This bioinformatician is teaching Filipinas to code

| Written by Andre DP Encarnacion

A crowd of developers and engineers with laptops packed the small white room at the iAcademy in Makati City for the day’s workshop on data analysis and machine learning. The diverse audience contrasted with the fact that the event’s technical facilitators were all female. Casually dressed and with years of training behind them, the team featured UP molecular biologist Iris Diana Uy, who led participants last February through the meticulous process of slicing and merging arrays of data.

As Uy took the stage, the rest stood at attention, ready to assist. Donning a red baseball cap, computer scientist Issa Tingzon later showcased introductory exercises on finding correlations to help machines make predictions. Meanwhile, Clau Yagyagan and Marylette Roa assisted individually. Roa, in particular, who had never fancied herself a skilled communicator, navigated all corners of the room helping participants stay on the same page and resolving their coding errors with well-placed suggestions.

Roa, who works as a bioinformatician at the UP Marine Sciences Institute (UP MSI), says that what binds their group of experts together is a commitment to education and empowerment. As with fellow UP-trained researchers Uy and Tingzon, she is a member of Women Who Code Manila, the local network of a global community dedicated to inspire women to excel in technology careers.

 

UP bioinformatician and coding mentor Marylette Roa with the server of the Lluisma laboratory. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)
UP bioinformatician and coding mentor Marylette Roa with the server of the Lluisma laboratory. (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)

 

Through study groups, panel discussions, and other events, members of the group provide a space for women (and men, as well) to develop their skills and connect with current and aspiring coders across the country.

The shift from working strictly as a scientist to also being a part-time mentor was an opportunity that Roa fully embraced. Her path towards that role, however, while rewarding, was a journey in itself.

 

A bioinformatics pioneer

After graduating from the UP National Institute for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (UP NIMBB), Roa had her first professional coding stint as a pioneer member of the Philippine Genome Center’s (PGC) Core Facility for Bioinformatics, where Uy also was. “I just wanted to try it,” Roa says, who did disproportionately more “wet” laboratory work as an undergraduate compared to the data analysis that would become her forte. This post, in contrast, explicitly required her to use computer science and statistical techniques to solve biological problems.

It was at the PGC that Roa would work under her mentor, the molecular geneticist and bioinformatician, Arturo Lluisma. It was Lluisma, she says , who decided that the group would use the programming language Python—the language she would soon be teaching. During their capacity-building phase, which began in 2012, the young scientists both trained as well as trained themselves in the tools to analyze genomics data. Mingled in with this scientific training were more practical skills, such as server administration and talking to clients, which would likewise slot into Roa’s future mentoring toolkit.

 

Marylette Roa (left) with friend and fellow UP scientist Iris Diana Uy (right). (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)
Marylette Roa (left) with friend and fellow UP scientist Iris Diana Uy (right). (Photo by Misael Bacani, UP MPRO)

 

While her skills in coding grew at the PGC and in a brief stint at the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), Roa did not yet arrive at her vocation as a mentor. What led her towards the coding community even before officially transferring to Lluisma’s MSI laboratory in 2017 was a desire that many women in technical fields likely experience—to have other women to talk to.

“It was a little weird,” Roa says, “because I was coding and doing data analysis, while my lab-mates were doing wet laboratory-style basic research.” While she could still count on her teammates and Uy for conversation, she felt the need to connect with more women doing her kind of technical work. “People who develop tools and software, who you could talk to about best practices in the field.”

 

The other side

All of this changed in 2016. While giving a bioinformatics workshop in Cebu for the PGC, both Roa and Uy also took the opportunity to attend that year’s PyCon Philippines being held in the city. The event, which is a non-profit conference bringing together users and fans of the Python programming language, providentially featured ‘Diversity’ as its theme that year.

Throwing caution to the wind, both Roa and Uy submitted a proposal to talk at the conference. For the first time since becoming colleagues, the academic pair talked genes and double helices to a large group of software engineers, programming enthusiasts and start-up founders.

“It was refreshing having them for an audience,” Roa says. “Just knowing the practices they used, their culture, their overall outlook. We were just very curious about the other side of the fence.”

The conference brought both Roa and Uy together with other female coders and technology leaders. Becoming permanent fixtures in that community, however, came a little later for both. For Roa, it was seeing an advertisement of Women Who Code Manila on TV, founded in 2017 by Director Michie Ang and Anj Cerbolles, that made her take the plunge and permanently join in on the fun.

 

Becoming a mentor

Roa’s initial motivation for joining the group was to have someone push her to practice coding consistently. After all, compared to those who develop software full-time, she was only required to do serious coding in the presence of genomic data sets. As a study group participant, however, she found herself gravitating towards helping beginners find their legs. That was when the suggestion came—why not become a mentor?

“Actually, that’s how many of us start out,” she says. With the more laidback learning atmosphere and the prevailing bayanihan culture of the groups, many ladies are motivated to share what they have and become leaders in their topics of expertise. “That’s what Michie [Ang] said before. It’s not always about being the best. It’s more often about commitment. And if you can commit, you can take the lead.”

 

Marylette Roa (2nd row, blue ID strap) with members of Women Who Code Manila at Pycon PH 2018. (Photo by Women Who Code Manila)
Marylette Roa (2nd row, blue ID strap) with members of Women Who Code Manila at Pycon PH 2018. (Photo by Women Who Code Manila)

 

With her group currently featuring study groups in other languages and systems such as Javascript, Ruby, R, and PHP, it does seem that Roa’s hope of seeing a more diverse tech industry may be on the horizon. “It may just be my bias,” she says, “but I think more diversity here is good. Not just in terms of gender, but in terms of background, as well .”

Her journey as a mentor has certainly led her to encounter learners of all sorts.

“Some of them are veteran developers who just want to switch languages,” she says. Others are still students, whom Roa particularly enjoys teaching for their enthusiasm and potential. Others still are complete beginners who want to get their feet wet in a friendly coding environment.

Differences aside, however, Roa says that many newcomers stay for what she initially came for—the friendship. “I think, apart from learning something, what people enjoy is having new friends. The feeling that these are people that you can actually make something great with in the future, or who will invite you when something major happens in their lives. It’s that sense of community. And at the same time, you also get tested, because in my case, who ever thought that I would become a mentor?”