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[Y-SPACE] From the Shores of Leyte to the Astrophysics Labs of MIT

Updated: Sep 1, 2021

By Hillary Diane Andales

I lived along the shores of the Pacific Ocean in Leyte. Because I lived in a place so close to nature, it was easy for me to ask questions about everything around me: What is fire? Why does the moon seem to follow me when I walk? How do rainbows work? While my friends had superstitious explanations for these, I was determined to find a more physical explanation.

I remember when a friend told me that my finger would get cut off if I point at a rainbow. How could that possibly happen? So I tested it with a simple experiment. Against my friend’s wishes, I pointed at a rainbow every single time I saw it. Now, after 15 years of pointing at rainbows, I can reasonably conclude that my friend’s claim had no evidence to support it. Rainbows do not cut fingers off. This instinct to question and discover things followed me everywhere. These were the beginnings of a young scientist.

My parents were also extremely supportive. We were not rich but my parents worked to provide all the learning resources I needed. Instead of fairytales, they would tell me stories of the great scientists: of Marie Curie’s genius and determination, of Albert Einstein’s revolutionary ideas, and of Charles Darwin’s adventures in the Galapagos Islands. When I was around five years old, they gave me a book called The Big Book of Space Discoveries. There, I learned that the sun, despite being tiny in the sky, is actually a million times larger than the Earth. I learned that the pinpricks of light in the night sky are themselves massive suns, just much farther away. Learning about the sheer scale of the universe had me awestruck: I knew I wanted to study our universe. I thus embarked on the path to becoming an astrophysicist–a path I have walked for more than 16 years now. As a college student, I now work in the astrophysics labs of MIT where I use computer simulations to study how galaxies form.

It is easy to become interested in astronomy, astrophysics, and the space sciences. Almost everyone I know (including myself) wanted to be an astronaut at some point. The thought of knowing the strange worlds beyond our own and the vast universe within which the Earth exists stirs so much wonder within us. What is it like out there? How do these strange objects–black holes, supernovae, pulsars, stars, exoplanets–compare to our home planet? This curiosity puts our existence into perspective.

That astronomy (and its related fields) can drive us to ask questions about our place in the cosmos, I believe, its greatest value to the world. For instance, people used to believe that the Earth was the center of the universe. But in the 16th century, when Copernicus claimed that it was the Sun instead of the Earth at the center, a revolution in thought began. This shift to a more humble and factual perspective transformed not just science but also religion and society.

However, some might think that this reason is not concrete enough to justify the study of astrophysics. Fortunately, in the pursuit of seemingly “irrelevant” questions, the field has made many technological contributions along the way. These include the Global Positioning System (GPS), communication satellites, and even the wireless local area network (WLAN)–things we cannot live without. Medical imaging tools like CAT, MRI, and PET scanners also rely on technologies from astronomy. Many other sectors have benefited as well such as industry, aerospace, energy, and so on. We can only look forward to the future innovations possible.

Although the study of astrophysics is awe-inspiring, it is also challenging. Besides the difficulty of doing astrophysics, there are also roadblocks in becoming an astrophysicist. In our country, our scientists are not given enough resources or funding. It is difficult to be a scientist in such an environment. When I was younger, I also did not know any Filipino scientists; I did not have

strong Filipino role models. On many nights, I have also cried wondering if I will ever be good enough to continue in this field.

To young Filipino students aspiring to study science, my first advice is to believe in yourself and practice a growth mindset. A journey in science may seem difficult, but if you feel like it is your path, go for it. Find a community that can support you and your goals – family, mentors, and friends. Look for role models. With social media resources Pinoy Scientists and the Twitter hashtag #PinoyScientists, it is now easier to do this. Read their stories, talk to them, and follow their journeys. Of course, it is also important to fight for better support for our scientists and science workers. We do not just need more scientists; we must create a better environment for our scientists to work and flourish. We must contribute to advocacy groups that are working on this cause.

My journey in astrophysics has taken me from the shores of Leyte to the labs of MIT–and this is only the beginning. I do not know where this path will take me but wherever the universe and its questions lead me, I will go.

A Leyte native, Hillary Andales is a science communicator and aspiring astrophysicist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She is best known as the 2017 Winner of the International Breakthrough Junior Challenge where she placed first out of 11,000 entries worldwide, winning $400,000 in prizes. Currently, she is an incoming third-year undergraduate and an astrophysics researcher at the MIT Kavli Institute. There, she uses data from computer simulations to discover how the oldest and faintest galaxies in the universe formed. As much as she enjoys exploring the universe for its own sake, she also loves sharing its wonders with everyone else! So far, her science communication work has reached more than a million people worldwide. She has spoken at the United Nations in Vienna, in Los Angeles for Adobe, as well as all over the Philippines. She works to engage even more people, especially Filipinos, in science.

YSPACE is a platform open for young writers to contribute their worth-sharing thoughts and stories to the world. It is a space for young people and by the young people which aims to promote a strong sense of empowerment and inspiration to young Filipinos.

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