Hillary Andales: Science Communicator and Aspiring Astrophysicist

Written by: Gwendolyn Ang

Interview by: Audrey Pe, Cebo Cruz, Annika Gozum

HILLARY ANDALES: SCIENCE COMMUNICATOR AND ASPIRING ASTROPHYSICIST

“To me, there was never a dichotomy. I believe that’s why doing both arts and sciences flowed so easily for me,” Hillary Andales shares. A strong advocate for science education, this MIT-bound Filipina is keen on using her STEM and communication skills for good as she rebuilds public trust and appreciation for science, one student at a time.

Start them young
Hillary’s love for science started at home. Her parents were science enthusiasts who gave her books and telescopes to tinker with, but it was mostly through their engaging discussions that the young Hillary became hooked.

“Instead of fairy tales, my parents inspired me with stories of Einstein, Galileo, Newton, Curie, and so many others,” she shares about her unique upbringing. “During dinner, we would also talk at length about things like the Theory of Evolution and the Big Bang Theory.”

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Perhaps even more fascinating than the topics themselves was the way her parents conveyed such complex topics to a young child. “[My father] was very animated and energetic. His energy, when he was telling me about science, was what got me into science,” she shared to students at a talk last 2018.

Indeed, Hillary is blessed to have been exposed to effective science communicators throughout her life, both at home and in formal schooling. These role models, along with her experiences competing in math tilts and attending a science high school, eventually cemented her love for STEM and in particular, astrophysics, which reminds her of “how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things.” 

As she explored the vastness of the universe, Hillary also made time for other interests like collaborative publishing, creative media, and festival dancing. By the time 2016 rolled around, she had already dabbled with several forms of creative expression. However, there was still one thing she had yet to try her hand on: video-editing.

Starting from scratch. Determined to win, Hillary watched over 200 hours worth of Youtube videos to learn how to make her Vox-like animations.

Crafting a winning entry
“Since I had no experience, I had to learn everything from scratch using YouTube tutorials,” the 2017 Breakthrough Junior Challenge winner wrote in her blog. 

This may come as a surprise to many since the Challenge is essentially a video competition. Open globally to students ages 13-18 years old, participants are expected to explain a concept or theory in Life Sciences, Physics, or Mathematics through an engaging, creative, and concise 3-minute film. Winners like Hillary bring home a $250,000 scholarship, $100,000 lab for their school, and $50,000 for their teacher.

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“The opportunity to join the Challenge came so suddenly when my mom found it while scrolling on her Facebook feed,” she recalls. “At first, I hesitated. The competition seemed so daunting with the big prizes and the huge number of competitors. But I decided to take a chance and join anyway.”

For Hillary, crafting her winning entry on Relativity and the Equivalence of Reference Frames (and another on Path Integrals which reached the finals in 2016) saw her spending roughly 200 hours learning and doing various animations. Talk about determination! However, it turns out that post-production is just the tip of the iceberg. 

In her Youtube channel, Hillary gives us a glimpse into the arduous process of creating a winning entry. Outlining 6 steps for aspiring participants, she advises them to scrutinize past challenge videos, select a good topic, pour over journals and books, write (and constantly revise) an accurate script, map out a storyboard, direct the filming process, and create stunning visuals. 

It took Hillary close to a year to create her second entry. But even with the amount of work that goes into content creation, Hillary is not planning to stop any time soon, remaining steadfast in her mission to make science more understandable and accessible for the layman. 

Going places. Hillary’s win has brought her not just around the country, but also to the United Nations in Vienna. Here she is speaking at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Scientific Forum last October 2018.

Doing her part

“I was actually really disappointed in myself. Even though I was already interested in Science, I didn’t know what a storm surge was.” In an interview with ABS-CBN News, Hillary recounted the devastating Typhoon Yolanda that affected thousands of families in Leyte, stressing that many, including hers, didn’t understand the scientific jargon in the news. 

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“I think that was a big flaw in the process of science communication in our country kasi hindi lang ako yung walang alam about storm surge. Many, many people in the community [didn’t know].” This personal experience strengthened her resolve to improve science communication in the country, especially in this age of public misinformation.

“I believe one of today’s greatest crises is the rapid proliferation of false information, particularly in science and politics,” Hillary says. “Unsupported – and even outlandish – claims about vaccines, climate change, and the shape of the Earth are quickly destroying the public’s trust in science.”.

To rebuild this trust, Hillary revived her high school’s science club, leading the team in conducting education outreaches, creating information campaigns, and organizing a regional science camp which has impacted over 300 students so far. Through the program, participants were empowered to develop scientific solutions to societal issues like food security, disaster mitigation, and ecosystem rescue.

Moreover, her Challenge win has given her a platform to promote science literacy all over the country. Giving talks to fellow students, while running a Youtube channel and personal blog, she strives to impart awareness and interest for STEM in her audiences just as her parents did to her. 

Despite these efforts, Hillary recognizes that there is still a long road ahead, “As an advocate for education, I wish to see developments that will revolutionize and democratize education. While the state of education has improved over the decades, we can always improve on its quality and its accessibility.”

“Superhuman”

For now, this 19-year old is finishing up her gap year, and will soon move to MIT where she is eager to do research on astroparticle physics, a possibility she hadn’t even considered before joining the Challenge. “Before winning, I never believed I’d make it to a U.S. university. It seemed so impossibly distant. But after the win, I was determined to take a chance and I am so happy I did!”

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Fortunately for us, it doesn’t take rocket science to achieve our own dreams. “All of those achievements seemed so impossible until I actually tried. But I never would’ve tried if I didn’t have an ounce of belief in my capabilities. So I guess the “secret” really is to believe in yourself and to dream big dreams.” 

Most importantly, she shares something she learned rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in science: “You don’t have to be the chosen one or have superhuman skills. You only have to be an ordinary human – flaws, mistakes, and all – with a grand vision and an unwavering tenacity to make that vision a reality.”

Learn more about Hillary through these links:

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