Writing, doing field work, and sometimes teaching people how to swim—marine biologists do it all. Hear from Jean, one of our most passionate Filipina marine biologists.
Although already well-accomplished in the field of marine biology, Jean would describe her journey in STEM as never-ending. Having completed her bachelor’s and currently undergoing graduate studies, she initially never considered becoming a scientist. For various reasons, Jean felt limited to a life in academia or working for an environmental NGO after completing her bachelor’s degree. In graduate school, she saw a world beyond science where research leads to policies and action. It was then she realized that the sciences are far from fruitless.
While passionate in her pursuit of science, Jean admits to occasionally having to meet halfway between career and practicality. “There have been many times when I’ve had to re-prioritize research goals to favor jobs that pay more. Sometimes when I’m in between jobs I’ll even do some freelance as a swim instructor and writer. It’s during these between days that I’ll find myself reevaluating a career in STEM.” Although surrounded by supportive friends and family who are nothing but encouraging, the reality of having to make a living is something she also considers.
However, Jean has definitely made some notable strides in her field. She found her niche in the study of elasmobranchs, or sharks and rays as known by many. This eventually gave her the opportunity to work with the Silliman University’s Marine Laboratory Museum and their extensive collection of chondrichthyan, or cartilaginous fish, specimens, and become the co-author of the field guide. Recently this year, she was also invited to virtually participate in regional IUCN Red List Assessment Workshops for 126 species of sharks and rays in Southeast Asia.
Jean considers herself lucky because opportunities like these are hard to come by in the sciences. Beyond gender, there are other factors such as lack of opportunities, as mentioned by Jean. “Gender has not been a hindering factor, to say the least. In my case, the lack of long-term employment opportunities in the field of marine biology has been the main factor.” On a more serious note, she does acknowledge the gender gap in STEM. While it might not be as extreme a case here in the Philippines, it is still the reality of today’s time. “Sexism and harassment have not hindered my pursuit of STEM. But it exists. It happens. It can be very tiring, stressful, and traumatizing to deal with.” Nevertheless, she finds hope in initiatives to make safer spaces for women to blossom in the field.
Because of this, she is optimistic about the future of women in the sciences. “Visible, loud, and accepted.” This is how she envisions women in STEM. “You can be anything you work to achieve. It’s okay to have days when you doubt yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions —keep being inquisitive and curious!”
Jean Utzurrum is a marine biologist who is finishing her master’s degree in Siliman University where she also completed her undergraduate studies. While she currently works freelance, her previous field research experiences include coral reef restoration, coral reef and mesophotic fishes, and fisheries. She has volunteered with Reef Check Philippines and the World Wildlife Fund and also served as an elasmobranch specialist for the Marine Wildlife Watch of the Philippines.
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.
MPhil Textile Conservation postgraduate student, University of Glasgow
Gracile has been a longtime researcher at the National Historical Commission of the Philippines (NCHP), involved in the conservation of tangible heritage in the country. Through her multidisciplinary work, she was able to recognize material and come up with conservation procedures on important artifacts like documents, books, clothes, artworks and furniture found in the 27 museums managed by NHCP. She is now a postgraduate student taking up MPhil Textile Conservation at the University of Glasgow.
Since then, cultural heritage conservation has been her calling. Besides her love for Science and Math, one of the reasons she pursued STEM was because of Philippine history! She strongly advocates for more STEM workers in the field to be able to help manage the country’s resources, address recurring problems, and eventually become truly self-sustaining.
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.
A young public health professional, Erika Modina offers insight into her one-of-a-kind STEM journey!
“I want to shatter the notion that you have to fit a certain criterion to pursue a career here, that you can wear head-to-toe pink and still be taken seriously.
These are the words of Erika Modina, a public health professional from the Philippines.
Growing up, she initially wanted to become a doctor because of her proficiency in science, but more so because she did not realize she had other options as well. While she once considered either working for the government or managing a children’s hospital, she was enlightened to pursue public health research after she graduated from college with a degree in BS Health Sciences. Eventually, she saw to it to enhance her skills and knowledge needed in the field, particularly through further studies. She has since studied in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the University of London and is completing her Masters of Science in Public Health in the said university.
Despite being well-accomplished, Erika has still had her fair share of difficulties. Having completed her bachelor’s degree in 2016, she is a relatively fresh face in the industry, which sometimes leads people to believe that she is too young or lacks experience. The fields of public health and medicine are still quite traditional in the Philippines, which gives her quite the amount of naysayers who doubt her skills. However, like the headstrong woman that she is, she chose to prevail and simply let her work speak for herself.
Erika finds motivation in knowing the stories of others. Instead of self-help books, she looks to memoirs to appreciate what others have been through which, in turn, makes her excited for her own story to unfold. She encourages women to never hide their accomplishments. Given the current health crisis, her advice is to also use this time to make conversation with other people. “This is the perfect time to reach out to other women you look up to or people you want to work with. Take this time to find your tribe and surround yourself with people who make you kinder and better, not just in your career but in all aspects of your life.”
Her advice to young Pinays? “If one person belittles you, look around–ten more people will be cheering you on.” Each person’s STEM journey is unique. For Erika, it is a journey “towards health equity, lined with peonies, [with] ‘What Dreams Are Made Of’ by Hilary Duff blasting in the background.”
Erika Modina is currently the president of EpiMetrics, Inc., a health research institution geared towards the achievement of health equity through rigorous and creative conception, execution, translation, and communication of health systems and policy research. She is also the Chief Health Officer of Day3 Innovations and a part-time lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University.
Throughout history, women have long been cast in the shadows of their male counterparts—and the same can be said for our Filipina STEM pioneers. Even though we might not know them by name (yet), they’ve undoubtedly paved the way in introducing women in spaces that were once taken up by the men.
Like any worthy superhero, we’re here to get to know their awe-inspiring origin stories—and what we can learn from our STEM founding mothers.
Fe del Mundo, PhD
You might have heard of Fe from her 107th birthday Google Doodle back in 2019. Aside from that, Fe left behind a groundbreaking legacy as the first woman student in Harvard Medical School and first Filipina awarded as a National Scientist.
Also known as ‘The Angel of Santo Tomas’, Dr. Del Mundo spent her life taking care of children, as she founded the first pediatric hospital in the country and established the Institute of Maternal and Child Health.
Dr. Angelita Castro-Kelly
Angelita was first NASA’s first woman physicist—proudly called as MOM, for Missions Operations Manager. She worked in the bureau’s Earth Observing System (EOS) project back in the 1990’s, where she developed overall mission concepts and worked with spacecraft and ground system developers to successfully accomplish NASA missions from Earth.
“I’m the first woman MOM, so I cracked the glass ceiling. Before me, all the MOMs were men,’ she once said. Talk about being everyone’s MOM.
Fritzie Arce-McShane, PhD
Fritzie is a systems neuroscientist and was one of the first Filipina to be granted with not one, but two National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants. She was granted almost $9 billion to enhance human life with her two projects “The neural basis of touch and proprioception in the orofacial sensorimotor cortex”and“The disambiguating natural aging from Alzheimer’s disease through changes in oral neuromechanics”.
An academic through and through, she now serves as a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago, where she also achieved her fellowship back in 2015.
Jenny Anne Barretto, PhD
In 2019, Jenny and two other scientists discovered the largest caldera (volcanic crater) in the world located in the Philippine Rise. With a diameter of 150 km, the newly-discovered Caldera countered USA’s 60 km Yellowstone Caldera.
Taking to her Pinoy roots, Jenny and her fellow researchers dubbed their discovery as “Apolaki Caldera” after Apolaki, the Filipino mythical god of the sun and war.
Dr. Carla Dimalanta
Carla is the country’s sole woman Exploration Geophysicist with a Doctoral Degree. Her contributions in climate change and disaster risk reduction have been implemented in the UP General Education curriculum, with all of the university’s students learning about her and her life’s work.
She was also one of the ten recipients of 2019’s Metrobank Foundation Outstanding Filipinos. She now serves as an Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs (Research) at the UP System.
Aletta Yñiguez, PhD
Aletta is a marine biologist who spearheaded the development of the first integrated biophysical models for harmful algal blooms (HAB) in the Philippines. Her research aimed to make computer models to help local communities avoid red tide.
Aletta’s long-term goal is to introduce automated oceanography techniques and real-time models for decision-support systems to create sustainable fisheries in the Philippines. She now works at the UP Marine Science Institute to do just that.
Although their journey might sound daunting, their STEM journeys likely weren’t so different from the rest of us. Thanks to their dedication, grit, and perseverance, we likely wouldn’t be where we are now without these superheroes. And just like them, we too can achieve anything we put our minds to.
A Pinay in the field of electronics engineering, Angelina talks about her ups and downs as a woman in STEM.
Angelina Aquino has had an admiration for math and the sciences since her childhood. As a young girl, Angelina would join math competitions, and it helped that her parents were both engineering graduates who were supportive of this passion of hers. “[My parents] fostered my curiosity about the world, explained new concepts well, and encouraged me to read books and watch documentaries,” says Angelina. Later on, she found herself in a community of like-minded people, particularly during the math competitions at which she would occasionally place and during her years at a science high school. It was then that she found her love for programming.
Although she initially thought she would pursue medicine, through her interactions with her teachers, she later realized that another field was more suited for someone as logical and critical-minded as herself. “I soon realized that I couldn’t imagine myself working in a field without problem-solving, where you encounter questions and are able to break them down into logical, step-by-step solutions.” Eventually, this led her to pursue studies, both a bachelor’s and master’s degree, in engineering.
Her current focus is called natural language processing, or NLP for short. Although people may not realize it, this is something they use daily. To put it simply, NLP makes use of language data, whether it be written or spoken, and this is often used to develop apps such as Siri or Alexa, Google Translate, search engines, spam filters, chatbots, speech recognizers–you name it! An interdisciplinary field, NLP pools together the fields of electrical engineering, computer science, linguistics, and many others.
Angelina hopes for this spirit of collaboration for the local science community since she believes this is how new knowledge is formed. “When you come across a question that hasn’t been answered before and you start finding new answers–now that’s science!” Because of this, there should be more opportunities for women in STEM. While she mentions that the gender gap in the Philippines is relatively smaller compared to other countries, nonetheless, it is a reality that must be overturned for the better. Throughout her years in engineering, she has often heard that this is a man’s field, yet she still persevered and succeeded despite society’s archaic views on the matter.
She has nothing but hope for Pinays in the sciences. “In the future, I envision women to be and feel as welcome in STEM as in any other discipline.” Her advice to young girls is to live curiously and keep asking questions. “Don’t let anyone ever think that you don’t have a place in this field. Like this year’s Nobel Prize laureates in Chemistry, Emanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, you can be trailblazers in your own way.”
Angelina Aquino is currently a Teaching Associate under the Electrical and Electronics Engineering Institute at University of the Philippines. In her spare time, she enjoys singing and listening to choral music, as well as playing video games.
With the holidays fast approaching, the “new year, new me” mentality is getting stronger each day. Though this Christmas season being a clear change from the past, the goals we’ve kept throughout the year still remain.
One of the most vital ongoing objectives for STEM girls comes from the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve gender equality and women empowerment—a long-time plan that has yet to come to fruition for worldwide girls in academia.
Despite gender gaps being an ever-present problem in and out of school, what we need is a cultural shift to get the ball rolling—a change that doesn’t just happen overnight.
We took some notes from theconversation.com‘s 5-part ‘S.T.A.R.T.’ plan in achieving STEM media diversity and adapted the cause to start the movement on fighting gender norms in our own schools.
First and foremost, we need to be active in introducing the idea of a stable support system at home. Even if we aren’t in the educational field, being supportive of the girls in our own family will instill the idea that they have control of what career they want.
Being actively aware of gender bias is no easy task! More often than not, internalized misogyny has made most see girls as lesser than boys. We shouldn’t be afraid not just to call out, but more so correct when these stereotypes appear—for all genders and ages.
After looking out for each other, we can then maximize the impact of STEM girl empowerment by learning laws and initiatives in place that empower them. One of these ongoing jurisdictions is the Magna Carta of Women (Republic Act No. 9710), which seeks to eliminate gender discrimination by protecting, fulfilling, and promoting the rights of Filipino women. Yes, we have actual laws for our progress!
With the schools serving as one of the first breeding grounds of creating stereotypes among genders, the European Institute of Gender Equality proposes schools to develop a Gender Equality Plan (GEP) to identify and remove gender bias in their curricula. Though this may sound like a pipe dream in the Philippines, we can reinforce our own GEPs by being proactive in school board discussions and opening the topic with those in power.
Lastly, we have to remember that anyone fighting for gender equality is in it for the long haul. No matter how progressive or prepared we are, bias tends to accidentally infiltrate some forms of thinking —and that’s normal. We need to check up on ourselves and remember that though we have no choice in how we were raised, we have the power now to shift the conversation for the future.
As we enjoy the holidays to reboot, let’s not forget how the next years will go once we START the changes we want to see now. There’s no better present than the gift of access, by giving STEM girls a future where they’re given the same opportunities and moral support as boys. So we can finally say through each year: “New year, stronger us.”
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 Reader (Associate Professor), 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.
Let’s face it, school is hard enough right now. As the pandemic adds more pressure to students, it can be extra challenging to pursue one’s dream course and path. With boys still outnumbering girls in STEM courses, this doubles the legitimate threat of a lack of female representation in the future of STEM.
We paired up with some study buddies from non-profit org Kababaihan Para Sa Siyénsiyá (@siyensiya.ph) to take us through their personal STEM syllabus—and their testimonies for the students today, scientists tomorrow.
‘You don’t have to always be 100% sure’
As early as Grade 7, Bree knew she wanted to take up STEM. Aside from focusing on school, the idea that STEM can be used to better the lives of so many people keeps Bree going. Her ultimate goal is to make STEM “for the people”.
Bree in Action
‘Nothing is challenging when you’re passionate’
Denabea started her love for STEM through Mathematics. The decisiveness of computations and numbers has always been ‘satisfying’ to the young Thomasian. Now beginning to take a keen interest in Biology, Denabea plans to be a doctor in the future.
Dena in Action
‘Do not let that fear take over you’
On the cusp of her STEM journey, Feaid has taken a multitude of electives (from Agriculture to Computer Science) to prepare herself for her dream course of Agricultural Chemistry. She understands that everything happening in the world such as the African Swine Fever, Taal Volcano eruption, and COVID-19 pandemic require more people up for the challenge.
Feaid in Action
‘Always make sure you create for good’
Jammy is lucky enough to be surrounded by family who are in the STEM field. With an inkling for Mathematics, she decided to join after-school classes and various competitions to prepare herself for high school STEM subjects. After landing an internship with a local pharmaceutical company, Jammy now wants to take up chemical engineering to improve the country’s healthcare industry and bring accessible healthcare to all Filipinos.
Jammy in Action
‘In STEM, learning does not stop’
As a Medical Laboratory student, Kyla’s first memory of STEM was back in 6th Grade when they learned about the different body systems. Skipping ahead to the future lessons, she soon filled her textbook with her own notes and highlights. A turning point in Kyla’s journey was actually seeing a specimen slide during one of her Biology classes, where she realized that there’s more to life (and STEM) than visible to the naked eye.
Sofia in Action
‘There will be a sense of fulfilment’
As a current Physical Therapy student, Laysa has always wanted to be a doctor. Even though the end goal has always been clear, Laysa has discovered lessons about the world that’s gone beyond her expectations. If she could describe her STEM journey in one word, it would be ’electrifying’.
Laysa in Action
‘Open your eyes to reality’
Before taking up BS Biology major in Medical Biology, the STEM ‘adventures’ sparked Katrina’s interest in the field. From 8th grade science investigatory projects (SIPs) to representing her region in Marikina and Baguio during DepEd science fairs, stepping outside of her comfort zone continues to push Katrina to her goals.
Katrina in Action
Even with the differentiating curricula in each school and year level, it’s clear that learning about STEM extends well beyond the classroom walls. Though SHS only serves as a stepping stone in a woman’s STEM journey, this initial impact undoubtedly sets the tone for the Class of 2020 and beyond!
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!”
Today, October 11, gather your tribe and celebrate the International Day of the Girl. With young Pinays being taught that STEM is ‘for boys’ or worse, girls are ‘less smart’ than their male counterparts as early as 10 years old, we need the next generation of girls to own their voices now more than ever.
With this year’s theme of “My Voice, Our Equal Future”, a change of narrative has never been more vital—and it starts with shining the spotlight on homegrown girls turned STEM Women. We caught up with 6 Pinays carving their own path—and their message to girls today and for every day.
Chiara Ledesma, The Tech Wiz
Chiara (@chiaraled) is a Machine Learning Researcher at Thinking Machines. She graduated from Ateneo de Manila University with a degree in Computer Science, where she was one of the 73 chosen students for the Google Women in Tech scholarship and beat out 25,000 applicants across South East Asia.
STEM SPARK: Chiara’s STEM turning point was from talking to a fellow STEM girl during a retreat. A Vietnamese grad student shared with Chiara her passion for machine learning after finishing just one online course. Numerous sources of inspiration had come to her since then, but simply discussing plans with a fellow STEM girl served as the biggest push forward.
How do you envision the future of women in STEM in the Philippines? When I was in high school, no one in my batch was including technology courses in their career discernment. We had very little opportunities to get exposed and to develop relevant skills, so in the future I hope that STEM-related courses will get as much attention as other courses without it seeming too intimidating.
What is your message for our young Pinays in STEM? Don’t let yourself believe that you have to be naturally gifted at math or science to excel at STEM. Nobody is born knowing how to multiply matrices. It won’t be a smooth ride, but you’ll find that a bumpy one has much more learning to offer.
Audrey Pe, The Teen CEO
Audrey (@audreyisabelpe) is the CEO and Founder of the nonprofit organization WiTech (Women in Tech) which she started at only 15. The initiative has since impacted over 1,200 young Filipinos through the first women in tech conference back in 2018, tech literacy programs in public schools, a career roadshow on closing the gender gap, blog stories on women in tech role models, and more.
STEM SPARK: Audrey got fascinated with tech when her elementary Computer teacher strayed from the syllabus and taught them simple coding. This was the first time that she learned that websites were made of lines of code—as just a slight tweak from the country’s typical curriculum could leave a massive impact in a STEM girl’s journey.
How do you envision the future of women in STEM in the Philippines? I am motivated by a future where all youth, especially in developing countries like the Philippines, have access to technology and can use it to help solve problems within their own communities. Now more than ever, we are seeing how the digital divide limits students’ access to educate in light of school closures. The inability for many schools to not transition online due to not having access to the internet is a barrier for many students reaching their full academic potential. I work towards a future where tech isn’t a barrier, but instead a tool to help contribute to one’s society and achieve an education that everyone has a right to.
What is your message for our young Pinays in STEM? At WiTech, we believe that helping eliminate gender inequality and tech inaccessibility work hand-in-hand. To us, equality in the tech industry isn’t just 50/50 representation but also ensuring that those in tech represent more than just the upper class. We believe that diversity should come in the form of increased opportunities for all gender and socioeconomic strands so that tech turns into a right instead of a privilege.
Bee Leung, The Forecaster
Bee (@thegobidesert) is pursuing her Master’s degree in Atmospheric Sciences at Colorado State University. Her course uses computer models, field campaigns, and satellites to better understand how clouds are formed. Bee plans to bring her studies to the local scale by discovering how pollution and human-made changes affect the Philippines’ humid environment.
STEM SPARK: Bee’s love for STEM blossomed when she started focusing on improving the lives of the marginalized sector through her work. She first executed projects measuring the exposure of jeepney drivers to air pollution and quantifying how Filipino farmers will become more vulnerable to heat stroke.
How do you envision the future of women in STEM in the Philippines? I think a lot of it comes down to the details of how we run our organizations and research labs: making sure that people can have enough time to care for their families and other people in their lives, that the workplace and the laboratory are safe places with accommodations for people’s differing needs, that work is being distributed equally and equitably, that everyone is getting the chance to share their ideas and learn from one another.
And of course, I hope that by looking out for one another as we build that kind of positive scientific community, I also hope that Filipina scientists (and all scientists, really) can remember to look out for others and let our compassion fuel the work that we do.
What is your message for our young Pinays in STEM? I hope you know that you belong here as much as anyone else! Honestly, that’s still something that I have to tell myself too, so it’s okay to feel insecure or like an impostor. I don’t know if that feeling ever goes away, but based on conversations with mentors and other scientists over the years, I don’t think it does, and that’s okay. If you want to go into STEM and you love what you do, then go for it! Science is for everyone.
Hillary Diane Andales, The Space Explorer
Hillary (hillaron.com) started on the map after she won the Breakthrough Junior Challenge in 2017. She soon founded the regional science camp Science Innovations Bootcamp. Now at 21, Hillary studies physics (with minors in astronomy and philosophy) at MIT and regularly holds talks as a science communicator. She has a personal mission to make students ‘excited – instead of intimidated’ of STEM.
STEM SPARK: Hillary’s started out when she was just 5 years old after reading an astronomy book that was as tall as she was and completely ‘blew her mind.’ Hillary became even more fascinated with space through the years: jumping from her dream of becoming an astronomer to a now-budding astrophysicist.
How do you envision the future of women in STEM in the Philippines? I envision a future where women scientists can just be scientists — period. I hope for a future without a gender gap, a future where it’s no longer news when a woman wins a Nobel Prize. For the Philippines specifically, I just hope that the government provides enough support (more research funding, less delay due to bureaucracy, better leadership, and so on) for our Filipino scientists.
What is your message for our young Pinays in STEM? For young Pinays in STEM, keep dreaming big! Do not let anything limit your dreams. Use the internet and social media to find inspiration, and then take those as fuel for your dreams. Also, as I always say, do not be afraid of failure. When you fail, you don’t really fail. You only learn.
Anne Brigitte Lim, Solar Energy Extraordinaire
Brigitte is a solar energy engineer who completed her masters from Arizona State University. She won the UN’s 2017 Geneva Challenge competition for her team’s Solar N3E invention that aimed to boost employment in the country by training workers in the solar energy field.
She’s currently working with the UN on the project “DREAMS” (Development for Renewable Energy Application Mainstreaming and Market Sustainability.) Due to the pandemic, Brigitte is also taking online classes for her Master’s program in Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada. STEM SPARK: Bridgette gained further interest in the renewable energy industry when she realized that almost everything in society, from food production to vehicle power, relies on a stable and longstanding energy supply.
How do you envision the future of women in STEM in the Philippines? Right now, most jobs in STEM in the country pay very little, so I would like women in STEM not only to show authorities and the public what they can do to solve societies’ problems (to make life more convenient), but I would also like women in STEM to advocate for more government support in funding innovation, and for public and private institutions to give better pay and benefits.
What is your message for our young Pinays in STEM? If you are passionate about STEM but don’t find the right opportunities to pursue STEM in the Philippines, don’t give up on your passion. There are opportunities everywhere in the world, find it and go for it, because STEM has a way of benefitting all of humanity, no matter where you do it.
Tara Abrina, The Little Mermaid
Tara (@taraabrina) is an environmental economic researcher and founder of the Kapit Sisid project for marine conservation. After graduating from University of the Philippines’ with a Master’s in Development Economics, Tara now works with UP CIDS in studying marine conservation and development trajectory of the country’s coastal communities.
STEM SPARK: As a diver, Tara first fell in love with the ocean. She then dived into STEM after discovering that marine conservation is more about engaging and encouraging people than it is about ‘counting fish’.
How do you envision the future of women in STEM in the Philippines? I know there’s still much to be done for feminism in our society, but in terms of rankings, we have consistently been in the World Economic Forum’s top ten list of most gender-equal countries in the world for the past decade. If only the same support system privileged to me were available to every young woman in every STEM field out there, I’d say we’d most likely be the most gender-equal STEM sector in the world.
What is your message for our young Pinays in STEM? The Philippines is and always has been a rich, diverse, and multicultural country. To limit our view of what we consider as science discredits much of our peers and ninúno. Fishers who read tides and currents, women who adjust their marketing strategies according to the suki visiting them that day, and indigenous engineering practices—these are all STEM. Even art and design for me is an important aspect of STEM, for example with data visualization or functional aesthetics, and the reason why STEAM to include the arts is a widely accepted and evolved version of STEM.
There are always going to be questions and problems, and many of them can be answered with methods that we apply from STEAM. Learn from everyone and everything, and then use what you learn to always, always serve the people.
From 15-year old founders to long-time environmental advocates, these girls prove that we don’t need a separate holiday to empower ourselves—we just have to be consistent in empowering our girls.
The UN predicts that there are now over 1.1 billion girls all over the world. If given the right kind of access and support—that’s 1.1 billion new ways to change the world.