BIO Space Sciences
MANILA, Philippines?Rather than be preoccupied with the flurry on Earth, 24-year-old Reinabelle Reyes has fostered a fascination for the bustle of outer space.
She has feasted her eyes on the splendid Milky Way in the midnight sky of Chile, probed the Great Beyond from her Ivy League school, and unveiled some secrets of the heavens.
It all began with a telescope her father gave her when she was 10.
?We set it up in our terrace and we got to see the craters of the moon. I guess from then I was destined to [study the universe],? Reyes told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, parent company of INQURER.net, in an interview via e-mail.
A Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University in New Jersey, the Filipino astrophysicist was accorded the ?Chambliss Astronomy Achievement Student Award? at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January.
The feat was a sequel to another achievement?playing a major role in the discovery of the largest number of ?super massive? black holes in the centers of galaxies cloaked in gas and dust, otherwise known as ?obscured quasars.?
The discovery?which may eventually revise science books?was the culmination of a five-year study spearheaded by Nadia Zakamska, a long-term postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Advanced Study, under the supervision of ?quasar hunter? professor Michael Strauss.
Reyes and her team presented their work before the astronomers and other scientists at the meeting held in Austin, Texas.
It was her first research project at Princeton on her arrival for the Astrophysics Ph.D. program. Her task? To ?figure out? how rare these black holes were.
?This is not as simple as it sounds because one has to carefully figure out the difference between how many objects we have found versus how many objects there really are,? she said, describing the project as looking for a needle in a haystack.
900 black holes
Combing the galaxies with their telescopes for undiscovered ?black holes,? the group found 900.
Reyes explains that all galaxies, including the Milky Way, have black holes in their centers. In some galaxies, however, ?lots of matter? fall into the black hole, emitting enormous amounts of light in the process.
?The details of this process are not yet completely understood and are an active research study. The jury is still out, but our work is an important contribution toward a fuller understanding of this amazing phenomenon,? she says.
A Department of Science and Technology scholar, Reyes graduated valedictorian from Philippine Science High School in 2001 and, four years later, graduated with a Physics degree, summa cum laude, from Ateneo de Manila University.
The following year, she entered a masters-level program in Particle Physics at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.
?While there, I rekindled my interest in cosmology and astrophysics [and] applied to graduate schools in the US and accepted Princeton?s offer,? she said.
As a girl, Reyes spent a lot of time reading popular science books, particularly about the universe, her favorite subject, and contemplating what transpires out there.
Once she called her teacher?s attention to a glaring error she spotted in her grade school science text, which everyone else had missed.
The book said Mercury was the smallest planet in the solar system. ?I cried to the teacher, ?but it?s Pluto,?? she says, quickly adding that this was before Pluto was demoted to a ?dwarf planet.?
?I suppose the book is correct now,? she quipped.
She recalled badgering her mother with questions like, ?Where does the rain come from?? and ?Where does the wind come from??
?My mom encouraged my curiosity at a very young age. I?m thankful she did her best to answer my makulit (persistent) questions instead of dismissing them,?she said.
One thing she did not have as a child was a ?breathtaking? view of the night sky from their San Juan home. This did not stop her, however, from asking her father for a telescope 14 years ago.
The instrument allowed her to examine the moon, she said.
But it was a three-night visit to the mountains of La Serena in Chile in July 2007 for an ?observing run? through the Magellan telescope that more than made up for not having a stunning night sky back home.
Wish for everyone
There for the first time she saw the Milky Way, resplendent against the pitch-black Chilean sky.
?I can only wish everyone would have a chance to experience that,? she says.
When not in the thick of her studies and research work, she enjoys the ?simple pleasures? of living in Princeton, with a little traveling on the side to cities like Philadelphia, Washington DC and Los Angeles with her Filipino husband, Gary Coronado, author of the ?Next Century Physics? text for high school.
They live in a snug two-bedroom apartment, 15 minutes from campus.
?We?re both homebodies, so we enjoy hanging out at home, cooking delicious Rachel Ray recipes, watching sports and movies,? she says.
?Astronomy and astrophysics are rich and exciting fields that offer plenty of opportunities for young scientists to contribute. Master the basics, keep up with the latest discoveries, don?t stop asking questions and finding the answers,? Reyes exhorts Filipino students aspiring to become scientists.