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This Filipina Physicist Will Head the Country's First Data Science Master's Program

She has a bachelor's degree, a master's, and a doctorate in physics—all from the University of the Philippines.
IMAGE AIM via entrepreneur.com.ph

"Exciting times," Erika Fille T. Legara succinctly explained her big move next month from Singapore to Manila to head the Asian Institute of Management (AIM)'s soon-to-be-launched Master's of Science in Data Science program, the first of its kind in the Philippines.

A scientist with the Singapore government's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) since 2012, Legara has taken part in data-driven research on urban systems, supply chain and logistics, among others.

She was part of a team that developed a machine learning model that predicts how improvements in land-use and amenities affect the number of users of each of the city state's subway stations. She also helped build a machine learning model that predicts the water level in Angat Dam, which supplies about 90 percent of Metro Manila's water, six months ahead.

Asked why she's leaving Singapore, which has the resources and infrastructure to allow her to carry out cutting-edge research, Legara said she wants to be right here in Manila just as the data science, artificial intelligence, and machine learning technologies take off in the Philippines.

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"If it's the first formal MS program (in Data Science), I want to be a part of it," she told Entrepreneur Philippines early this month at the sidelines of a Department of Science and Technology forum on artificial intelligence (AI).

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"If it's the first formal MS program (in Data Science), I want to be a part of it."

The DOST is investing heavily to train computer scientists, programmers and software developers who will build artificial intelligence technologies and commercialize them for both the local and global markets.

Without knowing it, many people already encounter data science, which is the technology behind the recommendation systems for Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify. But Legara says data science can also be used in banking to reduce fraud or in manufacturing to monitor machine health and predict when maintenance should be done.

She cited the example of an auto parts distributor that was able to boost revenue by 30 percent after it hired junior data scientists to study 20 million transactions and figure out which products should be discounted to match historical purchase patterns.

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Legara has a bachelor's degree, a master's, and a doctorate in physics—all from the University of the Philippines where her general weighted average grade was a perfect 1.0 (with 1.0 as the highest grade point) in the PhD program. Apart from part-time teaching stints at the UP's National Institute of Physics from 2006 to 2011, she has worked in Singapore for most of her professional life.

Despite her academic training in the purest of the natural sciences, Legara has a keen appreciation of the need for data scientists to learn to communicate their findings and recommendations effectively to company CEOs and directors as well as to policy makers for those working in the public sector.

"You need to know how to speak the language of business because at the end of the day, your results need to help their processes, improve their processes to increase profits or reduce costs. You cannot just give them numbers," she told participants of the DOST symposium on AI.

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"In fact at A*STAR, we hire software engineers to build prototypes. We need to make sure that the interface is easy for (users) to use because you're going to give your results to someone who's not a data scientist. So you can just imagine how difficult that is if you can't communicate or if you don't know their language," she added.

While the curriculum for AIM's Data Science Program has yet to be firmed up and submitted to the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) for approval, Legara wants it to include business courses to help the school's future data science graduates communicate with the rest of the business enterprise.

"When we build a data science curriculum we're going to inject about six units of business—just the bare minimum—so that you can talk to people and understand what the use cases are and you can identify the specific methods and models that you need to use so you can deliver the service very well," she said.

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She also told Entrepreneur Philippines she was thinking of developing a two-track curriculum for the data science program: one for graduates of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and the other for graduates of other courses with at least two years of relevant work experience and a proficiency with Microsoft Excel, the spreadsheet software.

This story originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com.ph.

* Minor edits have been made by the Candymag.com editors.

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Today, I am sharing my mother's story. I wish my mother was a constant in my life, like an angel who guards you to sleep and comes right there when you called. But angels come back home too, in heaven where they always belonged, and my mother went back a little early. My mother died when I was 13 years old. My last memory of my mother: Letting go when you are not yet ready is a very cruel thing that one has to ever experience. It is a sudden wave of total sadness and desperation crashing into your very core.

On the 28th of July 2013, we went to a resort in Bataan for the employees’ getaway. My parents own a 7-11 franchise, and it had always been a tradition to give their store clerks a get-together every year. I remember very well the last breakfast I had with my mother. The Sunday morning sky was clear and sunny, and the sea was calm and tranquil as we ate our breakfast on a cottage under the tall palm trees. She shared with us a strange dream she had the other night. She dreamt about an unknown woman holding an ice pick chasing her down on a dimly lit street, then she woke up just before the woman could grab her arm. We never knew what that dream exactly meant and now, I wished I never knew its meaning. After breakfast, my family and our employees decided to take a swim at the beach. The day was nice. The morning air may be chilly but the sun’s kiss on our skins gave us warmth. It was perfect. Everything is fine and the tides are low which made it very enjoyable to swim. We swam a little farther from the shore and we stopped to the point where the water reached our shoulders. We were talking about the good things in life and reminiscing the good old days. Those are the things that I’ve always loved about my family because I never had a meaningless conversation with them.

A few moments later, we heard a panicking call for help from one of our store clerks. It was Rachel. She was struggling to keep her head above water. She was already drowning but the odd thing was, she was only a few feet away from us. At first, we thought she was just playing around until we felt the sand in our toes dissolving like powder. It felt like as if the seafloor submerged deeper. I remembered sighting the shore and it seemed so close yet very far away. We were all panicking at that time. No one knew how to swim except my mother so without having second thoughts she swam towards Rachel and called out to my father, “Yung mga anak mo! Dalhin mo sa pampang yung mga anak mo!” and I never thought I already heard my mother’s last words to my father. I was paddling like a dog, gasping for air, as I say a little prayer to God to take us all back to safety. I felt my father grabbing our swimsuits, trying to lift our bodies so we can breathe even though he was also struggling to keep himself alive. Once I felt my toes touch the ground, there came a veil of relief that covered my whole body. As soon as my father and my sister made it to the shore we started calling out for help. There were no lifeguards on duty at that time, no personnel, nor guards. I saw my mother already floating in her stomach. We sighted a boat sailing nearby, we waved our hands and called for their attention. They almost ignored us because they cannot comprehend what we were trying to relay but the good thing was a passenger in the boat noticed my mother and Rachel in the water.

My mother’s body was laid on the shore. She was unconscious and her whole body was pale as white. My father performed CPR but my mother couldn’t get the water come out of her mouth because the food she ate earlier got stuck in her throat and blocked the passage. A concerned tourist offered his car to deliver my mom in a nearby health center or a clinic of some sort since the hospital was miles away from the beach and she needs immediate care. My father told us to stay in the hotel room and prepare mom’s belongings so that if she wakes up she has fresh clothes to change into. My sister and I finished packing our things and waited for our father to pick us up from the hotel. I was crying and I couldn’t stop myself because I was afraid to lose my mother. I couldn’t imagine what my life would be if I lose her that day. Moments lasted until we heard a knock on the door and it was my father, crying, and apologizing to us. He hugged me and my sister tightly and saying, “Sorry, anak, sorry hindi na uuwi si mommy, sorry hindi ko nasagip si mommy”. And that was the moment I felt sinking into the ground. I never knew what to feel at first. I was numb because my worries were now actually a reality that I have to live in. I was at shock because I am now one of the kids in those cliche teleseryes who lost a mother at an early age. We went to the health center to settle everything. The clinic was very small and it sure did lack equipment. He told us to stay in the car. I wanted to see my mom, but I know he never wanted us to see her like that. I didn’t know what to feel. I was having high anxiety levels that my stomach is churning and I wanted to vomit. I got off the car and entered the health center to find the restroom. When I was finding my way around, I passed by the emergency room. I saw my mother lying in a foldable bed, lifeless, her hands dangling from the side of the bed, she has violet bruises on her skin, and her body was partially covered with a white towel.

That is when it sunk into me that she’s dead and never coming back. My father asked the others to just commute back to Manila because what we need right now is comfort from our family. The drive back home was one of the most painful memory I had as a kid. My father was in the steering wheel crying his eyes out. We drove from Bataan to Pampanga. We went home to my grandmother’s house, the nearest house that we can call “home” because how are we still going to be “home” without her?

Once we reached Pampanga, we stopped over to the gas station and my father made some calls to our loved ones to tell them that my mother passed away. He then called my aunt to help him arrange for the funeral. We got home and my grandmother hugged us and told us to get some rest. Already tired of crying, I went to sleep for a while. I woke up and for a second, I thought everything that happened the other day was all just a dream. That she was there in Manila, sitting on the couch reading some furniture magazine, waiting for us to go home. But that’s how cruel life is, right? I got up and weirdly, I felt sands in the bed. It was gray, just like the ones on the beach. I thought maybe it was just dirt but it was a fair amount to believe that maybe she visited us before she left. - ?

- The part of how I conquered the grief of her passing is shared in my personal blog. I felt the need to share my story with everyone since she's the woman I look up to. Feel free to visit my personal blog too when you have the time. I love writing my stories. Thank You! link: http://qkathreece.wixsite.com/kathreecequizon/post/breaking-waves

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