Dr. Reinabelle Reyes answers 20 questions from Ateneo Physics Majors on graduate school and physics careers

Last Feb 8, 2012, 12:00-1:30 p.m., Dr. Reinabelle Reyes met with the Ateneo Physics majors of  at Rm 318 of the Padre Faura Hall.  Below is an edited transcript of her answers to 20 questions asked by the students.

Responses to Questions of Ateneo Physics Majors

by Dr. Reinabelle Reyes

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes

I am Reinabelle Reyes. I finished BS Physics in Ateneo in 2005. I then went to ICTP in Trieste, Italy. I took PhD studies in US. The Princeton Physics program is five years. I finished last year and applied for Postdoctorate positions—these are research positions in the university after getting your PhD. I applied in places. I chose to go to University of Chicago’s Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. I will be staying there for three years. Very recently I joined a conference in Tokyo, Japan for two weeks. Philippines is near. So I decided to visit here and see everyone. And that bring us here.

It is my first time to be back in Ateneo since 2006. The difference is for the better. Beautiful. The contrast to the outside is very strong. Noise and smoke outside is very sharp. But when I went inside Ateneo by tricycle, it is very quiet. You need that for thinking for research. There is a new library. I spent a lot of time there in the Rizal Library.

Now for advertisements. I will have a talk later on Astronomy on how galaxies formed at Faura AVR. Now, I won’t talk about that. The purpose of my talk now is more for all of us physics majors. I wish to get to know each other. I shall share my extperiences in graduate school—how that works, what I studied, some research. I also want to hear from you—a free-flowing back and forth. If you have questions, please raise your hand, introduce yourself, and state your question. Then I shall answer.

1. What programs did you apply in the US?

I applied to Physics programs. I chose Astrophysics because someone made it interesting to me. I took Astrophysics and Cosmology in ICTP. In US physics department there, there is agroup working under cosmology. Some universities have strong astrophysics programs. You can apply to both . It is a separate department. I applied to all—in all eight places. I applied to Physics programs. Some astrophysics. At that time, I applied to high-energy physics cosmology. Partly because there are choices. In Princeton it is astrophysics. Ian Vega mentioned a friend there. I applied there and got in.

Did I answer your question?

2. Did you take the GRE before going the Italy?

I took it in Italy. In Milan. Ten hours. Trieste from North of Italy to Milan. It is only held twice a year. In time for the application deadline around January. GRE around August. Months before. Starndardized test. GRE. TOEFL. GRE physics is separate. Most good programs require GRE physics. Some optional.

3. Can’t we show a certificate of English Competency?

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes with the Physics Majors of Ateneo de Manila University

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes with the Physics Majors of Ateneo de Manila University

They dont consider us. Sad. It is geopolitical. In Trieste they accepted that letter. The medium of instruction in Ateneo is English. In US universities, they are very strict, unless you are still a colony. Now we are not a colony. We are under foreign country. They require the TOEFL. Even the nurses. It is a money-making business. But one of the things we can think about for those who are serious in applying. We can have a fund to support for the test. Someone vouches us for the tests. There is Adrian Serohijos. If you think this is possible, we can talk about it. If you are a graduate student, you have a stipend. You are like an employee of the university. You are a teaching assistant or a research assistant. You work for the university and in turn the university pays you decent salary. Actually, the difficult thing. Different. Structure. Financial structures. That is minimum wage. They pay you decent salary for living salary. Student subsidy. If you are not extravagant, you can save. One hundred dollars is just one textbook or five movies—I am converting now. We can talk about that.

4. That means that students can ask your your help?

Filipinos. They need help. Yes. Although we can band together, we need a mechanism. It is not possible to give freely. If there are people whom we can trust and there are people there who trust me, I can pitch for them. Then we can do something. It is not just me. I cannot afford 100 dollars times 8 times 5. But if if there are four of us, we can chip in.

Tuition is free. No living expenses. Paid for by the department for all the university in the US in the sciences. The stipend is based on merit. They care about financial. They don’t ask about your financial. The basis are the GRE, GRE physics, TOEFL. GRE physics. It matters. Top schools require 85 percent tile. For those in the 70 percentiles, what matters then is the statement of purpose where you say what you will do there. You must show promise for research and then if it fits the job of groups there. It can be found in the internet and in the department webpage. Look at ArXiv preprints. Papers essentially. Check if you research is related there. If you apply in one department, and nobody does the research you are interested, it won’t match. It doesn’t mean that you are not a good match. Find a good university that would be a good match for you. Recommendation letters matters. Assessment of someone of higher level, your higher supervisor. They will assess your work ethic and attitude.

In my case, what I think helped my recommendation is from professors from ICTP. I studied there. So some of them knew about ICTP. If you knew about Ian Vega, he is in Florida. A good match. They have a track record that Ateneo physics came there and did very well. We can trust that it is a good program. We are not known internationally. They are not aware of us. If there are more of us there, we can uplift our international image. The people here can uplift our reputation for the next generation.

5. How much did your year in ICTP help in your PhD?

Tremendously. I look at it as a stepping stone. One step and then to PhD. Just for the preparation. Just mental-like exposure to research. Hard to describe what it is. It will broaden your horizon. You go to the US. At the forefront. It is a different level. Practically, it mattered because of the recommendation letters. The professors there will help you. For example, you have your professors there and many friends. We asked our professors there. What departments in the US? If they have collaborators there, their recommendation letters will be valued, because they worked with them. It is a link of trust. In a way, it is a meritocracy. There is a network that is very valuable. Here you have network only. There is meritocracy there. You can work your way up to be part of the network.

It happened that a professor then in Trieste, ICTP came from Princeton Physics. And then he was there. But he did not became my professor. I was eyeing him as my supervisor. I applied in Princeton. They called this professor. And I was there. What he did he emailed me and talked to me. He asked my professors about me. They reported to Princeton. If they don’t know the person, it would be difficult. So that is what connects. Otherwise, I won’t make it to Princeton Astrophysics. It is the top three in the world. A matter of luck. In context, somewhere like top 15 programs without a connection. There are nuances. I am hoping there. The world is a complicated place. Many people come straight to the US programs from here. In my particular case, it took that matter of luck to get into an elite program. It is also a combination of attitude, hard work, and luck.

6. Was your family supportive of this?

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes gives a talk to the Ateneo Physics Majors in Room 318 of Faura Hall

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes gives a talk to the Ateneo Physics Majors in Room 318 of Faura Hall

I think all I could say they are not unsupportive. Give it all. Ok, the problem is my parents they are not aware—the society is not aware of the graduate school. Maybe in five years. They know some take masters and MBA. In Science, it is graduate school. Like law school or medical school where you have to study more of your field. Specialization like the doctors. But it is different. You have to explain to them. I wouldn’t get financial support. Family responsibilities. You have to work it out. Even the chinese students. I have no responsibilites. I can support myself. You will be away part of the time. Does that answer your question?

7. Parents usually ask for the money. Is physics not very financially conducive?

Why not we should talk about that? Here, industries are hiring. Solar cells. Hitachi. Sponsorships. It is just a matter of making them aware. In the case of graduate school, multiply by 40 dollars. States cost of living. It is enough. I get 30,000 dollars a year as a student. Like a salary of a pulic school teacher in the US. Some of our countrymen go abroad—that is what they get. In the postdoctorate, it is 60,000 dollars a year.

8. What do you do in graduate school that helps the world?

That is a very different question. First, change the world by changing yourself. Big part of it. Acquire skills. Focus. And then coursework components. You learn more advanced physics. The biggest component is research. You work on some problem that no one has worked on, particularly aspects that are unsolved, new knowledge that you can contribute. There are projects that are directly important, some indirect. For example, if your project is working on some things like battery to make it more efficient, they you contribute directly. There is part of this industry that you can directly apply. Anyone uses battery. Part of the bigger thing. Unless, of course, you have discovered a breakthrough that makes it possible to do things now than tomorrow. There are those who are like me who are trying to understand why galaxies look like this way or understand their formation. What changes the world is our view of our world and our place in the universe, though it may not be as practical as to feed the hungry. The fact that the universe are filled with planets, that every star has a planet, that there are thousands of planets orbiting other stars. This changes our view of ourselves. Being spread through the media, ordinary people will have an idea. We are not the only planet. That will change the way we view. There is perspective. Depending on your inclinations. Spend time on something practical.

9. Is it possible for you to come back here?

Of course, here. I am here. I am talking to people, some think tanks. More concretely, where I can be, the thing is, there are possibilites. One is to join the academe. There are other careers. Just to make it simple, the major ones are academe, join the faculty in the university. There are around 20 universities around the country that offers BS Physics. For PhD four only. We can grow there. Ateneo, La Salle, UP, UPLB, UP Manila, University of San Carlos, Mindanao State University. In the North there is one. Join the faculty, teach, do research, train students. And you have ties wit the industry. That is the academe.

There is industry. The industries here I think are growing. I want to know. There are companies that hire physics majors. Hitachi, HP—all in all they just have nine PhDs—which is very few. So I am sure they would be happy to hire more. It is just a matter of connecting. Talk to Dr. Greg Tangonan. And then the government needs more scientists. There is a total of 5 PhDs in government. PAGASA. PhiVolcs. Dr. Punongbayan is in Geophysics. Dr. Tangonan is in Senate Commission on Science and Technology with Senator Angara. There is definitely a need. It is just a matter of finding them.

10. What are your plans after your postdoctorate?

To be honest, this is the main purpose of this trip. I talk to people how much is the salary. I ask about grants and access to grants. There are encouraging things in DOST, CHED, and PCIERD. Government agencies are giving money for research in science. And there is money. We are not a poor country. Where does the money go? The administration is good. I hope it goes where it is suppose to go. To be honest, I am seriously thinking what to do.

In the US or international, I can do another postdoctorate. Take as many postdoctorates as you want. You will be floating. Until you apply for Asst. Professorships to be part of the academe and work your way up. My field it is less connected to the industry. Follow your personal inclination, what you want to do. Most people in my field when got into finance: Wall Street, programming, financial modelling. Recently, there are ethical issues. They cause recession. More went to the academe. If you want to be rich, go to finance.

11. You said in the sciences the tuition is free?

In engineering it is also free. Not in Humanities. There it is harder right now. Just think about it.

12. Do you do something else aside from Physics?

Josh Uy, President of Ateneo League of Physicists, and Dr. Reinabelle Reyes

Josh Uy, President of Ateneo League of Physicists, and Dr. Reinabelle Reyes

I go to the movies. I follow basketball. I am a Spurs fan. I have a husband. That is one part of your life. I am on Facebook. I think of it as microblogging. I don’t share that “I am here” or “I am eating this”. If I see good ideas and if I want to share, I post it there. I am interested in society by virtue of growing up here and transplanted to a different world. I am only speaking my mind. I want to understand more broadly. I am interested in Economics, Astrology, and Psychology.

13. Would you have any words of wisdom for younger physiciststhat would interesting to look at in the future?

I don’t have a crystal ball. In terms of that, if you ask me, then I would not know I would be in Astrophysics. The best advice is: put your best. Lean in. Based on the possibilities, consider what is interesting to you, what you think can do and do that, and then put everything. And then trust things will work out and they will in due time. The world will notice. But on the practical side: learn Latex programming, Python, C, or Fortran. If you learn one programming language, you can go to another. It is all computers now. Simulations by big computers. You need special programming skills like parallel computing. But once you know the basics, it is all about learning. Be open to the idea that you can learn anything. For the basics, LaTeX is the language of typesetting. I am also happy that I learned LaTeX here. In the US all our laboratory reports are in LaTeX. I learned Unix, ls, and shell language. I learned how to vi—it is a text editor in the shell. You will deal with ls to organize your files.

14. Was there a point in your life when you chose physics because you fell in love with it and then you become disillusioned. And you realize that physics is not for you. How did you force yourself to move forward in physics?

It is not so dramatic for me. I am level-headed. It depends on the person. I am like that. I can relate. One time in Italy, I compared myself to my pears there from Brazil, Vietnam, and Indonesia. Brazilians are very good. They have a different training. Cubans also have very good level of mathematics. What am I doing here, I asked. I know I would go where I am good enough. For example, I did not go into theoretical high-energy physics, not because I don’t like math. I think you always have to massage reality, where you can always push yourself, what is more appropriate for your talents and skills. You are happy because you are doing well. Don’t force yourself. It goes both ways. Love something that would also love you back. And it would be a happy relationship. You always have a choice. Physics is vast. Even astrophysics. There are planets, galaxies, observations, data analysis, simulations. Within these are many problems. We always have a choice on what we want to do. It is a very rich world once you feel that you know and put yourself there. For example, join a faculty department and become a professor. It is a different work. In Princeton there are different professors doing different things. So they institutionalize research rotations for different semesters. Then you get the feel of the research topics before you commit to your thesis. You talk to people and ask what they do. Then you can decide. You can have more ideas. That is ok.

15. In reality, when you apply outside, there are Indians, Chinese, and other competitors. What is the edge of the Filipino?

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes with Dr. Nofel Lagrosas, Chair of the Department of Physics

Dr. Reinabelle Reyes with Dr. Nofel Lagrosas, Chair of the Department of Physics

The edge? I really don’t think so. I think there are very few who are applying. I think the advantage here is that you can speak English. English is our edge. We are fluent in English. Indians can also write in English. The Chinese have trouble. GRE and TOEFL—they perfect everything. They have centers for training. What happened is that they adjusted between different Chinese. In the Philippines you are not in that standard. So if you get good grades, it really correlates to your aptitude, especially if you can do research here and work on something independently. India and China have very good institutions, so there is different variance. In Ateneo you are among the best. Philippines is a big place. By the mere fact you are here, you are in the top five percent. You are the elite. Get the best training. So there is no reason you can’t prepare for it. Don’t think about them. They will be your friends when you get there.

16. Given our context right now in the country, how important do you think it is to bring into the consciousness of the people about research in physics and other sciences? What is the best way for us to go about?

Definitely. The question is how and how effective. For example, I think it is scientific knowledge is the always the way for development. That is how countries develop. And the number of PhDs correlate to economic development of a country. The question is implementation. For example, Mind Museum. There is a new science museum in Bonifacio Global City. It is a center for science education for everyone. I am going there to give a talk. In one night you have 200 seats filled up. This is only way to do it. You have a museum and then it is well run. They have interactions with people and mass media. I think that will happen. What really should happen in concrete is job creation, so that we can catch up with our ASEAN neighbors in growth. Part of it will be traced to science and technology. And then Physics is easy. F = ma. Start with your kids and cousins. Explain to them that this is important. That is how cellphones work. The GPS. Start with yourself. Blog. I do interview for rappeller.com.

17. You said you took your GRE in Italy, but GRE is the same. How did you study GRE?

I joined the forum online and get practice test. Two official practice tests. Very precious. Four practice tests. Then what I did is to review. You have a textbook. Serway, Young and Freedman. Essentially that is just all there is. What I did is, at the start, I took one test that is timed. It is important. It is a multiple choice test. Different techniques. Look at the choices first. You can plug it in, for example. Times simulate the test. Psychological. Silence. No. 2 pencil. Shade. One run. That will give you familiarity in the types of questions. Then you go back to Young and Freedman. After review, you take the simulated test again. Important is time management. There are different questions. You have to be smart. If you don’t know the answer, let it go. Test taking is a different skill than research. But that is whay is required. You have to maximize your chances by learning that skill. But you have 1/5 chance of getting it right if you do it randomly. To discourage that, they subtract your wrong answers. Five choices. You know three are wrong. These two you are not sure. You have 1 of 2 chances. Next time, if you don’t have any idea, don’t shade. This is GRE Math. Take some time to go through the questions. Simulating the test helped me a lot. It is not the first time I am doing it. Your mind is prepared for that. The questions are similar. Older tests are available online.

18. Is GRE Physics multiple choice?

GRE physics is multiple choice, because it is easier to check.

19. Do you consider applying to Europe?

No, but that is me. A lot of colleagues do. It is a different system. You get a scholarship. Experimental is easier. Same field. Depending on the funding of the professor. In the case of Germany, I don’t know. You have to talk to someone else.

20. How do you do your research method? What is your schedule?

I am not a good role model. You should be there at 9 a.m. No Facebook. I think it is important to focus. That is certain. You can do three hours of work when your mind is sharp. No Facebook. Email is just text. Do it. And I think that is flow. If you are into something so much, things just flow and you don’t care abou the time. That is when yhou do your best work. That is when your mind is sharp. On good days.

If you have other questions, feel free to approach me.


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10 Responses to Dr. Reinabelle Reyes answers 20 questions from Ateneo Physics Majors on graduate school and physics careers

  1. Pingback: Physics career questions « Quirino Sugon Jr.

  2. Pingback: Physics Career Questions « ATENEO PHYSICS HANDBOOK

  3. viggo says:

    I used to like her, but when I found out she does not believe in God, I completely lost interest in her. She is immature for not believing in God.

    • Viggo,

      The more reason why we must pray more for her. The conversion of the Church’s greatest saints were made possible by the prayers of others. St. Augustine was a believer of Manichaeism; St. Monica prayed for him and he became the Doctor of the Church. St. Paul persecuted the Christians out of his zeal for Lord; he commanded St. Stephen to be stoned to death. St. Stephen prayed for him and Saul became St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles. We can also add Jose Rizal, the Atenean who abandoned the Catholic Faith when he subscribed to the Modernist heresies of Europe. But when Rizal saw the statue of the Sacred Heart he carved in his youth, he converted, confessed his sins to a Jesuit confessor, married Josephine Bracken, signed his retraction, and died as a Catholic.


    • George R. Francisco - GS 1968, HS 1972, AB 1977 says:

      As I recall, Christ died for all – believers and non-believers. So, why should we discriminate? Some of my best friends are atheists. In fact, I’ve been going drinking and listening to live blues with two hard-core atheists almost every Friday for 21 years. We have great fun, especially during our discussions about God’s existence.

      In the end, we will find out whose views are right. But, in the meantime, who can say?

      I guess my point is, liking or not liking someone based on their belief systems is self-limiting. I find that atheists – the true searchers – are extremely interesting and erudite people. The late Christoper Hitchens was a particular favorite of mine.

      On the other hand, fundamentalists are the people I find difficult to like. Their minds are closed to God’s continuing revelation. But, when you classify people into Deists and Atheists, you take on a fundamentalist cant. For a Christian to dislike nonbelievers is to take a position that is a few scant steps from becoming – what’s a good term for it – the Christian Taliban.


    • Vincent says:

      It’s quite ironic to say that a person is immature for not believing in god. It takes a mature and sound mind to cast away the fairy tales that ate taught to us as kids. We used to imagine dragons, and damsels in distress and knights in shining armors. We used to wait for Santa Claus to bring us gifts. Later on we realize these are just fantasies. The idea of a God is one of the most entrenched lies in history.

  4. chi says:

    I actually want to become a physicist, but I cant seem to convince my parents, they think there is no financial stability in the said profession. Does anyone know of a statistical analysis of jobs related to physicist?

  5. Funny. Because a person does not believe on a deity means he/she is immature is a proof of ignorance. Nobody can give a fact, or any single fact proving that there is a deity.
    Deities existence emanates from human beliefs. They are not facts.

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