Peñas says, “Do not give up on your dreams. Do not be afraid to assert yourself. If men can do it, we can too!”