Yolanda survivor takes up physics in MIT as 'bigger contribution to the world'

For 19-year-old science communicator Hillary Diane Andales, going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to take up a course in Physics is a step closer to her dream of becoming an astrophysicist.

Andales, a resident of Tacloban City, finished her secondary education at the Philippine Science High School - Eastern Visayas Campus in May 2018. 

In 2017, she bested more than 11,000 students from 178 countries to bag the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, an annual global science video competition. 

Her three-minute video explaining equivalence of reference frames, a part of general relativity, was touted the best out of 3,200 submissions that year. 

In an interview with Rappler,  Andales said that the prize she earned from the 2017 global competition included a $250,000 scholarship. But since it still wasn’t enough to cover all costs for her to attend college, MIT offered her extra financial aid of around $83,000 to pay off the rest of the costs. 

“With my scholarship prize and MIT's aid, I have all my tuition, student fees, insurance, food, dorm expenses, personal allowance, and travel allowance to the Philippines all taken care of for the entire 4-year program,” Andales said. 

Aside from MIT, Andales was also accepted into 4 other prestigious universities in the US, namely Princeton, Stanford, Cornell, and SUNY Stony Brook. In the Philippines, she was offered scholarships in University of the Philippines-Diliman (Oblation Scholarship), Ateneo de Manila University (Merit Scholarship), and De La Salle University (Archer Achiever Scholarship). 

“I’ve always dreamed about going to UP Diliman for BS Physics. But because of the $250,000 scholarship prize from the challenge, my plans suddenly changed. In order to maximize the scholarship, I decided to apply to the US for college,” Andales said.  

CREATIVE EXPLAINER. A framegrab from Andales' winning video on reference frames and relativity. Courtesy Breakthrough Junior Challenge/YouTube

Despite the difficulty in her choice, she said that one of the reasons she decided to go to MIT because she plans to get a doctorate in Physics.

“For physics, MIT has the best and most rigorous training among all the schools in the US (if not the world). It has a reputation for being extremely rigorous. So I thought having an undergrad degree from MIT would prepare me well,” Andales explained.  

Starting young 

Her fascination for science started in her childhood years. 

“I spent my childhood in rural Abuyog, Leyte. While growing up, I was surrounded by books and by parents who were really encouraging and supportive. So it was natural for me to be interested in things like science and math.”

Her dad, who is a chemist and physics hobbyist, played a huge part in Andales’ love for physics. (READ: 8 of the leading Filipino scientists who make us proud)

“My dad always talked to me about physics every single day. He still does it until now. He also coached me for math and science competitions in elementary. So physics was really a natural path for me,” she narrated. 

She said that growing up, she had always admired Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie for her pioneering research on radioactivity and her perseverance in showing the male-dominated world of science that women are just as capable. (READ: 5 things to make PH a better place for scientists

Communicating science

Although she was accepted to MIT last March 2018 and was supposed to enter college that summer, she took a gap year to prepare herself by self-studying courses online and reading books on personal development and science. 

But most of her time during the gap year was actually spent travelling to speaking engagements in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM)-related events. 

“Mainly, I saw how diverse people were even just in the Philippines. I also learned that I could really use my skills in science communication to impact many kinds of people,” Andales added. 

In September 2018, Andales was also invited to speak at an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Scientific Forum in Vienna, Austria. 

Lessons from a supertyphoon

Coming from the province that was severely affected by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), Andales shared how her experience as a survivor changed her perspective. 

“All of our windows broke. And then I saw something I’ve never seen before. Brown water of unknown origin charged into our single storey house at frightening speeds. 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,” Andales narrated. 

Because of her experience, she realized the impact of science communication as more people would have survived from Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) had the term “storm surge” been made clearer for the public to understand before it actually occurred. 

“Only later did I found out that that was a storm surge. The day I knew about it was the day it almost killed me,” Andales said in her speech.  

Now, with the memory of Yolanda, and with better reporting visuals, Andales believes that communicating the risk of disasters can be improved. Science communication at the most crucial times is a matter of life and death.

"Science communication would produce more direct impacts on my community. We didn't know what a storm surge was. And it meant life and death for us," she added.

This all the more fueled her passion not just in learning science, but also in communicating science to the public to inform, engage, and empower them.

"I want to inform and more importantly, engage the public in science. I want everyone to love science. That's my biggest goal for science communication,” Andales stressed. 

Her experience made her realize the reality of climate change. As a young science communicator, Andales emphasized the importance of giving context to science by starting a conversation with the public to engage with them proactively. 

“We can’t just shove plain data into the public consciousness. We need to paint a vivid picture of the problem, its solutions specifically emphasizing its human impact because that’s when we start to care,” Andales added.  

Use of social media

Andales also pointed out the role of social media in science communication. 

“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,” Andales said. 

While most people might think that Andales spent most of her time in her room studying her lessons, she said she also uses Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube to popularize her science content. 

“I don't always study. I find studying fun but it's not all I do... I'd say I'm not that good yet at time management, but I tend to think of my time as money. I'm more conscious of how I spend my money, so if I think of time like that, then I'm more careful about where my time goes,” she explained.

Hopes for the future

In one of the Senate hearings for the Balik Scientist Act, it was discovered that the country has only 189 scientists per 1 million citizens, when the ideal ratio is 380 scientists per million. 

In the future, Andales hopes to address this concern through her interest in both research and science communication. (READ: Duterte signs Balik Scientist law)

“When they see a Filipino pursuing that line of work, they might be able to connect with science more, and maybe more of the youth would aspire to become scientists – professionals that our country badly needs. They will then be able to identify a role model in that field," she said.

Andales believes that if the country wants progress, then the Filipinos should invest in science, technology, and research, because after all, it’s the greatest driver of progress.

Now that she is set to pursue her dream at MIT, she said that she is both excited and afraid for the new environment, but she’s looking forward to learning a lot. 

“I hope to use my time there to become a better person and a better scientist. I hope to use my MIT education as a way to make a bigger contribution to the world,” she said. – Rappler.com 

Jene-Anne Pangue

Jene-Anne Pangue is a community and civic engagement specialist of MovePH, Rappler’s civic engagement arm. Her involvement with Rappler started when she became a mover in 2014 and an intern in 2015. Since then, she learned the importance of building communities of action for social good as she continues to work with movers and doers across the country.

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