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FEATURE STORY March 8, 2020

Breaking Barriers in Philippines: Erika Fille Tupas Legara


For International Women’s Day 2020, we’re getting to know the pioneering women across East Asia Pacific who are breaking barriers and creating change for the decade ahead. Dr. Erika Fille Tupas Legara is a physicist and an advocate for scientific and data-driven culture. She is among the 2018 Outstanding Young Men and Women in education innovation. Meet Erika.

Tell us about yourself.

I’m Erika. I am a physicist and an advocate for a strong Filipino scientific and data-driven culture. 

Currently, I am the Academic Program Director of the Master of Science in Data Science Program at the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), the first data science program in the Philippines and in the region. I am also an Associate Professor and the Deputy Managing Director of the Analytics, Computing, and Complex Systems Laboratory or ACCeSs@AIM. 

Women from the province are usually stereotyped. As a woman from Cotabato in Mindanao, people would not have expected me to be where I am today—a physicist through and through, from baccalaureate to PhD. I was raised by parents, both civil engineers, who were very supportive and nurturing. They did not make me feel that gender mattered when I pursued the male-dominated field of high-performance computing. 

I was a scientist for the Singapore government, under the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR), where most of the employees in my department were men. While working in A*STAR, I learned to do science, not just for academics’ sake, but for industry and for government. That’s when I knew what I wanted to do for my country, so in 2017, after my term at A*STAR, I went back home to design and launch the first data science program in the Philippines.


What inspires you?

Not a lot of people are enamored of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Science is really fun. I do what I do, first, for myself, because I like research. I enjoy solving problems. I enjoy looking at data that none or very few people have seen. I enjoy looking for patterns in data sets. I am driven by knowing that not a lot of people can do what we can do. Second, because I want to spread awareness and have more people appreciate the field of research in science and technology. 

Filipinos tend to focus on the past, but I and my mentors really believe that if we want to change the direction of the Philippines, we have to future-proof the country. We have to look forward. One of the things that can help us do that is to build this culture of science and technology, and data-driven decision-making. 

You will see this in most advanced societies like Singapore, they all invested in science and technology. In the Philippines, only 0.14% of GDP goes to research and development  when the recommended investment is 1%. There really is very little appreciation for it. No matter what you do in society, we’ll have a difficult time moving forward if we don’t have that culture of valuing science. People usually think science should be the last priority because many are hungry. I understand that we have to prioritize poverty, but then we shouldn’t only have “band aid” solutions. I believe we have to invest in education, particularly in science and technology, because we’ve seen how other countries have done it. For example, Singapore that went from low income to high income. If you read their history, they invested a lot on research and development. That’s how they thought they could really upskill everyone in the country to make the society more knowledgeable.


How do you see Filipina Women Breaking Barriers? What does it mean to you? 

I would like to tell women not to even think there is a barrier. If you think and act as if there is a barrier, it’s much harder to move forward because you feel restricted. If you act as if there is no barrier, you are limitless. That’s how I see it. 

Women will continuously play a role in our society, especially in science and tech. If you look at talks in data science here, you’ll see Filipino women being invited, like Reinabelle Reyes and Stephanie Sy. We have to expand the net to get more women to become experts in their respective fields. We also have to extend our reach outside of the nation’s capital. That’s one of the things I would like to do. I just launched the first formal data science program in the Philippines, and I would like to extend the net, also do something for Mindanao, where I come from. 

Once, I gave a talk to some mothers in Bulacan Province. They were completely unaware of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (IR4) and data science, so I had to adlib. I realized that in Metro Manila, we panic about Artificial Intelligence, data science and tech, and IR4, but in the regions, people are unaware of what is happening. It was interesting to be asked by the mothers, “What course should I tell my children to take?” It was a very strong sign that it’s the women who can take us to much greater heights because they nurture and raise Filipino youth. We need to educate mothers about science and tech.


Do you have a favorite quote or saying?

I have two favorite quotes.

I like Marie Curie’s very short quote, “I was taught that the way of progress is neither swift nor easy.” I think we lack appreciation for delayed gratification. When I see a stumbling block, I just see it as an opportunity to navigate around, but not something that would make me change my course. Things that are worth pursuing are really tough. 

Another quote is from Albert Einstein, “Man can find meaning in life only through devoting himself to society.” I’ve loved that quote since college. What will drive you to work is thinking beyond yourself, even starting to consider family. That’s why I always tell my students that they don’t need a grand devotion to society, just think beyond themselves.   


Where do you see the Philippines and women in 25 years? What is your big hope for women in STEM the Philippines in the future?

Our field, high performance computing, is dominated by men, but in the Philippines, there is a very strong movement of women in STEM, not enough, but stronger than in other countries. This is very promising. 

I see women leading STEM in the future. Many Filipino women are very aware of their roles in society. They are aware that as women in science, they should inspire more women to get into science. Women in STEM will help rally our country towards a better future. I also see Filipino women setting the examples for other countries in ASEAN.


How would you describe Filipina women?

I have three words to describe Filipino women: Innovative. Resilient. Dreamers.

Innovative because in my line of work, I always meet with innovators, those who want to start up their own companies, like in agriculture, healthcare, and tech (mobile apps). Many of these innovators I meet are women. I find them innovative because they think of ways to help society and leverage science and tech. 

We have always been resilient, a very Filipino trait. We never fold and whatever life throws at us, we always find a way to make things work. In a literal sense, the country is always visited by different kinds of disasters, man-made and natural, but then we’re still here. 

Mothers would always find a way to help themselves and their families, taking care of their careers and personal lives—it’s just so impressive. Working mothers—scientists and engineers, still working and pushing their fields forward in whatever way they can. Being in a “third world country” is never an excuse for them.

Filipino women are dreamers. I get to interview young Filipino women who want to get into the field of data science. When they talk, I can feel their resolve in becoming a data science leader with the same purpose, to spread awareness in science, to lead organizations to become more data-driven and competitive in this fourth industrial revolution. For young women in their 20s to say that they want to be leaders to transform businesses and organizations, I think that’s very good for the future of our country.


What advice would you give girls and women? 

Work as if there is no barrier. Keep on pushing, learning, and upskilling. Remain relevant in a world that is rapidly changing.  

Stop being apologetic about what you can do and deliver. I was taught to command and expand my space, not to confine myself. You have to be confident with what you know and confident enough to communicate it.


**The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.