reinabelle_reyes_main_photo.jpgThe enthusiasm with which Reinabelle Reyes talks about her love for physics and astronomy drives home the point of why science matters. For this young scientist working on her doctorate in physics and distinguishing herself in astrophysics, there’s beauty and logic in science.

Rather than shush the little Reinabelle’s “incessant questioning,” like “Saan galing ang ulan?” Reyes’s mother, Botan, took out the books or encyclopedias so that they could learn together. “She paved the way for me by not stifling my curiosity at an early age… She taught me to read, write, do math in my head, use the computer, and touch-type. Without her, I will not be where I am today,” says Reyes.

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When her father Ramon, an entrepreneur, surprised her with her first telescope at age 10, Reyes was hooked. “As a kid, astronomy and dinosaurs held a special appeal to me. There is something magical about them because they are not part of the everyday and the commonplace.”

 

MAKING HER MARK

Reyes was on her way to pursuing her passion when she entered Philippine Science High School in Quezon City, where science classes are more intensive and studied at a faster rate. “Analytical thinking was emphasized over memorization of cold facts. It was challenging and I enjoyed it immensely,” Reyes says of her years there. Her project on using neural networks (“a fancy name for a computer program that emulates how the brain works”) to forecast phytoplankton productivity won her the right to represent the country at the world’s largest and premiere high school science competition, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in San Jose, California in 2001.

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In Ateneo de Manila, she graduated summa cum laude following the completion of her thesis in mathematical physics that involved “reformulating Einstein’s special relativity using geometric algebra.” While physics was a breeze, there were academic challenges in other disciplines. “What I would perhaps consider the most demanding paper is a reflection paper for philosophy class on the ethics of Thomas Aquinas, written in Filipino. I got a B plus.”

Her heroes in the scientific world are Albert Einstein, whom she considers “a true genius; my idol,” and Nobel laureate Abdus Salam of Pakistan, who is credited with tireless efforts to improve science education in the third world. Salam established the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) and the Third World Academy of Sciences in the northern Italian city of Trieste for scientists from developing nations. After graduating from Ateneo, Reyes won a scholarship to study at ICTP. Her dissertation there, she says, was “a cool one—predicting whether the fact that observers like us exist can explain the existence of the dark energy that is ripping our universe apart.”

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But more than the studies were the friendships she made from people around the world. “My classmates were from Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cuba, Congo, Venezuela, Madagascar and Palestine. I studied science for learning’s sake and I made friends who I’m still in touch with today and whom I never would have met otherwise,” she says.

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She belongs to an elite group of 20 graduate students in Princeton‘s astrophysics department.

Reyes, now based in Princeton, New Jersey, led a team that discovered the existence of the largest number of “supermassive” black holes in nearby galaxies. A black hole is a region of space containing a gigantic amount of mass that any object flying by it could not escape its gravitational pull. Reyes’ discovery was based on the thesis of her collaborator and mentor, Nadia Zakamska of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study. “My project was to analyze this data and combine it with other observations to determine how common these objects were. No one knew the answer to this question before because there simply wasn’t enough data,” Reyes says.

 

“With this work, my collaborators and I have added new knowledge to the scientific literature. A small step in the large scheme of things, but this is how science progresses. Even (Isaac) Newton said, ‘If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’” Her latest paper involves measuring the mass of dark, non-luminous matter in clusters of galaxies by measuring how much they bend light.

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Thanks to Salam and his institute, Reyes nurtures a dream to open a similar institute in the Philippines, one that will give science education the importance it’s due. “I have a dream to establish a counterpart of ICTP in the Philippines, with the purpose of bringing together Filipino and Southeast Asian scientists who are studying or working abroad, to reconnect with the challenges that the country is facing: putting primacy on science education, communicating science to the public, and novel applications of science and technology for socio-economic progress.”

 

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Reyes at the Magellan observatory in the mountains of La Serena, Chile in 2007.

THE NEXT FIVE YEARS

Reyes understands the challenge facing science education in the Philippines. “The negative ‘perception’ of science is caused by how it is taught in school. When people ask what I study or do, and I tell them physics, most of the time I hear in response: ‘Ay, mahirap ’yan!’ They can even remember the name of their high school teacher who gave them such bad memories. Sayang ’yung opportunity,” she explains.

“Science is not about boring facts and memorizing scientific names just for the sake of passing an exam. My hope is that we—scientists, teachers, parents, and the media—will help every Filipino enjoy the pleasures of thinking scientifically; not just to memorize names and formulas, but also to internalize the concepts behind those names and symbols; not just to focus on getting the right answer, but on the logic and creativity of the process that gets you there.

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“Science is a unique way of looking at the world, one that recognizes the beautiful patterns that are all around us, and that gives us the tools to understand the world we live in, so that we can live better and make wiser decisions as individuals and as a nation,” she says.

Mitigating the harmful effects of global warming and climate change, producing clean energy and attaining sustainable growth are for her, the burning issues scientists need to address. “For my part, I hope to continue spreading public awareness of the benefits of science and scientific thought.”

It helps that her husband, Gary Coronado, loves physics just as she does. Coronado was her earth science teacher in high school. But it was only in Ateneo, when she was an undergraduate, and he a graduate student in physics education, that they began a friendship. “We share many interests: books, movies, sports, and of course, science.” Coronado has authored a high school textbook for Filipino students entitled Next Century Physics.

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The couple plans to have two kids someday. “Sayang ang genes,” she jokes. And the fruit won’t fall far from the tree. “As they grow up, we will expose them to the wonders of the sciences, the beauty of art and music, the pleasure of reading, the joy of sports. When they are old enough to choose which field they wish to excel in, we will support them in the pursuit of their goals, whatever they may be. Just like our parents did for us,” she says.

For the next five years, she’s got her plans laid out: “I will get my doctorate from Princeton, move to another astrophysics institute as a postdoctoral fellow, and continue to establish myself as an expert in the field of observational cosmology.”

And the best part of her plans? “I see myself working in the Philippines, building the Center I envision, working hand-in-hand with government, fellow academics, and communities in different parts of the country. I see myself as a socially responsible scientist—fighting the good fight, for our people and for our future.”

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Reina’s Fave Reads

Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

“I think everyone should read it and apply it Pinoy-style to create positive social change in their own communities.”

Banker for the Poor by Muhammad Yunus and Ethics for a New Millennium by the Dalai Lama

Yunus and the Dalai Lama are both Nobel Peace Prize laureates. “I’m inspired by people who have made a difference in the lives of many. They are role models.”

 

(First published in Marie Claire, December 2008; photos used with permission from Reinabelle Reyes, main photo by Floe Fusin-Wischusen)

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