Seeing Stars with Dr. Reina Reyes

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes (Photo by Gary Coronado)

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes (Photo by Gary Coronado)

Meeting a scientist feels like a novelty to me. When you think about it, there really aren’t that many Filipino scientists compared, say, to the number of Filipinos who are in the arts, business, or service industries. There is no big science thrust in the Philippines given the scarcity of financial resources required for good research and development. There are also limited job opportunities for science majors; so, many end up pursuing better paying jobs that are unlikely to be science-related.

Recently, I came across an article about Dr. Reinabelle Reyes, a Filipino credited with having led a study that proved Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. I found myself drowning with curiosity about how one chooses that road less traveled. Then I remembered actually meeting Reina years ago when she visited my campus. She and her husband were such pleasant, unassuming people I was completely unaware I was breaking bread with greatness.

Reina was born to Filipino-Chinese entrepreneurs who ran a small hardware store. Growing up, she played a variety of typical childhood games with other children. Probably unlike other children, she spent a good amount of time in the library, reading voraciously about space. Her parents took her incessant questions in stride and created opportunities for her to explore her interests. She fondly talks about the telescope her father bought her so they could look at the moon together from their balcony. I wondered whether her parents did anything special to encourage brain development (I was thinking along the lines of a genius-inducing milk or magic water), but she didn’t think anything was particularly different, only that they surrounded her with books and spent time with her.

Reina (second from left) with Gary (left), her two sisters, brother-in-law and parents (Photo by Gary Coronado)

Reina (second from left) with Gary (left), her two sisters, brother-in-law and parents (Photo by Gary Coronado)

Because she excelled in math and science, she was admitted to the Philippine Science High School. In her junior year, when she trained for the National Physics Olympiad, she decided to pursue physics in college if she won a place. (Clearly, she did and graduated valedictorian to boot.) She enrolled in Ateneo de Manila University and graduated with a summa cum laude in physics. She earned her master’s in high energy physics at the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, and later joined the Department of Astrophysical Sciences at Princeton University. Within her first year at Princeton, she received the Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award from the American Astronomical Society for her research on “obscured quasars.” She was then only 23 years old.

At Princeton, she worked with the veritable super stars (pun intended!) of the astrophysics world: Michael Strauss, Bruce Daine, Neta Bahcall, Rachel Mandelbaum and MacArthur (a.k.a. The Genius Grant) Fellow James Gunn. It was Prof. James Gunn who advised her graduate thesis. (And let me quote her verbatim because I can’t even.) “We studied the mass profiles of disk galaxies from the inner regions out to the halo by combining observational probes at different scales, namely: imaging, long-slit spectroscopy, and weak gravitational lensing.” Her work with Einstein’s theory was, in fact, only one of the elements in her overall investigation focusing on “probing dark matter in disk galaxies like our Milky Way.”

Reina with husband Gary and the Milky Way (Photo by Nico Mendoza)

Reina with husband Gary and the Milky Way (Photo by Nico Mendoza)

My natural next question was whether her work had any direct implications to regular, everyday life. “Since our work deals with objects way out in space, our discoveries don't necessarily have an immediate effect on life here on Earth in any practical way. The interest, I hope, will come from a fascination for learning something new, for broadening our perspectives beyond the daily grind. The root of our explorations, scientific or otherwise, is natural human curiosity. Modern science and its discoveries are a testament to the heights to which our collective curiosity has taken us.”

After completing her postdoctoral studies at the University of Chicago, she returned to the Philippines in 2014. She recognized that life is not just about hyper focusing on work, but also in making connections with her community. She currently works as a data scientist consultant for various Philippine-based companies and teaches part-time at Ateneo de Manila University and Rizal Technological University. She also participates in Boston-based Pinoy Reading Buddies program, a student-led literacy intervention program, which provides books for students in the Philippines to read together in order to improve their thinking skills. When she is not doing science-y things, she seems to have amazing adventures with husband, Gary.

Reina at a Valentine’s lecture entitled “Double Stars” where she talked about the lives of (binary) stars as a metaphor for relationships: “Are you in a stable long-term gravitational embrace or in a mutually self-destructing system ready to go SUPERNOVA?" (Photo by Gary Coronado)

Reina at a Valentine’s lecture entitled “Double Stars” where she talked about the lives of (binary) stars as a metaphor for relationships: “Are you in a stable long-term gravitational embrace or in a mutually self-destructing system ready to go SUPERNOVA?" (Photo by Gary Coronado)

“My hope for scientific research in the Philippines is for it to continue to deepen and grow. We have so much to contribute to world knowledge by studying our geologically and ecologically rich land and water, and our sociologically and culturally rich communities. We have so much to gain from applying appropriate technologies to our industries – from agriculture and fisheries to manufacturing and analytics. We will be a smarter nation as a whole if we teach kids to think like scientists – to formulate hypotheses and put them to the test, and to not believe anything just because someone (usually, of authority) said so.”

Yeah, what she said.


Carleen Sacris

Carleen Sacris

Carleen Sacris was an English Language teacher at the University of Illinois before returning to her hometown in Cebu to run a beach resort. Married to an analytical chemist/safety engineer, she is learning Science as a Foreign Language via osmosis.