Reaching for the stars

Writer’s Note:  This was published on May 15, 2012 during my internship at the Manila Bulletin’s Students and Campuses section.

MAY 2015 — Just when they thought dreams that reaching the outside world were far-fetched, three people were ushered into the path to a great future.

Lordnico Mendoza, Rhayan Coronel, and Frank Kelvin Martinez are the first graduates of the BS Astronomy Technology that is only being offered in Rizal Technological University (RTU).

Mendoza was already set to pursue Nursing in college but decided to take an exam in Astronomy Technology merely for experience. “When I was in high school, I indulged myself in published journals and articles on the Internet. I also had a book on Astronomy which I loved reading,” Mendoza recalls.

Martinez, on the other hand, took up the course to answer questions that have long been in his mind since childhood.

“When I was still a kid, I had so many questions in mind about celestial objects especially the planets. I grew up curious and wishing to take up an astronomy course,” says Martinez.

Unlike Mendoza and Martinez, whose passion for astronomy has been rooted since childhood, Coronel admitted that he learned to love the course as he went along studying and discovering its ins and outs.

Habang tumatagal, lalo ko siyang nagustuhan. Kakaibang karanasan at kaalaman. Ang sarap ng feeling,” shares Coronel.

Admittedly, they all feel that the pressure is on.

“To be the first product of this course is a big responsibility,” says Martinez. “At the same time, we are apprehensive because we do not know what is in store for us. Pero sana suportahan kami ng gobyerno since kasama naman sila sa gumawa ng course namin and sigurado naman gagawin namin ‘yung part namin.”

Their dreams might not have materialized if not for the yearning of the some of the proponents of the Astronomy course with whom they all share the same sentiments.

How it all began

The five-year-old program was the brainchild of RTU president Dr. Jesus Rodrigo Torres and the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical, and Space Administration (PAGASA).

Dr. Torres himself has a strong penchant for astronomy. During his time, he recalls, no course in astronomy in the Philippines was offered. When he became a professional, his undying enthusiasm drove him to buy his own telescopes and books that eventually led him to the path towards astronomy and made him one of the Filipino members of the International Astronomical (IAU).

The proposal for an astronomy course in the Philippines began rolling when Dr. Torres, then RTU vice president, presented his 15th volume of work about deep-sky object observations to his friend Dr. Bernardo Soriano, former chief of PAGASA’s Astronomy Geophysical and Space Sciences bureau.

“Dr. Soriano said that they were offering the possibility of the course to another university but the said school did not want it. So he suggested to me if RTU could take up the proposal and be the one to offer the course,” says Dr. Torres.

A committee, consisting of multi-sectoral groups like PAGASA, RTU professors, and even business people, was created to weave a curriculum flexible enough to provide adequate job opportunities to its students.

“We were concerned on the possible jobs these students in this field will have after graduating. So, we came up with a hybrid program combining technology with astronomy concerned primarily in applied science,” explains Dr. Torres.

Dr. Torres says that they primarily focused on applied science because focusing on theoretical aspects alone could make the course less flexible. The curriculum includes major astronomy subjects, physics, mathematics, general education subjects, and selective engineering courses.

The master’s degree program in Astronomy came in 2006, years earlier than the bachelor’s degree. It has produced a graduate, a physician and astronomy enthusiast Dr. Armand Lee, who graduated last 2009, making him the first Filipino to acquire an MS in Astronomy.

The boons of Astronomy

According to Dr. Torres, graduates of Astronomy never run out of opportunities. They may go to astronomy entrepreneurship, where they could conduct observing sessions among students for a fee, or even build observatories.

Graduates may also go to Astronomy engineering-related fields and work as engineers in the operations of telescopes.

Or they could go back to school as teachers.

But, the big question in anyone’s mind would be: is it possible to go to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or NASA? Dr. Torres is optimistic.

Puwede. But actually, NASA is not really involved in astronomy. They are more on rocket constructions, aeronautics. There is an RTU graduate who is working in NASA as an engineer,” Dr. Torres explains. “The graduates can work in the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in the US, which have observatories in Arizona, and in many places where they can work as operators of telescopes.”

More than just studying the stars

Grueling computations related to theories, like astrophysics and relativity, greet students every day, but they look at their course as more than just an effort to clinch a degree.

Aldrin Gabuya, an incoming sophomore student in BS Astronomy Technology, says, witnessing astronomical phenomena are the best parts of being an Astronomy student.

“It’s what these learning experiences that you don’t get from other courses that matter,” Jerome Paul Java, an incoming third year student, adds.

Their observation trips are something they look forward to. For instance, they travel to far-flung places, free of light pollution, bringing with them the necessary telescopes to conduct observations.

For Jerome Felicidario, an incoming third year, these observations create the bonding among students in his course. “The new discoveries like Quantum mechanics and celestial mechanics, which I think we can use in the near future are what I appreciate most,” he shares.

“If they want to study Astronomy they must be good in Mathematics. Ang daming Physics and Math subjects. Pero napansin ko, kahit hindi masyadong marunong sa Math, basta mahilig sa astronomy, nakukuha. Kung hindi masyadong mahusay sa Math, naku-cover up nung kanilang passion,” Dr. Torres observes.

What’s next

RTU’s Department of Astronomy’s new building is undergoing renovations with plans of putting up a planetarium on the rooftop. The place’s celestial ambiance stems mainly from the large framed photographs of nebulas, stars, and galaxies. The building houses two classrooms, a mini-library, a mini-theater, and a room exclusively fore telescopes and other astronomical equipment, which are all funded by the university.

“We will [also] have our observatory telescope very soon. Talagang malaki na. I think it’s going to be the second biggest in the country. The first is PAGASA’s 20-inch telescope at Diliman. RTU’s [will be] a 14-inch telescope Schmidt Cassegrain,” Dr. Torres explain.

The observatory will be established in RTU Pasig which will probably be designed by the first graduates of Astronomy.

In the next few months, the department plans to review its curriculum as well. Dr. Torres also says that RTU has recently approved to offer BS in Meteorology.

Astronomy, not astrology

Perhaps, the dearth of familiarity with astronomy will be one of the challenges the three graduates will have to deal with in the near future.

“Astronomy is not very popular in the country. People tend to confuse astrology with astronomy. Halimbawa, sa TV, kapag iniinterview kami, kunyari alignment of the planets or may astronomical phenomena, laging tanong: ano ho ang epekto nito sa kapalaran ng tao? We answer with scientific answers and sometimes, the reporter gets disappointed. People want something spectacular,” says Dr. Torres.

There are times, he recounts, that they meet people who would even offer their palms for a reading, asking for a prediction.

Hindi mawawala [‘yung pang-aasar na gano’n]. Kasi napaghahalo nila ang astronomy sa astrology. Gusto naming mawala, ‘yung confusion sa astronomy with astrology,” Mendoza adds.

Reflecting the possible jobs Dr. Torres had enumerated, Mendoza, Martinez, and Coronel all plan of pursuing a teaching job after graduation. Another possible work would be at PAGASA.

If ever sa PAGASA kami tutuloy, sa Observatory kami mapupunta, [which is] more on astrophotography and documentation of special astronomical events like eclipses, meteor showers,” shares Mendoza.

There are also plans to go abroad to strengthen their foundation in hopes of getting in NASA. CV


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