Pilipin@ Scientists Exist!

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I moved from my home in Southern California to Miami, Florida to pursue a Ph.D in marine biology. That was late 2016, which (needless to say) was a very tumultuous time to start graduate school. Since then, I spent much of my time carving my identity, figuring out my place in the greater sphere of science and how those who are not in science may perceive me.

Looking under a dissecting scope sorting out and identifying marine invertebrates collected from macroalgae.

My path to marine science was anything but straightforward. It started during my undergraduate years with an NSF-REU fellowship I landed during my second year. NSF-REU stands for the National Science Foundation — Research Experience for Undergraduates; they are very prestigious and competitive fellowships undergraduate students can apply for all over the country. So, in career development time, it was somewhat recent compared to others that have immersed themselves in the ocean since birth.

But had my love for science and nature been there since childhood? I was the socially awkward kid back in elementary school, digging up soil next to the sandbox to find beetle larvae to then have one bite my finger.

As a child of Pilipin@ immigrants, my parents wanted “what was best for me.” That translates to a stable job with good pay, probably a medical doctor.

Except that I wasn’t really into medicine or health care. Even if I tried.

There has always been this lingering stereotype of a successful Filipinos and Filipinas going into medicine or health care. And there is historical context to it, with Pilipin@s moving out of the Philippines for better economic prosperity, particularly moving to the U.S. due to a nursing shortage. On an education level, this preference for health care to other STEM majors is very pronounced.

Based on census data from the California State University (CSU) system in 2016:

  • 11.8% of Pilipin@ undergraduates major in health professions (the second highest major after business), compared to 7.3% in biological sciences, and 1.4% in physical sciences.
  • On a graduate level, the difference in career preferences is much wider, with a whopping 31.6% of Pilipin@s in health professions compared to 1.8% and 1.6% in biological and physical sciences, respectively (see image below).

Meanwhile, the caricature of a scientist has mostly been the old white man (double that if you consider the outdoorsy field scientists). Historical census data from the Ecological Society of America (ESA) from 1993 to 2010 showed only marginal increases in underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities. On that same token, it has been only recently that prestigious discipline-based societies took initiative in increasing diversity and inclusion within their respective fields.

Undergraduate and Graduate (Master’s) Pilipin@s in STEM Disciplines. Data compiled from CSU census data

So why bring these pieces of history and statistics up? While my parents eventually let me pursue my career interests when I started my undergrad, I have met other Pilipin@s who have been pushed into nursing or medicine, only to switch to other majors that suit them better, transfer to another university (usually private and for-profit) to obtain their degree there, or drop out altogether. In my undergraduate university’s pre-nursing curriculum, there was a sizeable amount of science classes you would have to take prior to being promoted to the nursing major. As for pre-med? You might as well just call yourself a biology major.

My trajectory as a biology major was much like many others’ experiences: I enjoyed the classes that really captured my interest and applied to my career, and dreaded those that I had to take solely as a requirement. Among my colleagues during my undergrad, I only met three other fellow Pilipin@s in science. Two of them were pre-med (although one of them later found his passion for microbial biology), and one was in environmental science. We would update each other on notes from our labs and lectures, give each other advice on daunting classes to buckle up for, and provide to each a shoulder to lean on when times got tough for any of us. The lab that I worked with towards my later years, while mostly white men, was nonetheless very supportive in pursuing my endeavor in ecology. It was a weird feeling of both empowerment and pressure to be the only Pilipino-American pursuing a very unique career path.

I was also involved with the Pilipino club on campus to learn about my roots. Going through those years, I have seen two different groups within the Pilipin@s that I interacted with: Those that had ‘made it’ and well on their way into the fields of health care or medicine, and the rest of us that went on to other career paths. While I found a sizeable number of colleagues in pre-nursing, I would occasionally find one or two new Pilipin@ freshmen in pre-med, only for them to switch out after encountering the intro biology class.

A former colleague and I conducting field work

During the years spent in that club, I was the only prospective Pilipino ecologist. As someone who sticks around in science, but is neither looking to be a nurse or doctor, I would be put in awkward predicaments. When I told fellow Pilipin@s I am pursuing ecology, I was given praise with a side of ‘oh cool!’ and a blank smile. Occasionally, I would be thrown a comment that goes like this:

“Wow! You’re so smart! You could’ve been a really good doctor.”

You might guess how I reacted. With the sour taste in my mouth and the rolling of my eyes, I felt frustrated knowing that peers in my own community would dismiss my own interests and expect me to fit into some career path because of my ethnicity (and thankfully, I am not alone on this issue).

As a Pilipino-American in science, I had to balance between two communities, one among fellow scientists and the other among fellow Pilipin@s. We trapeze on a line between these two communities, knowing that we have differences that make us the odd one out, no matter which community we immerse ourselves in.

I get ecstatic whenever I see a successful Pilipin@ in science. The first time was at the very end of a conference when I met a post-doctoral fellow from UC Santa Barbara. By the time we started talking, his taxi arrived, and the only words exchanged to me were his name (Dr. Reniel “Ren” Cabral), the lab that he works in, and his compliment on my ‘good English.” Though it was a fleeting moment, I am glad we made a connection good enough to remember him whenever I needed his expertise.

The need to humanize scientists and dismantle the stereotype of an “old, white, and unwarm scientist” started to gain traction recently. A group of Ph.D students and science communicators are conducting a study to see if scientists’ selfies on Instagram can be used to foster trust between scientists and the public. Among the Pilipin@ community, a physicist in Manila (Dr. Reina Reyes, who confirms Einstein’s theory of general relativity) started a Tumblr page showcasing different Pilipin@s in science careers. And while that Tumblr page emphasizes native-born Pilipin@s, it is a critical first step in using common social media to humanize Pilipin@ scientists scattered throughout the diaspora.

When I moved to Florida last year (and removed myself from everything I know), it finally made me realize how much of a minority I really was in both profession and ethnicity. Adjusting to an entirely new social, political, and cultural atmosphere was daunting, and I also struggled with anxiety and depression during my first year. Had it not been for my very strong and diverse support system, I would’ve questioned my place in my Ph.D now. My graduate mentor is Mexican, and my fellow lab mates come from many walks of life, from Cuba, to Colombia, Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and even Trinidad. My struggles as a Pilipino in science can be paralleled to other racial and ethnic minorities in STEM. To once again find shoulders to lean on kept me grounded during tough times common for a graduate program.

If you are reading this as a Pilipin@ in science, whether you are a professor, a budding high school student, or somewhere wandering through your college years, know that you are not alone. We may be ultimately occupied with our sciences, but we have power in our stories and our journeys. This is an opportune time to lend your voice and inspire others that being a Pilipin@ in science is completely possible.

If you are reading this and not a Pilipin@ in science, you might know one that is. Give them a hug! Acknowledge that they’re doing a fantastic job! Even listen to their science and immerse yourself into their passion that runs free! The road to science is difficult and tiring. Support and recognition matters, and you may not know if a small gesture will give them the energy to keep going.

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