Inspiration

A Typhoon Yolanda Survivor and Public High School Student Gets MIT Scholarship

Her love for science was cultivated by her parents who told her stories of scientists.
IMAGE INSTAGRAM/@breakthrough, @cosmichillarays
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While other children were read fairytales as a kid, 19-year-old Hillary Diane Andales was told stories of scientists making an impact in the world. Now, the teen is on her way to becoming one herself. After winning an international science competition in 2017, she will now study Physics at one of the world’s top universities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which offered her a scholarship.

Speaking with SmartParenting.com.ph, Hillary, who graduated from the Philippine Science High School–Eastern Visayas campus, shares that she received eight other scholarship offers here and abroad after winning the 2017 Breakthrough Junior Challenge (BJC). "I was accepted to five schools in the U.S., including Stanford, Princeton, MIT, Cornell, and SUNY (State University of New York) Stony Brook. In the Philippines, [I got accepted to] U.P. Diliman, the Ateneo, and De La Salle University."

But Hillary chose to go to MIT because she dreams of getting a Ph.D. in Physics. "For physics, MIT has the best and most rigorous training among all the schools in the U.S. It has a reputation for being extremely rigorous so I thought having an undergrad degree from MIT would prepare me well," she shares, adding that she also fell in love with the campus culture. "MIT is openly nerdy and quirky. The people there love to have fun and they show it. So I knew I'd fit right in."

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The Breakthrough Junior Challenge is an annual global competition that inspires creative thinking about science. Students ages 13 to 18 are encouraged to create original videos that bring to life a concept or theory in the life sciences, physics, or mathematics.

Hillary’s winning entry discussed Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, which beat 11,000 other entries from 178 countries.

“Ultimately, I want to become a research scientist, specifically in astrophysics,” she tells ABS-CBN News.

Growing up with a love for science

Hillary’s father, Roy, a chemist, and her mother, Imelda, an accountant, influenced her love for science and math. “Instead of fairytales, they told me stories about Marie Curie’s struggles as a woman in science in the early 20th century,” she tells ABS-CBN News. “They told me about Charles Darwin’s adventures in the Galapagos Islands and how Einstein had a really big idea that revolutionized physics.”

Knowing about Curie’s adventures inspired Hillary to explore beyond her hometown of Abuyog, Leyte. “I did not dream anything beyond Abuyog, but after those stories, I found out that people could actually have ideas that affect the world and change it for the better,” she says.

Her parents were also a big influence in her academic pursuits. Roy would teach her about science in random places, and they would always talk about the subject over dinner. "They're both extremely supportive and encouraging especially with academics," Hillary tells Smart Parenting.

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In 2016, Hillary’s mom told her about BJC and encouraged her to join the competition for the first time. “I was half-excited and half-hesitant,” she shares in a YouTube video where she details her journey to win the challenge. “On one hand, I was like, ‘big prizes, amazing opportunity.’ And on the other, ‘Big prizes [mean] stiff competition.’ Do I even stand a chance?”

Her love for science won and though she did not know anything about making videos, Hillary shrugged it off, saying that she could always learn how to make one.

While Hillary did not win the 2016 challenge (she was one of the finalists and was given a special prize for being the ‘Popular Vote’), Hillary gave it another go the following year. “I knew I’d regret not joining again. I was already 18, so this would be my second and last chance,” she says.

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Hillary spent almost a year preparing for her entry on “Relativity & The Equivalence of Reference Frames.” Then, after submitting the video, she got the call two weeks later.

Winning the international science competition opened a great number of doors for Hillary. Apart from the scholarship offers, the teen has spoken to thousands of people worldwide “about science and big dreams.” In 2018, she got the chance to speak at the 62nd IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) Scientific Forum at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna, Austria, where she talked about climate change and her experience when Typhoon Yolanda hit Leyte in 2013. She was also able to visit CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

“Because of all this, I always feel so grateful. And it all started because I grabbed the chance to join the challenge,” she says.

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Giving back to the Filipino community

In her interview with ABS-CBN News, Hillary says that her experiences have taught her the importance of producing more visual materials that would simplify technical and scientific terms for Filipinos. Looking back at what happened during Typhoon Yolanda, Hillary notes that if only more scientific jargon were translated into layman’s terms for Filipinos before the storm hit the Visayas in 2013, then more people could have survived.

She shares the same sentiments in her speech at the IAEA Scientific Forum, where she recalled the events of Typhoon Yolanda.

“Around 6 a.m. [on] November 8, 2013, I sat by my window as if watching a movie. Outside, the wind whistled as it blew houses, trees, and cars like they were paper. This was super Typhoon Haiyan’s landfall, and I was supposed to be terrified. But I wasn’t,” she says in her speech. “I grew up watching documentaries on natural disasters, and I’m from the Philippines where typhoons are a way of life.”

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Hillary says she continued watching the chaos outside until all the windows of their single-storey house shattered and brown water charged inside their home. “Without a higher floor to escape to, we could only punch a hole into our ceiling and grab our roof’s steel frames, barely escaping the current. In seconds, 10 feet of water engulfed our home.”

The storm raged on for a total of seven hours but thankfully, Hillary’s family survived. However, more than 6,000 lives perished during the storm. “That day, I realized Haiyan is no movie. But until my movie screen broke, until it felt all too real and until I was endangered, I sat with complacency,” she says.

Hillary says that the night before the storm struck, “authorities warned us about something called ‘a storm surge.’” But since the residents did not realize the urgency of the warning, they chose not to evacuate.

“The next day, all was well until the brown water invaded our home — the same water that killed thousands of others,” Hillary explains. It turns out that brown water was the “storm surge,” and it was a term unfamiliar to the locals.

“The day I knew about it was the day it almost killed me,” Hillary says.

Locals said had the authorities called the storm surge a “tsunami,” more people would have evacuated. “Science communication at the most crucial times is a matter of life and death,” Hillary explains.

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Since Typhoon Yolanda, it's as if Hillary has made it her personal mission to make science more popular and friendly through social media. The teen has various social media accounts including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Her YouTube channel, in particular, features videos about her BJC experience, and she is hoping more Filpino students interested in science would try to enter the competition.

"I just want to transmit my excitement about science to other people. When science is taught in school, teachers focus too much on the equations and the confounding details without exploring the bigger ideas, broader implications, and human stories," Hillary tells Smart Parenting. "I want to do the contrary. When complex science is taught by someone who's genuinely excited by it, people are similarly engaged. They absorb more of the material as a result."

Hillary tells ABS-CBN News the Philippines has a long way to go before all Filipinos can fully appreciate science. But she hopes she can help change the perception of people, especially with problems like climate change.

“We can’t just shove plain data into the public consciousness. We need to paint a vivid picture of the problem and its solutions specifically emphasizing its human impact. Because that’s when we start to care,” Hillary shares in her IAEA speech.

“With social media, creating this grassroots movement becomes easier. Many people undermine the importance of science communication. But I believe that it has the power to turn skepticism into public policy and fear into support and public funding,” she says.

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To Smart Parenting, she shares, "It's all about engaging people. Understanding comes after. I plan to do that through social media. By using images and stories, I want to engage more people in the subject. Someday, I hope to reach even more people through conventional media like TV and books."

This story originally appeared on Smartparenting.com.ph.

* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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Kitty Elicay for SmartParenting.com.ph
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