Astrophysicist Reinabelle Reyes encourages Science enthusiasts to stay curious

Encouraging teachers, students, and science enthusiasts alike, the Central Mindanao University Physics Department and Bukidnon Physics Society held their eighth iteration of the Physics Meetup series last July 16 via Zoom and Facebook Live. 

The session, titled Adventures in Astrophysics and Analytics, featured astrophysicist and data analyst Dr. Reinabelle Reyes, who has had her fair share of adventures in exploring the cosmos. Perhaps best known as the person “who proved Albert Einstein right”, she recounted her journey in Astrophysics and Statistics, offering a glimpse into her fields of expertise.

Curious beginnings

From an early age, Reyes had often found herself looking toward the stars; her “childlike way of seeing the world” kept her curious about heavenly bodies and their interactions with one another. “A lot of us outgrow this [behavior],” she expressed, prompting aspiring scientists instead to see it as a “challenge [to] keep that childlike way of seeing the world.”

Dabbling in Astronomy pushed Reyes to convince her father to buy a telescope, opening up an opportunity for her to observe the behaviors of stars, planets, and constellations. “[Astronomy is] so out of this world, out of everyday experience—it was fascinating [for me],” she recalled.

Along with her strong foundations in Science and Mathematics—the latter being her favorite subject—this budding interest in Astronomy eventually led Reyes to pursue an undergraduate degree in Physics at Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) and a doctorate degree in Astrophysics at Princeton University. Her years as a researcher yielded many notable works, especially on Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

General relativity strives to explain the gravitational interactions of objects that are accelerating with respect to each other. Gravity, according to Einstein, is a manifestation of warped spacetime—visualized like a heavy object on a trampoline—with the theory further predicting the existence of gravitational lensing and waves.

Reyes’ research confirmed this theory on a grand scale: at least 70,000 galaxies worth of observations, all demonstrating that they play by the same rules set by Einstein’s theory.

Advocating representation

As her career in Astrophysics took off, Reyes journeyed through different parts of the globe; in Italy, she pursued a diploma in Higher Physics at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics. Grouped with other foreign students, the experience broadened her knowledge not only of Physics principles, but also of different cultures. She shared, “You get to meet a lot [of people]. Para kang [United Nations delegate]. You represent your country.”

(You’re like a United Nations delegate.)

Inspired by the different scientists she met abroad, she realized, “Scientists are [just normal] people like us.” This pushed her to advocate for scientist representation through launching a blog, PinoyScientists. “Part of my journey was this idea that started small, but grew and persisted…this idea of Pinoy scientists,” she recalled. 

The goal of her blog, she explained, is to feature different Filipino scientists from across the globe and “share their stories”—to show that Filipino scientists do, in fact, exist. Reyes also hopes it could bridge the gap between professional scientists and those wishing to pursue a career in Science, and ultimately to “debunk the stereotype that scientists [only] look like Einstein.”

Reyes initially featured her colleagues before she branched out and spotlighted Filipino scientists from different disciplines. Amazed at the fact that her small beginnings as an astrophysicist grew into something larger, she lauded, “It’s really [the] community, the connections, and the way that I can share my stories with others that really [affirmed] that [my discipline] was the right decision from me.”

Thinking like a scientist

The promotion of scientific disciplines is also one of Reyes’ primary advocacies, having worked on various projects like Science Says, a show on the Knowledge Channel, where she teaches viewers basic concepts of Biology and Chemistry. As part of ADMU’s RADYO TURO-GURO radio show—a program organized by the university’s Institute for the Science and Art of Learning and Teaching—she also helps train and educate teachers on a variety of subjects.

The improvement of the average Filipino’s access to Science remains a steadfast goal for the astrophysicist, who attested that one does not need to have a previous background in Science, Technology, or Mathematics to share a passion for Science. “You can come from anywhere,” she prompted, as long as one’s passion to learn about the field is present.

With the country’s current landscape, scientists are needed now more than ever. Reyes stated that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated a need for research and innovation. She pushed the audience to look toward disciplines like Science to foster a “capacity” to “be open to uncertainty”. She remarked, “We learn the way we connect; the way we build new things—create new things. We just have to keep those things as anchors as we go through this.”

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