Astronomical Dreams

The following is an excerpt from
Fearless Filipinas: 12 Women Who Dared to be Different. The book features stories of Filipina women who broke barriers across a wide variety of fields, including sports, entertainment, academe, business, and more. Authored by Monica Padillo, this chapter tells the story of what made Dr. Reina Reyes a Fearless Filipina.

Reaching for the stars

As a kid, Reina Reyes would always take the encyclopedias that her parents bought for her and read the parts relating to astronomy. She went through the pages with excitement, learning about the stars and how they were formed. She imagined what it would feel like riding a spaceship and exploring the unknown abyss of the universe as an astronaut. Even at a young age, Reina knew that there were forces in outer space that have yet to be discovered by mankind and she was ecstatic to uncover them one day as an adult.

However, becoming an astronaut or astronomer was a dream that she never fully considered as a child for the sole fact that she had no role models in those fields within her circle. Her parents were more adept in business than science. Their relatives and family friends pursued other fields such as architecture and law. Reina felt disconnected from science, astronomy in particular, based on her limited exposure to people in science in real life.

But even then, science remained Reina’s favorite subject in school. Her parents supported her enough by buying her more books about weather and planets and doing their best to answer her questions about the natural world.

“Where does rain come from?” the young Reina asked her mom, who would then take their family encyclopedias again and skim them to look for answers.

It wasn’t until she entered Philippine Science High School (PSHS) when her dream of becoming a scientist bloomed. PSHS was one of the most competitive high schools in the country. Some of her teachers were researchers and scientists pursuing graduate studies at universities such as the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman and Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU). They exposed her to renowned scientists, not just abroad but locally as well― such as Clare Baltazar (biology), Lourdes Cruz (biochemistry), and Fe Del Mundo (pediatrics)―instilling the idea in her that there was an active community of professional scientists in the Philippines, too. One of her teachers also taught physics―the science of matter and its motion and behavior through space and time―so well that it easily became Reina’s favorite subject.

At that time, it also helped that Reina was able to read and study the life and works of the world’s famous scientists such as Richard Feynman, who is known for the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and Albert Einstein, who gained fame for his theory of relativity. Inspired to follow in the footsteps of the scientists she idolized, she hoped that she could study science abroad for college as there were better equipment and facilities.

When Reina reached her fourth year of high school, she began applying to different colleges. While her classmates filled out the admissions forms to some of the top universities in the Philippines, Reina still held onto her dream of attending college abroad to pursue a physics degree. She had her eyes on several schools, one of which was Princeton University in New Jersey, USA, because of its outstanding range of science programs.

Reina also applied to local universities so she could have more options of where to study. When entrance exam results were finally released, she found that she had been accepted at ADMU―like her teachers in PSHS―and even received a scholarship grant.

Reina also received acceptance letters from some of the universities she applied to abroad. There was one problem: she would have to attend there without a scholarship. Studying abroad was not an easy feat for non-scholarship students; it was only possible for those who could afford the high cost of living in a different country and the even higher cost of college at the same time. For example, you can rent a decent apartment space―often already with a kitchen and bathroom―in a business district in the Philippines for PHP10,000 to PHP15,000. Meanwhile, you can only get a shoebox-sized room in New York City for up to ten times that amount.

Unfortunately, Reina was not financially ready―she didn’t have any choice at the time but to accept the fact that she wouldn’t study science abroad.

Disheartened but not defeated, Reina decided to study at ADMU. It was still an opportunity that was too good to pass up as the university was considered one of the best in the Philippines, and Reina was determined to make the most out of the experience.

Heading for the cosmos

At ADMU, Reina studied physics, extensively learning about matter, motion, and energy. She remembered the days when she would ask her mother about how the world worked. Now in college, she gained even more nuanced answers.

Some of her lessons intertwined with astronomy, making her remember a childhood fantasy that she once lost but could hopefully revive one day. Not all hope is lost, Reina reminded herself.

Upon graduating from ADMU with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics, she knew her life as a student didn’t stop there. There’s still so much about the world that I’m unaware of. There’s still so much to see and discover, she thought. She also still held onto her dream of studying abroad, possibly in the US or Germany where her favorite scientists resided.

Reina worked to make it happen and eventually received a scholarship for a diploma course on high energy physics, which she took at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy―an institution that provided scientists from emerging markets with the proper education and skills to advance their professional careers. She met fellow physics students and mentors from different countries, exposing her to various cultures and allowing her to broaden her horizons. It was also at ICTP when Reina welcomed another thought. What if I try my hand at astronomy again? she wondered. Even better, she could study astrophysics since she had more than enough knowledge and background in physics anyway.

In essence, astrophysics was a branch of science that used physics to study objects and phenomena in space. If she were to take that course, Reina would be marrying the subject she was studying and the subject she always wanted to take.

Reina decided to apply for Princeton again, this time for its doctoral program. She relayed her decision to her family and friends, who fully supported her move. Her mentors also gave her a recommendation to Princeton. A few months after she passed her application forms, Reina received a sealed letter from the university. With shaking hands and an anxious heart, she opened the envelope and read the letter. The first line already had her squealing with joy.

Dear Reina,

Congratulations! The committee has reviewed your application and we
are happy to offer you admission to the Class of 2011.

Reina finished her research at ICTP after a year, leaving Italy with a better understanding of the fundamental building blocks of nature and excitement for everything that would be unveiled to her in her graduate studies. She once again packed her bags and flew to the US.

When Filipinos think of America, they imagine skyscrapers, wide sidewalks and lawns, extravagant fashion, and more. Other Filipinos would also describe Americans as more “liberated” with their thoughts, words, and actions.

Reina had never felt more like a Filipino when she moved to New Jersey. Sure, she could understand and speak English as much as the next Filipino―after all, the Philippines was known to have the best English proficiency among English-speaking countries in the Asia Pacific―but it was different having to speak another language for a whole day instead of simply integrating it into Filipino phrases. Despite the language and some cultural barriers, Reina put on a brave face every day and immersed herself in the new environment.

It helped that she was a naturally friendly person and Princeton’s astrophysics program was full of welcoming people. In her batch, there were only four people, so any form of animosity between any of them would have been easily felt or seen.

Reina was able to settle well into Princeton, fully soaking in her astrophysics lessons like a sponge. After so many years―from dreaming about being an astronomer since she was a kid to finally having the opportunity to join a program that married space and physics―she knew she had come to the right place. Yet it wasn’t until her second year in the university when she was introduced to the project that would change her life.

The birth of a star

One cold morning, Reina and her peers were told by their professors that they would be receiving a list of research projects that they could choose from to broaden their skills in astrophysics research. Later that day, when she had access to a computer, Reina opened her email and perused the list. There was one topic that particularly caught her eye.

In 1915, Albert Einstein published his famed theory of general relativity. He theorized that massive objects cause a distortion―felt as gravity― in space-time. Four years later, physicist Arthur Eddington proved Einstein’s theory by measuring starlight bending around the sun during a 1919 eclipse. However, 91 years since then, there had only been a few tests of the theory at distances and scales beyond the solar system.

Reina rubbed her eyes and read the topic summary again. As someone who idolized Einstein since she was a teenager, Reina couldn’t believe she now had the opportunity to test his theory. Yet as much as she was excited, she was also nervous about the decision she was about to make.

She was only in her second year of graduate school and still learning the ropes of astrophysics. But then again, you don’t get opportunities to test your favorite scientist’s theory every day, even more so working with like-minded people at a prestigious university. Looking at things from a broader perspective, there also weren’t a lot of opportunities for Filipinas like her to both study abroad and take up science as well. Reina realized that she was representing something bigger than herself.

Before she could change her mind, Reina emailed her astrophysics professor about her chosen topic.

Shortly after, Reina started working on her semester project with the help of Rachel Mandelbaum, a Princeton alumna who was doing post-doctoral research, and James Gunn, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Astronomy at Princeton. Both Rachel and James had made notable contributions in both astrophysics and astronomy and earned several honors and awards throughout their career, making them perfect mentors for Reina.

Their small team grew with the addition of Tobias Baldauf, Lucas Lombriser, and Robert Smith from the cosmology department of
the University of Zurich, and Uros Seljak from the physics and astronomy departments of the University of California, Berkeley.

They began their research by looking into the studies of theoretical cosmologists, who proposed that combining certain measurements
can distinguish between Einstein’s theory of general relativity and other alternative theories that cosmologists were also exploring. The modified theories of gravity were designed to match the predictions of the theory of relativity and it had been a challenge to identify which theory was correct.

Fortunately, the team had the right “ingredients’’ for doing the measurements. They used data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a long-term, multi-institution telescope project that mapped the sky and determined the position and brightness of several hundred million celestial objects. The survey produced the deepest, most comprehensive map of the universe in history.

Reina and her team also meticulously combined different types of observations of 70,000 galaxies―calculating their clustering and analyzing their velocities and distortion from intervening material to perform their test of gravity.

Reina worked day and night with her research team in order to properly combine calculations and make a plot of measurements. In one instance, she woke up on her research papers and found that she was still holding onto a pen. She also attended classes with disheveled hair that she simply brushed down. She lost many hours of sleep and socialization to make everything work.

Two years later, they finally had their eureka moment.

“It’s correct,” one of them said. Reina and her team all paused. They dropped their papers and pens and huddled together. They found that their plot of a measurement, which combined the calculations they gathered throughout their research, was correct based on the theoretical prediction of other cosmologists.

“We just confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity on cosmic
scales!” Reina’s teammate yelled.

Reina didn’t even realize she had her mouth agape until she finally remembered to breathe and smile at what they achieved. They finally proved that Einstein’s theory of general relativity was applicable on scales spanning the cosmos. They all hugged and congratulated each other for all their hard work. Reina shed some tears of joy. All those sleepless nights had finally paid off.

It didn’t take long for the news to reach the media. Princeton publicized their findings on their website and seeded the press release to various media outlets. They even made it to National Geographic, one of the best television networks for all things science. Of course, upon hearing news of a Filipina making groundbreaking accomplishments in science, several publications in the Philippines later reached out to Reina to feature her story as well. Reina finally became “The Filipina who proved Einstein right”―a title that her younger self would probably have never believed.

At 26 years old, Reina fell into the ranks of prominent Filipina scientists who she learned about back in high school.

Shortly after, Reina graduated with her PhD in astrophysics, finally reaching her lifelong dream. Afterwards, Reina decided to go back to the Philippines to work. Her alma mater, ADMU, offered her a teaching position in their physics department. With a job opportunity already lined up for her, she packed her bags and rode a plane back to her homeland.

When she arrived home, the tired and jetlagged Reina went straight to her old bedroom. She saw her things untouched and still arranged the way she left them. Slowly, she made her way towards the bed and tucked herself in. Sleep was what she needed. She was exhausted, not just from the nearly 24-hour flight, but from everything that happened over the past few years.

Before she succumbed to sleep, Reina stared at her ceiling. She remembered the little girl who used to wonder what outer space held and yearned to soar between the stars on a futuristic spaceship. Had she given up on this dream too early in pursuit of astrophysics? There were many private space companies, such as Space X and Blue Origin, after all, pioneering space travel alongside government agencies like NASA.

No, Reina thought. She had been born and raised in a small towni n the Philippines, where no one knew what an astronomer was, before migrating to Italy and then New Jersey to earn a PhD from Princeton, where she proved Einstein’s theory ahead of so many others who had tried. In a way, she was an astronaut.

To get more insights from other Fearless Filipinas like Dr. Reina Reyes, please check out the full book, available for purchase here

Fearless Filipinas - and women’s books - will soon be streaming on Audiophile, our platform for exclusive Filipino audiobooks.

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