By Nicole Datlangin
Pisay students have a nearly inevitable tendency to procrastinate. To cram for an exam, every scholar has watched a Crash Course or Khan Academy video to absorb more information at the last minute. Such videos serve as short yet comprehensive mediums for communication, educating millions of viewers in areas like mathematics, literature, test prep, and of course, science.
While these videos are produced by huge companies with crews for filming, animation, and post-production, technology has evolved to allow the youth to create short films on their own. Recognizing this potential of the youth to communicate science, the Breakthrough prize foundation — an institution awarding the top scientists in Fundamental Physics, Mathematics and Life Sciences — launched the Breakthrough Junior Challenge.
The contest invited teenagers worldwide to create a three-minute video explaining any topic relating to science. Out of the thousands who submit each year, only one winner would be named.
Hillary Diane Andales of the Philippine Science High School’s Eastern Visayas Campus (PSHS-EVC) joined the challenge twice. The first time she joined, in 2016, she won the popular vote award for her video on Path Integrals in Quantum Physics. The award came with a $100,000 DNA Laboratory for her school.
In 2017, Hillary won the Breakthrough Junior Challenge itself.
For her video on Relativity and the Equivalence of Reference Frames, she won another laboratory for the school, $50,000 for her science teacher, and a $250,000 post-secondary scholarship — a sum enough to finance four years of college education in the United States. All this she gained at eighteen years old.
Last February 9, Hillary came to PSHS-MC to share her insights on Science Communication and the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. The seminar was one of the most valuable experiences of my life as a Pisay scholar, and I have broken down my main takeaways from the event into six parts, enumerated below.
Read on to be inspired and learn how you can communicate science more effectively to others in your daily life.
1. Understand what Science Communication is truly about.
“People in the public keep glorifying scientific research pursuits, and I recognize that too — it’s really important. But sitting there silently, by this scientific research, is science communication supporting it.” — Hilary Andales
Pisay students are familiarized with Science Communication from writing lengthy papers and proposals, and giving countless class presentations and oral defenses.
However, there’s more to the art than this — in an era when many are vulnerable to fake news and false theories (ie. “The world is flat! Vaccinations cause autism! Climate change isn’t real!”), it informs the public and combats the misinformation that can lead to dangerous outcomes.
“It’s alarming that this kind of scientific misinformation is going around the world, possibly influencing hundreds of people each day, and it hurts, especially as a science student seeing people who believe that,” Hillary said.
Hillary also spoke on how Science Communication can inform the people in power:
“[Let’s] say we have this one leader who does not believe in climate change. He has the power to not participate in a huge, international agreement that is potentially consequential.
“If we can get to the minds of these people and generate some meaningful discussion within the lawmaking group, we can really generate some meaningful, productive, and data-driven policies that have, really, the power to advance an entire society.”
2. Get inspiration from the greats.
As in any other field, people don’t just get passionate about science without a spark. In Hillary’s case, that spark came in the form of a great science communicator — her father, Roy Andales. Being a Chemistry major, he would always explain to Hillary how things would work.
“He was very animated and energetic. His energy, when he was telling me about science, was what got me into science,” she said.
Hillary would also get inspiration from Carl Sagan — the man who created the science television series Cosmos in the 1980s. The show had more than 500 million viewers and was broadcast in over 60 countries, inspiring hundreds to get into science. Neil deGrasse Tyson, also driven deeply by Sagan’s work, would later reprise the show in 2014.
Before the writing of her video’s script (which she made fifteen drafts for before settling on one), Hillary also scrutinized the work of well-established science channels on Youtube, analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of In A Nutshell, Khan Academy, Physics Girl and more. These channels greatly influenced the techniques and visualizations she used in her winning video.
3. Appreciate science for what it is.
Hillary describes her connection to science as something beyond intellectual — it’s emotional. She is mainly driven by two things: the underappreciation of science in the Philippines, and the ability of science to humble us as tiny microcosms in a vast universe.
“We feel like we’re at the center of the universe — that all the affairs of the universe revolve us,” she said. “But really, we are just a tiny speck in a tiny speck in a pale blue dot within a universe that is billions of light years big (maybe even bigger — we don’t know).
“It strikes a chord in our emotions that really, we are small, but it’s amazing that we aspire to understand so much more about that greater universe.“
Through her skills in Science Communication, she aims to inspire this kind of passion and enthusiasm for science in others, the same way her father did for her.
“As a science communicator, I want to inspire new scientists — that’s one, but I also want to inspire people who don’t want to pursue science professionally to just appreciate science for what it is.” — Hilary Andales
4. Remember that not everyone is well-versed in science.
“How can we more effectively write science, since for all of us here, science is uninteresting?”
A journalist had nonchalantly asked Hillary this question in a press conference at PSHS-EVC. She, along with some schoolmates watching, had been taken aback.
“It’s a difficult experience to be in, since we’re not used to people saying it’s uninteresting,” Hillary said. “In Pisay, we universally agree that it is.”
She continued: “You have to come to terms with that. Some people think science is uninteresting, that it’s bland, it’s useless, and we have to really go into the minds of the people who think that [way].”
Hillary highly encourages the use relatable analogies and stories to illustrate complex ideas. An important goal for every science communicator, then, is to break down concepts into chunks that are engaging even for those who don’t have much scientific background. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
5. Use the internet to expand your knowledge.
For her 2017 entry, Hillary spent about 200 hours creating animations while learning how to do so through Youtube tutorials. She never had any formal training in Adobe After Effects, yet she was able to model the simple yet stunning visual effects of channels like Vox and PBS Space Time.
“Before Pisay, I was from a public school that barely had any computers — no labs, no books,” she said. “It was a really poor town, a poor school, and I didn’t know much about media. Through Pisay, I was forced to learn the ropes of media — learn Photoshop, learn Adobe After Effects, and learn Premiere.”
Aside from the post-production stage, the research phase for the video was also extremely time-consuming. After deciding on relativity for her topic, Hillary found herself using college course material to gather the info she needed.
Despite being absorbed in the rigorous training of Pisay, she still sought to hone her skills and learn outside what was being taught in school. Her knowledge on relativity and her animation skills — two key factors to her winning — were born from hours and hours of online education.
“You have to read a lot, and you have to map out everything you have to say. You have to make sure that everything is correct and in order.” — Hilary Andales
6. Avoid procrastination.
We return to Pisay scholars’ procrastination-inclinations.
Despite preparing for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge for almost a year, Hillary submitted her video two hours before the deadline.
“I still pat myself on the back because it’s an improvement from ten minutes before the deadline,” she said, laughing.
That was exactly what happened in her first year of joining the contest. In 2016, after suddenly contracting chicken pox weeks before the deadline, Hilary was allowed to stay home for two weeks, using most of the time to edit clips and create animations for her video. Jokingly, she said that she thanks God everyday of her life for that chicken pox.
However, there was a brownout in her area on the day of submission. When the power came back, she exported her video (which she says still had “half-baked animations”) and began its upload to Youtube. Overestimating her internet speed, she assumed she would make it in time using their own connection.
Hillary then realized that the video was uploading at less than a percent per minute. She gave her father a flash drive containing the video, who then drove to Tacloban city to upload the file to Youtube in a computer shop. By the time it finished uploading, it was about 2:50 — ten minutes before the deadline of 3:00 PM. Still laughing, she said it was the “most intense deadline [she] ever tried to meet”.
In a community of students heavily immersed in a STEM-centered curriculum (for some students, against their own will) it’s difficult to find someone as passionate and open about science as Hillary Andales.
I wish more had gone to her seminar — it was a valuable opportunity to hear from someone from another PSHS campus, and more importantly, a chance to meet someone who has accomplished so much at such a young age in the field of STEM. On the website of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, her bio reads:
Hillary Andales is from Tacloban City, Leyte, Philippines. In addition to winning the 2017 Breakthrough Junior Challenge and becoming regional champion for Asia, she also won the Popular Vote in the 2016 Challenge. She has been Division Finals Champion every year for the last decade in the Metrobank-MTAP-DepEd Math Challenge. Hillary has led the Regional Council of the Philippine Society of Youth Science Clubs and been a delegate at the Japan-Asia Youth Exchange Program in Science. She authored a mathematics review book for grade 5 and 6 students, and was a managing editor of her school paper, The Science Net.
We all should aspire to emulate Hillary Andales — to be so passionate about a field (not even necessarily STEM) and create meaningful content to share with the world. By doing this, we can create a lasting impact on the Philippines, which is what Pisay trains its scholars to ultimately do. Our training in communication mustn’t go to waste.
Kudos to you, Hillary. Thank you for the inspiration.