Asia’s Rising Scientists: Andreia Carrillo

Fascinated by our galaxy’s 13 billion-year history, Dr Andreia Carrillo is using stars as fossils to understand the Milky Way while helping foster a growing community of Filipino astrophysicists.

Andreia Carrillo
Postdoctoral Research Associate
Durham University
United Kingdom / The Philippines

Asian Scientist Magazine (Dec. 22, 2022) — Most towns are known for the few things they do exceptionally well. For instance, Baliuag, just north of Manila in the Philippines, is synonymous with three things: lechon manok (roasted chicken), chicharon (fried pork belly) and, if astrophysicist Dr Andreia Carrillo gets her way, leading scientists in galactic archeology. A relatively new field, galactic archeology is the study of stars, as well as their ages, locations and chemical compositions, to understand how the Milky Way Galaxy was formed.

A postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham University, Carrillo has put her hometown of Baliuag on the map for the astrophysics research that she is doing. She studies stars as fossils in an effort to piece together the Milky Way Galaxy’s 13 billion-year history.

Born to two engineers and raised on science documentaries, Carrillo has always seen herself as a scientist, though she took a few turns before finally deciding what kind of scientist she wanted to be. In the end, it was a NASA shuttle model, a pocket encyclopedia, and news about Reinabelle Reyes—known as “the Filipina who proved Einstein right”—that led her down the path of astrophysics.

In this Rising Scientist feature, Carrillo speaks to Asian Scientist Magazine about galactic archeology, star formation, building a community of Filipino astrophysicists, and why she loves stars.

  1. What excites you most about astrophysics and galactic archeology?
    I love that stars can explain so much. Because the gas that forms stars also forms the planets around them. Stars can help us learn about extra galactic systems, planets, stellar populations and their histories. There are so many connections you can make to vast areas in astronomy, just by looking at stars.It’s also a really exciting time to be an astrophysicist because we have so many new telescopes and surveys that provide new and more detailed information. For example, the satellite Gaia has mapped the Milky Way Galaxy’s 1.8 billion stars really precisely. There’s also the James Webb Space Telescope, which was launched in July and has been revolutionizing the whole field.We are also in this era of Big Data astronomy. It’s all public data, so anyone can use that information. You don’t need to be in a fancy institution to access it; you just need the internet, good computing resources, a great idea and good mentors to guide you.

    I also just really like physics. There’s something beautiful and almost poetic in how equations can describe the physical world.

  2. What are you working on now?
    I study galaxy formation, and I’m working on a combination of observations and simulations of different galaxies. In astronomy, most of our data is from observations—it’s not like typical scientific experiments with dependent and independent variables. We can’t do that. But we can learn so much from observational work.I focus on the role of galactic cannibalism in the formation of our Milky Way. In simpler terms, that means that galaxies like the Milky Way form by gobbling up smaller galaxies, and we have hints that smaller galaxies did exist before the Milky Way. But it wasn’t until Gaia was launched in 2018 that we found so many more clues of these galaxies in stars. The smaller galaxies themselves are long gone—eaten up 100 billion years ago—but we can learn a lot about them based on the chemistry of the stars that remain, and in the direction that they are moving. So, I’m studying the properties of these cannibalized stars.I also do a lot of simulation work, and that’s how we “experiment” in astronomy. I use huge cosmological simulations, trying to find galaxies that look like the Milky Way and compare the properties of Milky Way-like galaxies to our own galaxy.
  3. Can you talk about your mentorship and outreach work?
    A lot of what we do is through collaboration, so I love connecting people in the Philippines to my own connections in the greater astronomy world. If we can connect people to the right mentors, it can do a lot for growing the community and the science that we do.Mentoring also gives me a lot of fulfilment. If one of my students thinks of something really interesting and codes it up, asks a really good question I never thought about or solves a problem in a way I never thought of—it’s a different kind of fulfilment than when I finish a paper or write code by myself. I feel so much pride and inspiration to keep going when I work with them. They get so excited, and they remind me that what I do is really cool, even though some days it’s pretty mundane.
  1. How has the Philippine astrophysics community grown?
    When I started my astrophysics journey in 2012, there were so few Filipinos in this field I could look up to or grow with. But there was Reinabelle Reyes, and I still remember all the news headlines about her including the Filipina who proved Einstein right. I learned that we went to the same high school, and I realized she looks like me, a Filipina in a male-dominated field. It really took having a role model like her to make me realize that this is something I can pursue.In recent years, there’s been—pardon the pun, a big bang—in terms of how much the community has grown, and it’s nice to see how many of us are actively connecting on Twitter. I think that’s quite amazing.Of course, there’s also never enough of us. But it’s still really cool to see not just those who are ahead of me in their careers, but also those who are in the same stage of their journey as I am. It’s been amazing to see people in the same journey who look like me and come from the same background.
  2. Whats your advice for little girls aspiring to be Filipino astrophysicists?
    There’s nothing you can’t do, so don’t let people tell you, you can’t pursue science or astrophysics, especially if that’s what makes you happy.It’s also good to reach out to like-minded people. I was very lucky to have teachers and older adults who supported me when I was younger, and I know that not everyone has that. So, if those people aren’t around you, then seek them out. They exist, and they’d be happy to help you out. If astrophysics is your dream, then I will help you out.

Responses were edited for length and clarity.

This article is from a regular series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.

Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Ilya Beskin

Marinel is passionate about science, culture and stories that matter. She has a Master’s Degree in Communications, Major in Applied Media Studies from De La Salle University, Manila.

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