When you hear the word "scientist," what’s the first thing that crosses your mind?
As of May 2021, Filipinos are the third-largest Asian group in the United States (4.2 million), just after Chinese (5.2 million) and Indians (4.6 million). Yet despite their increasing population, Filipinos continue to lack representation in science.
In a 2019 data sheet published by the Pew Research Center, Los Angeles, California, ranks first on the top 10 U.S. metropolitan areas by Filipino population. Michael De Guzman and Nina Reyes are two first-generation Filipino-Americans born and raised in L.A.
Reyes and De Guzman grew up surrounded by other Filipino-Americans and people from diverse racial backgrounds. Both of them are incoming first-year PhD students at the University of Southern California, focusing on polymer science and pharmaceutical science research respectively.
Although you see a lot of Filipinos in Los Angeles, De Guzman agrees that “there’s not that much representation of fellow Filipinos in science.” He adds, “when I got into a lab or just in college in general, and when it came to interest in science, I initially felt alone and lonely. I was unable to find a fellow Filipino scientist. So, I did feel some sort of invisibility.”
The invisibility that De Guzman felt is shared by other Filipino scientists. Jessica Lingad and Malia Bautista are fourth- and second-year PhD students in the field of neuroscience at the University of California Irvine. Both are first-generation Filipino-Americans who grew up in California. Bautista says, “I struggled with this for a fairly long time because I never saw anyone [in my field] that was Filipino.”
Lingad agrees but adds that although she was never explicitly trying to look for anyone who was Filipino in any work environment, she thinks it’s still important to have that representation. She explains, “When that feeling of an imposter becomes more prominent as you're in a field, you kind of try to think of why that is. And then you look around and think, ‘Well, why do I feel like a phony here?’ And you see that no one else is like you or shares your cultural values or external variances. Then that's when you start to feel more alone in this type of environment.”
Lingad says the fact that not many Filipinos branch out into STEM has a lot to do with representation and adds, “It's interesting how much that matters, but it really does.”
Reyes continues to emphasize diversity and says, “My goal as a grad student is to contribute to the development of sustainable plastics and a catalyst that degrades existing plastic polymers.” She says her background as a Filipino is what drove her to pursue sustainability of materials: “If you go to the unregulated beaches in the Philippines, mainly the ones that are not meant for tourists, you see that a lot of the beaches have copious amounts of plastic just littering the sand. That's really sad because the Philippines is naturally gorgeous.” She adds that intellectual diversity brings many different minds together.
“I'm going to join a lab that focuses on plastics,” Reyes says. “My drive to join that lab might be different from others because of my background as a Filipino, and that’s exactly why intellectual diversity is valuable to science. With intellectual diversity, you have different creative mindsets, you have potentially different ways to approach an issue or different angles to look at an issue. So, with racial diversity might come intellectual diversity.”
When asked why Filipinos are underrepresented in science, Anthony Peza, an undergraduate student majoring in computer science, says that it’s because of the lack of knowledge about the field.
“I'm a first-generation college student. I didn't really know what being a scientist meant. I grew up in an environment where no one knew academics,” says Peza. “When I was growing up, I thought a scientist was just someone pouring something into a beaker or something, but they’re so much more than that.”
He wishes he learned about the field earlier and adds that the thing that hindered him from pursuing science was not knowing that it was out there.
Reyes doesn’t think the underrepresentation of Filipinos in science is intentional. She grew up in Los Angeles, California, and is the first scientist in her family. She says, “A lot of us are first generation to be born in the States, or first generation to pursue a higher education at all. And we're definitely the first generation in becoming scientists, so I don't think that the underrepresentation is necessarily a byproduct of some sort of systematic hatred.”
Although Reyes has never felt ostracized due to race, she claims that there is a duality to the invisibility that her fellow Filipino scientists felt. She felt invisible not to her peers, but to her family. “My mother would always forget my major, and so I actually have to write down what I'm studying or what this thing is called,” Reyes explains. She thinks this is unfortunate because, for a lot of students, having that familial support is a big reason why they get through undergraduate or graduate school. She adds, “Being a Filipino who doesn't really have that familial support has been emotionally taxing sometimes.”
The initial lack of familial support that Reyes described is one reason for the underrepresentation of Filipinos in science. It goes back to a key concept in Filipino-American history: the 1960s immigration of Filipinos to the United States to mitigate the country’s nursing shortage. These Filipino immigrants utilized their nursing careers as a means to survive in the U.S., and most of them were successful. They then encouraged their children to pursue healthcare-related careers with the hopes that they too would secure a financially stable future in this “scary, foreign land.” Lingad and the other Filipino-American scientists agree with this.
“There’s a long standing tradition of Filipinos to be in health care,” Lingad says. “And that's one that I am personally familiar with because my mom is a nurse, my sister's a nurse, and I know lots of people who are nurses. So the next generation comes and we think, ‘Well my parents did a great job at raising me with this type of career, why don't I pursue the same thing?’ And that's kind of been the story for a lot of Filipinos.”
Lingad mentions that she started out at a community college as a nursing major. “I initially thought the same thing, seeing how my mother came from the Philippines and made it and has been able to raise me successfully with that type of career, so why not?”
Bautista says that she had always loved science and had wanted to become a scientist at an early age, but after she was told she “didn't have the capacity to become a scientist” she decided to switch her career path and start college as a pre-medical student. However, after an internship at a lab, she realized that scientific research is really her passion. Unfortunately, telling her family this was not an easy job. She says, “When I told my mother that I wanted to pursue a career in science instead of medicine, she told me ‘You can’t do it. It's too hard. The money is not there. You're not going to be able to make enough money in order to live and you're not going to be as successful as me and your dad.’”
From Lingad’s point of view, the financial barrier is a huge problem and might be one of the reasons why it can be discouraging for people from disadvantaged backgrounds such as Filipinos to pursue a career in science. In a career in research or in academia, one goes through five, six, or seven years of a PhD program, a couple of years of postdoctoral work, and then several years looking for a tenure-track position. All that time, the person will have a low income. She adds, “So, only the people who have the capacity to have a low income for a decade, at least, are the ones who make it through. Others who need to be able to support their family might not be able to choose this career because they can't afford to live on such a low income.” The income barrier along with the lack of knowledge of the field, Lingad says, are some reasons why many Filipino-Americans choose the healthcare field over research and academia.
De Guzman’s parents who work in healthcare naturally encouraged him to pursue a career in the same field. Becoming a scientist never crossed his mind until he worked at a research lab in college. De Guzman also experienced the initial lack of support and acknowledgement from his parents when he first told them about his plan to enter the scientific field. However, like the others, he makes it clear that he does not blame his parents for this and claims that “they just didn't know [about the field], and it was a matter of communicating with them and telling them what I really wanted to do with my life.” He continues, “they're doing the best that they can for their children. They’re doing the best that they can to give us a successful, financially sustainable job.”
Reyes concludes, “The common career path for many Filipinos is to enter healthcare-related fields, and for many of us that is a wonderful and wise choice. Many of us [Filipinos] are very successful, caring physicians, but I think if becoming a scientist gets presented to us more as a potential career option [to the younger Filipino kids and their parents], then we would see a higher influx of Filipinos joining STEM.”
Unfortunately, the struggles of being a Filipino scientist don’t end there—there is another aspect to the invisibility of Filipinos in science. Bautista and Lingad shared that there were instances when they were deemed ineligible to apply for fellowships/grants designed for minority scientists.
Bautista says that Filipinos are “not considered minorities traditionally.” She explains that this is because of the way Asians are treated as a monolithic group. In science, for example, there is an assumption that Asians are “doing well” or are part of the “overrepresented majority.” ‘Asian’ is used as an umbrella term into which different ethnic Asian backgrounds are lumped together. This causes the erasure of minority Asian groups such as Filipinos, making them even more invisible in the scientific field.
It is worth noting that Filipinos are not the only invisible ones. Bautista adds, “In the media, I do hear a lot of [stories on] minorities in STEM. But, I think Southeast Asians such as Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, etc., their stories are erased and they don't really get the attention [in media]. You don't really hear it until you experience it, and until you see that there aren’t any. You don't realize it until somebody puts it in your headspace.”
Lingad hopes for more initiatives that prioritize the recruitment of underrepresented Asian minorities. According to her, “Asians are typically treated like all of them are the same and they have the same representation, but they're so different. There's so many different cultures within Asia that you really can't just throw a big umbrella over.”
Of course, the experiences of Filipino scientists will vary depending on where they are located. Reyes and De Guzman, for instance, never came across a time when they were unable to apply for minority fellowships for being Filipinos/Asians. Both of them acknowledge the MORE (Minority Opportunities in Research) program at California State University Los Angeles, in which they both are involved.
Reyes is a self-supported student and says that the reason she could attend university is because of the support given to her by the MORE program. “They essentially take off that financial burden from students who are young scientists. They do this by paying your tuition in some cases, and also giving you a monthly stipend to live off of so that you could focus primarily on research and elevate your career as a scientist. They definitely made it way more feasible for me to pursue science," Reyes says.
Though she’s grateful for the opportunities given to her, Reyes adds a disclaimer, “We go to a university that has a lot of racial diversity and is historically minority and low income-serving. So, our perspective is definitely going to be different from the perspective of someone who grew up in a small town in the Midwest or the South or the East Coast.” She hopes that these kinds of programs and initiatives will be more available to minority scientists.
Reyes also says that her experiences don't make others’ experiences irrelevant. She, along with the other Filipino scientists, emphasizes the importance of diversity and shared some ways to effectively increase diversity in the scientific field. Their comments and suggestions are compiled in a short video at the beginning of this article.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 in the past year, we have seen how much impact science can bring to our lives—vaccines, to give one example. These scientific advancements are possible due to the different perspectives that scientists from diverse backgrounds bring to the table. Let’s amplify the voices of minority scientists. By increasing diversity, inclusivity, and representation, we can build a better science.