From black holes to big data: A young scientist’s journey back to PH

Kristine Sabillo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 28 2019 07:04 PM | Updated as of Mar 28 2019 11:30 PM

Astrophysicist-turned-data scientist Reina Reyes. Photo by Jonathan Cellona.

Filipina scientist Reina Reyes first made headlines a decade ago when, as a 20-something graduate student in Princeton University, she won an achievement award for her research on supermassive blackholes called quasars. 

Since then, the remarkable work of the young astrophysicist has been finding its way to Philippine media. The most popular one was her study confirming Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. 

Now, she's back in the Philippines as principal scientist for a multinational health care company.

THE BIG QUESTIONS

Born to business-oriented parents, Reyes said she never really had a scientist role model growing up, but was exposed to various books, and had supportive parents who tried to answer all her questions on how the world worked.

“Bakit umuulan? Saan galing ang ulan? (Why is it raining? Where does the rain come from),” Reyes recalled saying. “My mom would say, ‘Okay let’s research and find out through the books.’”

Reyes made her way to the Philippine Science High School, where she learned about great scientists like Einstein, met Filipino scientists and thought of pursuing a career in science.

Physics easily became her favorite subject, as it dictated the laws of the real world.

“You don’t have to memorize…but there’s an elegance in getting a lot out of these simple formulas,” she said. 

“Whatever you do, gravity is there. If you throw this ball it will follow these laws. There is Physics (in everything),” she added. “And then you can describe it with math.”

Her love for Physics brought her to Ateneo de Manila University, where she earned her degree.

“I wanted to discover the theory of everything…like what Einstein did. The big questions. The fundamental questions of nature.”

Drawn to the fundamental building blocks of nature, Reyes got a scholarship for a diploma course on High Energy Physics in Italy after graduating from Ateneo. 

She did her research at the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP), an institution founded by the Noel Laureate Abdus Salam to advance scientific pursuits in the developing world. 

There, Reyes worked with other scientists from Third World countries, and learned how developing countries were unable to reach full potential due to lack of resources.

Her work at ICTP and the mentors she met eventually helped her get a recommendation to Princeton University. And for 5 years, from 2006 to 2011, her life revolved around her Ph.D. work on Astrophysics. 

Greenbank (Contributed photo)

THE PERFECT TIME

While pursuing her doctoral degree, she felt she was like a real scientist: no social life, not even some time to fix her looks. 

“My years in Ph.D. were very singularly focused on the work. There was no room for anything else. It was the romantic view of the scientist – you don’t care what you eat, what you look like,” Reyes said.

“Now I’ve diagnosed it as being workaholic,” Reyes recalled.

“I have no regrets. It was actually the perfect age and environment…It was a luxury for me,” she added, since she was there on a fellowship and did not have to think about other responsibilities.

Every semester marked the start of a new research paper. And the first one she published got her an honorable mention from the American Astronomical Society’s Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Awards. 

By following up on an existing study, Reyes and her co-authors found a way to measure the space density - much like population density - of hidden quasars in the universe.

Reyes said being with an institute like Princeton and a country like the United States encouraged good research, where she had access to the latest data and the best equipment.

“If you have the environment, you can produce good science,” she says. 

In 2010, Reyes and her advisers confirmed Einstein’s theory on gravity on a cosmic scale, and made the news.

Reyes and her team looked at data from 70,000 galaxies and found that they were indeed located or clustered together as predicted by Einstein’s theory.It also suggested that dark matter and dark energy exist.

After a successful stint at Princeton, she worked for three years as a research fellow at the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics in the University of Chicago.

COMMUNITY OF SCIENTISTS

In 2012, while still in Chicago, Reyes started a blog called PinoyScientists.com. The tagline? “Yes, we exist! Get to know us.” There she posted short profiles of Filipino scientists and what they did.

The blog, she said, was part of her decision-making process.
 
“Reaching out to the community. Having more conversations with other Filipino scientists who were also in the same boat,” she recalled.

Reyes said it was hard to get regular teaching positions in the US, and many Filipino scientists like her ended taking research fellow positions that had to be renewed every three years. She thought of returning home.

“Part of it is home sickness,” Reyes said, who, despite being with her husband in the US, longed for the company of other Filipinos. 

“It’s like a midlife crisis because I asked ‘What for?’ If I work hard and achieve success here in the US, what will it be for?” Reyes said.

“I came back to see how it is here,” she added, as she realized how much has changed when she got back in 2014.

While opportunities abound abroad, she saw the potential of carving out her own niche and using available local resources. 

For a while she did research with the Manila Observatory and took a teaching job at Ateneo. But eventually, she was pulled into data science, a field that combines programming, math, statistics and other disciplines to get insights from different forms of data.

LOOKING FOR IMPACT

The field of data science appealed to her because of its real world applications.

“For me it was more like the things that I learned, the things that I know, the tools that I have I can actually apply it to things that happen in the real world like traffic, disasters, like economics, health outcomes,” Reyes said. 

In the last couple of years, she served as a consultant for several companies. While her work was corporate in nature, she saw how it helped companies better serve the public. And sometimes, they involve crucial services such as health care.

But the shift was not easy; she had to learn other aspects of work such as collaboration and communication with team members from other fields. She now sees the importance of influence and managing relationships, which are part of Filipino culture. 

Astrophysicist-turned-data scientist Reina Reyes. Photo by Jonathan Cellona.

Another skill she had to develop was public speaking. From giving talks and workshops about science, she now hosts a show on Knowledge Channel that has a format reminiscent to that of the popular American show “Bill Nye the Science Guy.” She calls it “science outreach.”

But more than having personal successes, Reyes said her long-term goal as a scientist is to create long-lasting impact. 

“The fulfillment is if they actually use what you develop and they use it for their everyday operations and it makes an impact on their decision-making process,” she said. “That cascades to society.”

Has her research changed things? Has it helped Filipinos? Reyes will continue to ask these questions, and find answers that will help more people. 

At 35 years old, Reyes – who first fell in love with the exactness of the laws of Physics - admitted she has stopped making plans. Now appreciative of the complicated trajectory of her life, she is now ready to try more hats and discover new things.