Style Living Self Celebrity Geeky News and Views
In the Paper BrandedUp Hello! Create with us Privacy Policy

Meet Hillary Andales—Filipino MIT grad, aspiring astrophysicist, and 'manifesting' pro

By NICK GARCIA Published Jun 15, 2024 12:01 pm

Hillary Diane Andales is in love with the outer space, and her heart desires to become an astrophysicist someday. But for the small-town girl from Abuyog, Leyte—who graduated from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a nearly perfect grade point average in 2023—being an astrophysicist isn’t just a yearbook entry but rather an ambition requiring clear vision, conscious effort, and, as her fellow Gen Zs would say in social media, a lot of “manifesting.”

At 24 years old, Hillary already boasts of an impressive résumé. She does research on astrophysics at the MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research and physics education at the MIT Edgerton Center. She also writes for NOIRLab, an organization that runs the big optical and infrared telescopes in the United States.

Hillary Diane Andales graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a nearly perfect grade point average.

She’s also a science communicator who popularizes complex scientific concepts especially for non-expert audiences. She has had speaking engagements across the globe, including the United Nations in Vienna. She also visited the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland.

During her MIT years, she headed several students organizations on physics.

Hillary is about to take her doctorate in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago this September.

‘Very normal girl’

Before the laundry list of achievements she has now, Hillary told PhilSTAR L!fe that she’s just a “very normal girl” from a simple family that appreciates science.

“Our family didn't really have a lot of money and we were having a hard time,” she said. “Despite that, my parents really value education.”

She recalled growing up to the stories of scientific greats like Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Charles Darwin. Hillary’s parents also bought her The Big Book of Space Discovery, making her even more curious about the solar system. The scale of the universe also fascinated Hillary, who noted with gusto how a million Earths could fit inside the sun.

“For me, that was mindblowing because if you look at the sky, the sun is so small,” she said. “And I learned that the sun is only one of hundred billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, our home galaxy [which] is only one of billions.”

“Learning about how big actually things are in the universe just really made me want to pursue the study of space,” she added.

More importantly, like the Walt Whitman poem, her habit of looking up in perfect silence at the stars in her hometown only reinforced her love of astronomy.

“I broadened my ideas beyond the boundaries of my town, which was very small,” she said. “I started thinking and dreaming bigger.”

Another reason that made Hillary embrace science more is her family surviving Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, which saw thousands of deaths and nearly a hundred billion pesos worth of damage.

Though her family lost everything—including the house they were renting and the things inside, their business that relied on clients online, and their life savings—she said they’re fortunate enough to have not met the same fate as their neighbors.

“It's a very pivotal time for me,” she said, adding that science communication would’ve been crucial in saving lives during such disasters.

Hillary also thanked her parents for not missing a beat in providing for her and her brother. While they were picking up the pieces during Yolanda’s aftermath, she said their parents urged them to just focus on their studies and not worry about anything else.

Math champion

Aside from science, Hillary also had a keen interest in math.

Since her elementary years at the Gabaldon Central School, she regularly joined math contests, including the Metrobank-MTAP DepEd Math Challenge, and bagged the championship for years.

A younger Hillary (right) during the Metrobank-MTAP DepEd Math Challenge in 2013.

“Sobrang sipag ko talaga mag-aral for that… Naging buhay ko na 'yung contest na 'yun,” she said.

Hillary eventually studied at the Philippine Science High School Eastern Visayas, with a focus on physics. She graduated with the highest honors, all while still participating in international competitions on math and science.

“It just made sense for me to do physics because math plus science is physics,” she said of her college degree.

From UP to MIT

Hillary said that her dream school in college was University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, but everything changed in 2016 when she joined the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, an international competition in which thousands of participants create videos explaining difficult concepts in math or science in an engaging manner. She placed third out of 6,000 hopefuls across over 100 countries with her entry on path integrals.

The following year, she ranked first out of 11,000 hopefuls across 170 countries with her entry on the theory of relativity. Her prizes included a $250,000 (P14.7 million) college scholarship, a $100,000 (P5.9 million) physics laboratory for her school, and $50,000 (P2.9 million) cash for her teacher.

Little did Hillary know that the contest would be her main influence to pursue science communication.

“After the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, I found a lot of joy and meaning in getting people excited about science and seeing their faces light up when they learn something new,” she said.

Since the scholarship can be used anywhere in the world, Hillary found it best to apply for several schools outside of the Philippines.

“I could've used it in UP Diliman, but I knew that I could have a better physics education somewhere else,” she said.

After getting accepted into universities like Stanford, Princeton, and Cornell, Hillary ultimately chose the MIT because of her ambition to become an astrophysicist. The institution produced the likes of Buzz Aldrin, Richard Feynman, Philip Warren Anderson, Wolfgang Ketterle, and Mildred Dresselhaus.

“I knew it would give me the best chance,” she said.

Empowering independent life

Hillary said living in Massachusetts, especially alone, is empowering since she became independent for the very first time in her life. Still, she noted that this is a double-edged sword.

“If I make a good decision, I will enjoy all the benefits. If I make a bad decision, I will suffer the consequences,” she said.

Being at MIT was also “eye-opening” for Hillary, who noted that it’s a “very, very diverse environment” that trumps what the Philippines has.

“So many different people with different backgrounds and you all come together. For some reason, you end up being friends and to me, that was really a great experience,” she said.

Hillary during her senior year at MIT.

Nevertheless, Hillary said there was a certain pressure with the MIT gathering “all the smartest people in one place.”

“All your life, you lived na ikaw palagi ang smartest person in the room. All of us have the same experience and all of a sudden, you're not anymore,” she said.

In any case, MIT has been “inspiring” for Hillary, as it’s a “collaborative place” filled with “super kind” people who wouldn’t mind helping out during difficult homework.

Concrete goal-setting as a way of 'manifesting'

Hillary, while having a slew of achievements, also acknowledged that she procrastinates and struggles with time management like many other students.

“This is something that I'm still actively working on,” she said, adding that it could be challenging when she’s already taking up her doctorate degree. “Paano kaya ang gagawin ko now na magpi-PhD na ako and there's going to be so much work?”

But if there’s a non-negotiable for Hillary, it’s the act of manifesting, which she said isn’t the “mystical kind” based on solely hoping for the best but rather on the concrete setting of goals.

“I had this vision that I had to get out of MIT having achieved something for the community. I didn't just want to pass MIT,” she said. “I have these goals listed down at the beginning of my college journey.”

Her goals, which all precisely happened, included being the president of the physics club, publishing a paper as an undergraduate student, getting a high GPA, and making good friends.

“Sinulat ko 'yun lahat,” she said. “Kahit ano pa ang mangyari sa akin all throughout the journey, even if I procrastinate or not manage my time, I'll still remember how strong my goals were. I would make sacrifices.”

K-pop, dancing

Amid all of her hard work, Hillary loosens up by listening to K-pop and doing dance covers. Her favorite acts include aespa, NewJeans, IVE, BLACKPINK, and BTS.

She’s also into P-pop, stanning the likes of BINI, SB19, and Alamat.

“I don't know how to sing, so I compensated for it by learning how to dance. I watch YouTube tutorials, and I really enjoy it,” she said, adding that she joined a K-pop club at MIT and published dance covers with them on YouTube.

After graduation, Hillary said she moved to Arizona and didn’t know anyone. The first thing she did was look for a K-pop club to join.

“That's how I also found some other friends,” she said.

For her gap year, Hillary is in Quezon City at the moment. It goes without saying that she’s spending a great deal of it by dancing. She plans to apply for a dance summer camp soon.

“It's very therapeutic. I get to forget about everything else,” she said.

Hillary also digs the fashion sense of South Korean idols and has patterned her wardrobe after theirs. She also watches K-drama with her mother.

Future plans

After finishing her doctorate in Chicago, which would take about six years, Hillary is planning to return to the Philippines and work in the country. Just like how she once dreamed of having a better life outside Leyte, she’s dreaming of having even a small role in making astronomy improve the lives of Filipinos.

“By getting training abroad, hopefully, I can apply what I'd learn once I come back here. The reality is that if I want to pursue astrophysics, I won't be able to do much of that here. But I'm motivated by the growing community here,” she said, giving a shout-out to the Philippine Space Agency founded in 2019.

More importantly, the Philippines will always be Hillary’s home.

“After spending four years in the US and coming back here, I remember how exactly how different it is here,” she said. “Of course, mainit dito, but it’s the people. The kind of relationships that I have here are much deeper. I find a lot more meaning and joy, and that made me more sure of coming back here.”

Deeper appreciation for astronomy

Hillary is hoping for Filipinos to have a deeper appreciation for astronomy.

“Sometimes, people think astronomy is not climate or cancer research or engineering where you can find these very immediate applicable things they may use in their daily lives,” she said.

She pointed out how disciplines touching on astronomy have forever changed things for the better, including Velcro which astronauts use for their space suits; the World Wide Web which was rooted from particle physics; and smartphones which are designed through quantum mechanics.

“We can probably look forward to similar patterns in astrophysics,” Hillary said.

Hillary speaks at the International Atomic Energy Agency Scientific Forum at the United Nations office in Vienna, Austria.

More importantly, Hillary believes that the love of astronomy improves humanity.

“By pursuing things out there in space, we can also apply it directly to matters on Earth,” she said, noting that elements like hydrogen, which is found in the body and the water we drink in, came from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago.

“When you think about it, parts of us are actually 13.8 billion years old,” she said, “and we're very much deeply connected to the universe because of that.”

“We don't really think about how these things are made. It's the same iron in your blood, silicon in your phone, oxygen you breathe, the gold in your jewelry. We don't really learn about them that much. All of these things in the periodic table are actually made in these processes in space: inside the stars that die, in violent collisions of neutron stars. We try to piece together what these elements are made of," she added.

Hillary said appreciation of the universe gives a sense of oneness, as we’re all part of one big system.

“Trying to understand things in the universe is us trying to understand our connection with it… and we should be stewards of it,” she said. “After all, we are pieces of the universe.”