Dr. Reinabelle Reyes: Filipina astrophysicist who proved Einstein’s theory

Who would think a petite 33-year-old Filipina with a timid smile could hold the answers to the universe? Dr. Reinabelle Reyes is the brilliant scientist who, at the ripe age of 26, was able to confirm Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity on a cosmic scale by showing how galaxies up to roughly 3.5 billion light-years away clustered together.

One idea that can be learned from science is how even the smallest of stars have the capacity to burn brightly. Similarly, last January, Dr. Reyes could have easily been mistaken as one of the 250 high school students attending Research Fair 2017’s Youth Science Convention instead of the event’s speaker; however, once she started talking, it cannot be denied that she is a force to be reckoned with. Make no mistake – Dr. Reyes is a star in her own right, and it is when she speaks passionately that her light disperses, consequently electrifying those in her presence.

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes and I in the Youth Science Convention of Research Fair 2017 (which I hosted) || Photo taken from the Facebook page of the event

This is not an entirely foreign experience for her. Dr. Reyes has had more than her fair share of speaking in front of large audiences, be it a seminar geared towards inspiring the youth or a presentation in front of her colleagues from the research community. She even works as a part-time lecturer in both Ateneo de Manila University and Rizal Technology University.

“[I’m] definitely a strong introvert,” Dr. Reyes discloses in an email interview. “At the same time, I have learned to be comfortable [when] speaking in public on topics I care about.”

It is quite evident that astrophysics is one of them. Aside from her work involving Einstein’s theory, while she was a Ph.D. student under Princeton University’s Astrophysics program, Dr. Reyes led a team of Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) scientists who eventually found 900 hidden “supermassive” black holes called quasars, which is the largest identified sample to date. In turn, she was rewarded with the Chambliss Astronomy Student Achievement Award by the American Astronomical Society in 2008.

When asked about her other passions and interests, she mentions Zen meditation, which she began practicing many years ago. She has found a Zen community or sangha that, according to her, has allowed her to practice regularly and has effectively deepened her understanding of Buddha’s wisdom. Additionally, Dr. Reyes enjoys playing a board game called Settlers of Catan with her husband and claims to be an avid enthusiast of basketball.

“I love basketball, but unfortunately, [I] don’t get [many] opportunities to play. I follow the San Antonio Spurs on NBA,” she writes.

Her fondness for basketball, a competitive sport where height is typically viewed as a significant advantage, is noticeably ironic considering how her childhood dream of becoming an astronaut was shattered by her inability to meet the minimum height requirement. Even in her youth, Dr. Reyes was already fascinated by the planets, stars, and black holes that make up space. However, she did not give the notion of pursuing science as a career much thought.

“I remember wanting to be a lawyer, just like our close family friend, then an architect, like my older cousin, who was then taking up Architecture in UP. Finally, I wanted to be in business like my parents,” Dr. Reyes, having been born to Filipino-Chinese entrepreneurs who ran a small hardware store, elaborates. “I tell this story to say that in hindsight, I wanted to be like the people I admired. And even if I really enjoyed science and was good at it, it didn’t even occur to me to become a scientist—because we didn’t know anyone who was one.”

In the end, she eventually decided to take up B.S. Physics at the Ateneo de Manila University, where she graduated summa cum laude.

Currently, Dr. Reyes works as a Data Science & Analytics Consultant for both Z-Lift Solutions, Inc. and Deal Grocer, Inc., but she believes that she is bridging several collective forces, namely the academic and research community, the astronomy community, and the community of data science practitioners.

Moreover, she sees the country’s current science education as a problem that needs to be solved. In fact, her prior experiences have allowed her to see the importance of role models which inspired her to create http://www.pinoyscientists.com, a website where profiles of Filipino scientists hailing from diverse backgrounds and working in different fields are posted.

“When most people equate science as being a difficult subject in school, it is clear that we are teaching it wrong, which is a pity because science is such a fascinating and powerful way of looking and engaging with the world around us,” Dr. Reyes reflects.


Note:

This article was written on 20 April 2017 and was submitted as a requirement for a journalism course I took two semesters ago.

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Shealea

First of her name. Queen of lists and spreadsheets. Protector of books. Breaker of norms. Iskolar ng bayan.

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