Erika Fille T. Legara
Senior Scientist and Associate Professor
Asian Institute of Management
AsianScientist (Jan. 7, 2022) – As we make our daily commutes from one place to another, we don’t typically think about the specific placement of each bus stop, train station or streetlamp—let alone the complex behaviors of crowds that inform the decisions behind each installation. Fortunately, data science maven Professor Erika Legara is far from typical.
Initially a physics graduate, Legara pivoted to a career in data science and joined Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) where she and her team made sense of the movement, land use and transport of Singapore’s urban system through a detailed analysis of ridership at individual public transit stations.
As a strong proponent of education and mentorship, in 2017, Legara returned to the Philippines to join the Asian Institute of Management as the director of the nation’s first data science graduate program, where she now holds the role of the Aboitiz Chair. While guiding aspiring data scientists, Legara continues her research in complexity science—investigating the impact of phenomena like COVID-19, human migration and natural hazards by creating data models and extracting value from a variety of interconnected information.
In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Legara shares the motivations behind her work and her hopes for the future of data science worldwide.
- How would you summarize your research in a tweet?
I study the dynamics of complex systems, which include socio-economic, urban and cyber-physical systems, using various computational modeling techniques ranging from network science to artificial intelligence.
- Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.
I’m most proud of our research into commuter behavior inside the Singapore Rapid Transit System at the Institute of High Performance Computing at A*STAR. Our work enabled stakeholders to explore various ‘what-if’ scenarios to improve commuters’ experiences.
We specifically looked at train overloading and overcrowding using analytical and agent-based models. The work led to two international awards, but what I’m really proud of is that policymakers and other stakeholders found it useful. The research was also able to generate a few more studies and funded projects in urban complexity.
- What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?
I believe that the ‘holy grail’ is developing robust and universal frameworks. Most studies in empirical urban science involve modern cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, London and Zurich—such work with emerging cities can hopefully make significant contributions to the science of cities.
My personal hope is that the framework we developed in Singapore can be used in other city types around the world, particularly in developing nations. In fact, we’ve already taken concrete steps to realize this—one of the initiatives I’m currently involved in is a smart city project with a Philippine third-class component city.
- Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?
I was greatly inspired by my mentors back at the National Institute of Physics (NIP) at the University of the Philippines. They showed me the beauty of doing science and the fulfillment one gets when conducting world-class research.
Besides my mentors, I’ve had an interest in complexity science since my undergraduate years. The work itself is as fascinating and as captivating as the many complex systems that it aims to describe and model.
- What is the biggest adversity that you experienced in your research?
I have been fortunate enough to avoid significant adversities. I joined nurturing teams and enabling environments from my time at the NIP, to A*STAR and now at the Analytics, Computing and the Complex Systems lab at the Asian Institute of Management.
So instead, I’ll identify one adversity that’s more systemic—the lack of a data-sharing culture. This is especially glaring when working on real-world systems with various stakeholders. Interestingly, I have observed that data sharing issues are present in both the Singapore and the Philippine settings.
- What are the biggest challenges facing the academic research community today and how can we fix them?
I think there is a shortage of capable mentors and a lack of appreciation for science, especially when it comes to research that is considered ‘basic’ or ‘theoretical’.
For the first challenge, one solution is to make mentoring global. Many countries, especially those that do not have a mature scientific culture yet, lack research mentors. If established global scientists can lend their time by providing online mentorships to underserved STEM students, it could make a difference to both the students but and the whole scientific community.
To solve the second challenge, scientific communication has to take center stage. It is critical for the general public to understand what STEM is, how research is done and what the potential impacts of performing research are to people, societies and the world.
- If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
Since both my parents are practicing civil engineers, I probably would have become one as well. Or maybe an architect or interior designer.
- What do you do outside of work to relax? Do you have any interests and hobbies?
I love traveling and I enjoy long drives while listening to jazz, blues and country music. I also play the piano and the guitar in between writing papers and Python scripts. I binge-watch a lot, too, especially during this pandemic.
- If you had the power and resources to eradicate any world problem using your research, which one would you solve?
Climate change, particularly global warming. The effects of climate change affect all aspects of life on Earth.
- What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
As scientists, we’re more likely to be detail-oriented—try to also be a big picture thinker.
More than the publications, the patents and technology disclosures, think about how your work could impact not only the scientific community but also wider society. This also means acquiring the important skill to responsibly communicate one’s work not only to peers in the field, but also to the general public.
Find a good mentor. And once you’ve matured enough in the field, give back by becoming a mentor yourself.
After almost six years in Singapore, Erika Legara returned to the Philippines to lead the nation’s first data science graduate program. Photo credit: Erika Legara.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Erika Legara.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.