Young scientist falls in love with science, mathematics – Business Mirror

Teaching science and mathematics is a herculean challenge
these days. Despite being digital natives, young people still regard science
and mathematics as an Achilles heel.

Nevertheless, there are still passionate Filipinos like
Janice Lao who keep on hoping they are planting the seeds for future scientists
like her.

Inspired by her father’s work in mining and her mother’s
advocacy in helping the marginalized sector, Lao wanted to be a catalyst for
change at an early age.

Janice Lao at WildAid’s Global Shark Pledge event in Hong Kong, November 2018.

At 18, she read about the need for environmental scientists
due to increasing pollution and its effects. She decided that that was what she
was going to be.

In college, Lao topped the first Bayer Young Environmental
Envoy competition, representing the Philippines in a study tour in Germany. She
was also named an Ayala Young Leader in 2002 by Ayala Foundation Inc.

A graduate (with honors) of environmental science and
development economics from the Ateneo de Manila University, Lao was the first
Filipino to graduate from the Masters of Science in Environmental Change and
Management from the University of Oxford (with a diploma from the Said Business
School). She was a full scholar under the Shell-British Chevening program.
Moreover, she was chosen by Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public
Health to attend the Executive Education Course in Sustainability Leadership in

Lao’s expertise lies in sustainability management in
business, climate change and green finance.

Janice Lao as lead manager for a climate-change project in Ukraine in June 2008, when she was 29 years old.

She is one of the first Filipinos to work in this field. Her
life’s mission is making business a force for good by embedding sustainability
principles and programs that benefit society and enabling businesses to thrive.

As an advocate of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math
(STEM), Lao speaks about her own experiences in overcoming the challenges of
being a STEM professional.

In a recent press interview, the mother of two shared her
first-hand experiences in the journey toward science excellence.

Right foundation

ACCORDING to Lao, she is what she is today “because of how
my parents [Francis and Lita L. Lao] raised me.” Her parents—“my father as a
mechanical engineer and my mother as an accountant”—were the first in their
families to graduate college.

“Because they had overcome so much, they wanted to prepare
us for the harsh realities of the world without ever having to be given
anything on a silver platter,” Lao said.

“My parents expected excellence in school not because of the
norm of the times, but because they knew we had more opportunities and
resources than they did as children,” she added. “I remember being encouraged
to read and articulate our insights every night at the dinner table. It taught
me to think critically, and to consider it okay with being challenged for my
views. Feedback was not seen as criticism, but as a gift; curiosity and
questioning was not seen as stupidity, but delight in knowledge.”

Lao said she believes “parents cannot protect us from pain,
but they can help us overcome challenges, especially if we ask for help.”

She said that before reaching first grade, “I had loved
science and math so much as a kid. But when I was in first grade, one time I
struggled with my math exercise, I went to ask the teacher for help, but
instead I was scolded and humiliated in front of the class for even asking a

“From then on I was terrified of math. I doubted my dreams
of becoming a scientist then,” Lao told reporters. Still, she managed to talk
herself “out of it.”

Struggling with numbers

LAO was 17, a college freshman and was placed in a remedial
math class.

“I thought [that time] they’re right: I’m stupid with math!
During one of the times in the car with my dad, he asked me what was bothering
me and I told him about my fear of math. He offered to help me, as he was a bit
of a math genius himself,” Lao said.

Her father told her: “Math is not something you study.”

“It’s like a language, once you understand the rules and how
to use them, all you need is practice,” Lao said, quoting her father who added:
“You will never have to study for it again.”

“In that semester, I re-learned math and I was able, not
only to unlock it, [but] I ended up loving it so much that it gave me the
confidence in getting back to Stem,” she said.

She said she was able to re-learn and re-love math by “understanding
how math can work in real life, like calculus.”

“How is that relatable to my interests? Calculus is an
elegant way of finding the most optimal solution, whether it be in economics,
business, engineering or science; like how a dam works,” she said. “To this
day, I remain a lover of math.”

Overcoming challenges

ACCORDING to Lao, unlocking the language and overcoming a
long-time fear of math boosted her confidence.

“I felt like I could overcome anything. It gave me the
courage to believe in myself. I realized when I took the time to understand
something, there was less to fear about,” she said. “This gave me the courage
to do my best in college; to try out for opportunities I would have never
dreamed for myself, to challenge my skills. I ended up choosing a thesis
adviser who was known to be challenging and was not an easy ‘A’.”

Her friends thought she was crazy for doing so.

“But it turned out to be one of the best turning points in
my life. My thesis adviser was incredibly demanding and expected nothing short
of excellence,” she said. “I thrived under his mentorship. And he told me near
the end of my thesis, ‘You’ve done well, you should go to Oxford’.”

Her thesis adviser, she said, had gone to Oxford, too.

“And he knew that I would be perfect for it. He offered to
write me a recommendation letter and, by the time I had graduated from college,
I had received my acceptance letter from Oxford University in the UK, being the
only Filipina in the history of the course, plus on a Chevening scholarship.”

That was something that Lao said she “had never even dreamed
for myself.”

Passion, commitment

ACCORDING to Lao, her love for science and math “only grew
more intense when I had studied in Oxford and then I started in my career.”

“I saw nature as the greatest example of the elegance of
STEM: ‘How can anyone even imagined and created this?’” she asked herself.

“As I was learning more about nature, and how amazing this
creation was, I could not believe how we were taking it for granted and
destroying it, against our benefit. I promised myself that for the rest of my
life, I would dedicate my career to protecting nature for people,” Lao said.
“In our ignorance, we think we can tame nature, but in reality, it is there to
help humans thrive. We cannot live without nature, but nature can live without

Apart from the regular STEM skills, Lao learned to
articulate her case and “in a way that would be understandable to business.”

“This work led to my awards recognizing my passionate and
relentless work in this field.”

Science and parenting

LAO said that when she became a parent, “I wanted to raise
my kids similarly to how I was raised: the encouragement of reading, critical
thinking, feedback, failing before succeeding and being curious.”

“I instilled in my kids a love for science and math by
teaching them the way I wish I would have been taught when I was younger,” she
said. “I would explain math principles to them, for example, like ‘division is

She said she asked her two children: “If you had four cakes
and you wanted to share them with eight classmates, how would you do it?”

Lao said she conducts science experiments with her children
every week “by pretending we are mystery solvers and even letting the kids earn
their right to use their tablets by having them learn code and build their own
games instead of just playing someone else’s games.”

“I don’t know if my kids will end up as scientists, but
that’s not the point. I learned a lot of life’s lessons through STEM,” she
said, adding that “most important of all is rebounding from failure.”

“Experiments are all about failure first before success. We
teach our kids how to succeed, but we cannot if they don’t know how to fail and
rebound from it first,” Lao said. “This is why I’m so thrilled to be featured
in this book about women in STEM, because it gives me the opportunity to share
my love of Stem to as many children as possible.”

For Lao, Stem “isn’t boring.”

“It’s a lot of fun! And when we make it relatable to their
interests and to their motivation, we will be able to teach and understand STEM
that encourages young people to get into it to help us solve some of the
world’s most urgent problems.”

She said she remains “so excited by the possibilities of
what STEM can offer us.”

The math online

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