18-year-old Filipino science whiz gives us the rundown on why smart is cool

Gil Cadiz

Hillary Diane Andales will go down in history as the 18-year-old student of the Philippine Science High School Eastern Visayas Campus who brought pride and honor to her school and country by winning the third annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge, besting 11,000 whiz kids from 178 countries.

2018 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center on December 3, 2017 in Mountain View, California.
Hillary received the Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center on December 3, 2017 in Mountain View, California.

As the 2017 champion of the “Oscars for Science”, she was flown to California to personally receive her award and $400,000 worth of prizes. $100,000 will be used to upgrade their school laboratory, $50,000 goes to her science teacher and the remaining $250,000 is the college scholarship that she plans to use to pursue a physics degree in the US.

Her winning entry was a video that makes the principle of Relativity and the Equivalence of Reference Frames understandable to ordinary people.

We the Pvblic got to ask Hillary a number of questions and her answers offer a fascinating look into the mind of a teen science wunderkind. Read on.

When and how did you fall in love with science?

I distinctly remember myself as a four-year-old in love with an astronomy book that showed me how much bigger Jupiter is compared to Earth and how much bigger the sun is compared to the rest of the solar system. Encarta Kids also did much to get me interested! However, I wouldn’t have had access to those things if it weren’t for my parents. We are a family of nerds (we even talk about physics at the dinner table) and they were really the ones who opened my eyes to the wonders of science.

Because of my scientific understanding, I find everything fascinating and interesting. Because I understand photosynthesis, I find that plants are not just green non-motile organisms. They are magical machines that convert invisible carbon dioxide into starch and oxygen using the power of sunlight in their unassuming leaves. I feel the same way about many other things.

Besides science, what else are you interested in?

I have always loved science (probably ever since I was born) but I was really much more exposed to math competitions when I was in elementary and early high school. Because of that, I am also interested in mathematics.

Outside of my academic interests, I am deeply appreciative of digital art such as those in videos and visual graphics. I am always actively learning in order to improve my skills in digital art so that I can make better graphics and videos. Aside from that, I write about science, school and life in my blog, hillaron.com. I also listen to a lot of indie alternative music and K-pop. 🙂

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Hillary (center) with her squad

What kind of life do you have? What’s your typical day like?

I live a pretty normal life. Honestly, I’m a lot like normal teenagers who spend much time on social media and procrastinate on work (I’ve been trying to change that though).

I spend most of my time at school, from 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM. I go for a 10-minute commute home and rest for 30 minutes by watching an interesting video. After that, I jump right into requirements up until midnight. On lucky days without too many requirements, I read and write. I also meditate right before sleeping.

What was your motivation for joining the Breakthrough Junior Challenge?

The first time I joined Breakthrough in 2016, I did it for the experience. I also thought I had a decent chance at winning, so I just went ahead and made my entry. Unfortunately, I only made it to third place. Then late last year, I was mostly motivated by the desire to finally win. My performance in 2016 taught me that I really had an ace for this competition. Fortunately, I won! Now, I’m just grateful that I kept my motivation up and poured my time into the process.

What made you choose the concept of Relativity and the Equivalence of Reference Frames as your entry?

A year ago, I started passively looking for topics – quantum electrodynamics, perturbation theory, general relativity, quantum chromodynamics – I was all over the place! This was undoubtedly the hardest part because the topic had to be big, complex, unique, and relatable to a layman audience. I also had to do intensive research so I could completely understand the material and deliver it to the audience in an accurate, creative, and engaging manner. The topic that seemed to fit those criteria was Relativity and the Equivalence of Reference Frames. You can read more about how I was able to put together my video in this blog post.

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Hillary delivering her acceptance speech

Among the celebrated scientists and mathematicians you’ve met at the awarding ceremony, who were you most thrilled to meet? Why?

I was most excited to meet Edward Witten and Terence Tao.

Edward Witten is the leading scientist in M-Theory, the best candidate for the Theory of Everything. The first time I saw him was in the elevator and I was really hesitant to talk to him since I wasn’t sure if it was really him (internally, I was already fangirling). During the actual event, I finally approached and told him that I was a fan of his work.

Hillary with Physicist Edward Witten
Hillary with Physicist Edward Witten

Meanwhile, Terence Tao is a wonderful man, one of the top mathematicians of this day. I idolize him a lot and watch his videos on YouTube. Getting to talk to him for ten minutes in person was a golden opportunity.

Hillary meets Mathematician Terence Tao
Hillary meets Mathematician Terence Tao

Now that you’ve aced the competition, what’s next for you? What are your future plans?

In the near future, I want to study physics in college. I am not quite sure which university I’ll be attending. As a long-term ambition, I hope to become a research scientist studying cosmology or particle physics. At the same time, I want to become a science communicator so I get to share the wonders of science with more people!

When did you realize you’re smart?

My parents said I was already reading TIME as a toddler so I think that started it for me. Starting first grade, I was an honor student and I also won in math competitions. Since then, I felt that I indeed had a talent in things for the brain. However, I realize now that it’s no use being smart when you don’t have a good attitude for learning. Nowadays, I tend to focus on fostering an enthusiastic attitude for learning instead of just being plain “smart.” I want to feel that I’m learning for learning’s sake.

Why should students embrace and love science?

I’ve always been committed to sending one message about science: Science is everything and it matters to everyone. Without science, we are blind to all of the beauty around us – plants, water, stars, technology, and even the way we function as organisms. I feel that an understanding of science shouldn’t be focused on the equations and the intimidating terms; it should be centered on appreciating the beauty around us and our place within this universe. I believe that everyone should at least have an interest in the fascinating things that science explains even if some don’t want to go into it professionally.

How would you convince kids that smart is cool?

I don’t dedicate the term “smart” exclusively to scientists. I feel that it belongs to all people who pursue interests that involve the mind. To me, smart is cool because smart people can create a lasting legacy just with their minds. For instance, the scientists who began research on quantum physics paved the way for modern technology. The writers who create lasting literary works continue to influence generations of people. The artists who craft timeless pieces don’t cease to inspire future generations. The legacy that the intelligent mind leaves outlives the one who owns the mind.


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