Like many of us, Reina Reyes dreamt of becoming an astronaut when she was a child—she read pile upon pile of books, encyclopaedias, and magazines that made her feel like she was exploring the universe and its mysteries. “I devoured books; there was no Internet then,” she recalls. “I was just immensely fascinated by outer space—the planets, stars, galaxies, and black holes—like any other child.” Unlike most of us, however, Reina was able to pursue her dream. She didn’t become an astronaut—“it was not realistic because of the height limit,” she says—but she delved into space science just the same and became an astrophysicist. She has been studying the universe using both physics and chemistry in astronomy, allowing humankind to have a better understanding of the birth, life, and death of planets, stars, black holes, galaxies, and more.
Reina giving a lecture titled "The Birth and Death of the Milky Way" in Las Vegas and at Princeton University during her doctorate studies.
An Astronomer’s Journey
Reina graduated valedictorian at Philippine Science High School in 2001 and summa cum laude in BS Physics at the Ateneo de Manila University in 2005. She went straight to graduate school in Italy to study galaxies at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, and then on to the United States where she got her Ph.D in astrophysics scholarship at Princeton University in 2011, after which she became a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago.“It’s been interesting and memorable for me—that transition from academe to industry. Because I went straight to pursuing graduate school after college, I ended up having my first job outside the university at the ripe old age of 30! Sometimes, I literally felt like a scientific explorer entering strange and new territory,” she says. “I naturally had many ‘firsts’ and aha! moments. I still have them from time to time. I take this as a good thing.”
Written in the Stars
Reina was only 26 when the world recognized her for confirming the Theory of Relativity of Albert Einstein on a grander scale. “It took around a year from start to end of that project. You develop mental discipline and resilience breaking through the intellectual challenges every step of the way,” she says. The theory was previously proven through other studies based on the solar system, but Reina and her team at Princeton were able to confirm it across galaxies through a breakthrough astronomical measurement that they invented. “Thinking through a problem and finding the way to a solution is inherently fulfilling for me. My job also requires me to learn new things—constantly—and that is always a welcome challenge,” she says. “As I always say, the most important thing you learn in a Ph.D. is how to learn.”
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Later on, after what seemed to be an endless period of research, she also helped expand the scientific world’s knowledge about the existence of a mysterious force called Dark Energy, which is theorized to be greater than gravity and the force responsible for the universe’s continuous expansion. “We don’t know yet if there is life outside Earth, but the wonderful thing is that one day, perhaps not too far from today, we will actually find out,” she says. “Perhaps, extraterrestrial life will just arrive inexplicably, as in the beautiful film Arrival, which is based on the gem of a short story by Ted Chiang. Watch and read, then watch again! Or maybe one of our rovers will find life on Mars or on one of the moons in the outer Solar System. We may find signs of life on an Earth-like planet orbiting around a nearby star. We just found seven of them in the TRAPPIST-1 system—a mere 39 light years away! And then, of course, there can be ‘life as we don’t know it’—that we can’t even imagine now.”
The galaxy cluster Abell 1689, with the mass distribution of the dark matter in the gravitational lens overlaid (in purple)
After eight years of living abroad, Reina decided it was time to come home to the Philippines, where she could carry on her work as a data scientist and astrophysicist while helping young Filipinos achieve dreams of becoming scientists. She also runs a website called pinoyscientists.com, which features Filipino scientists every week. “I want young people interested in science to know that this is a career they can pursue and they can become scientists themselves. Our tagline is ‘Yes, we exist!’”
“In hindsight, I realize how important role models are. It was difficult for me to consider becoming a scientist simply because I didn’t know anyone who was one. Thankfully, that changed in high school, where I got to meet university scientists and learned about the scientific career path. Most importantly, I realized that I can pursue it myself,” she says.
An artist's concept that appeared on the Feb. 23, 2017 cover of the journal Nature announcing that the TRAPPIST-1 star, an ultra-cool dwarf, has seven Earth-size planets orbiting it.
This is where Reina hopes to create change. She currently works as a data science consultant for companies and teaches data visualization at Ateneo de Manila University. She continues to do research, develop models, process and analyze data, and present results and insights relevant to the Philippines and more. Openness and generosity are key values to become a successful data scientist. “This means openness to ideas and possibilities and sharing of oneself and one's knowledge,” she says. “There is nothing to lose; what you teach, you gain.”
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Her celestial dreams remain countless and her search for answers, unceasing. “Einstein once said, ‘the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible,’” she says. “I think it will surprise many to know how much we do know about the Universe. On the flip side, I think it is also marvelous to gain a real sense of how much more we do not know.”