The concept of “quantum tunnelling” sounds like it would take at least an hour to explain — but it only took one Fort McMurry, Alta. teenager three minutes, in a video that won an international competition and scored new funding for her future and her school.
Maryam Tsegaye, 17, used her love of science to score the winning prize in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge last, a competition in which thousands of students across the world create short videos to express a science or mathematics concept.
“It was really crazy, I didn’t believe it at all when I found out,” Tsegaye told CTV News Channel on Wednesday. She’s known about her win for two weeks, but had to keep it on “the down low,” until the winner was announced on December 3.
The monumental prize included $250,000 to go towards her schooling, a $100,000 science lab for her small high school, and $50,000 for her science teacher.
Tsegaye said she was “absolutely” surprised by the win.
She was in class at her school, Ecole McTavish Public High School, in Fort McMurray, when she was surprised with a video message from two of the judges for the contest.
“My favourite [entry] was this absolutely remarkable explanation of a complex topic called quantum tunnelling,” astronaut Scott Kelly said in the video.
When the two announced that she had won, Tsegaye clapped her hands over her mouth, clearly shocked. It wasn’t long before she was in tears. The heartwarming moment was captured on camera and shared on the contest’s website this month.
“The door is wide open now,” her father said in an interview in that video. “And she can go anywhere.”
“I decided to enter because I’m really into science and science communication, and I do believe in science communication,” Tsegaye told CTV News Channel.
“I picked quantum tunnelling because it’s a quantum phenomenon that I’d never heard of until I was researching for the competition, and I was completely taken away with the whole topic and fell down a spiral of articles and everything.”
So what is quantum tunnelling?
In her winning video — which had to be less than three minutes — Tsegaye started off by referencing a cheat code in a video game her brother had played, which allowed characters to move through walls.
“Imagine if you could walk through walls in real life!” she said in the video. “And it turns out you can — at a quantum level.”
Using drawings and short animations, she explained concepts that are hard for many grown adults to grasp. Quantum mechanics concerns particles smaller than atoms which can move in extremely peculiar ways. Quantum tunnelling, according to her video, is the term for when electrons moving in a wave have a chance of making it through a barrier instead of bouncing off, something that makes nuclear fusion — and by extension, life on Earth — possible.
If that sounds confusing, it might help to watch her video.
“I tried to explain it with video games and dice and things like that as an analogy,” she said.
To win the prize, she had to stand out among the roughly 5,600 students competing around the world. But she pulled it off.
“[The judges] said that it was a really good explanation,” Tsegaye said.
Katherine Vladicka, Maryam’s teacher, is also a winner, receiving $50,000 for her role in Tsegaye’s learning process. In a video on Breakthrough’s website, she said she was “so proud” of Tsegaye.
“She took a really complex idea and broke it down so simply, and she was funny, and it was just — it was brilliant,” she said.
Tsegaye said Vladicka was “one of her favourite” teachers, and that “she definitely deserves [the prize].”
When it comes to subjects like science and math, Tsegaye believes there’s some “social conditioning” at play that makes them seem more inaccessible.
“People are told that science and math are intimidating, and that’s what they tend to believe, but I think if it’s explained properly and it is approached differently, then a lot more kids would be involved in science,” she said.
“Science just tries to answer everything in our world, everything that we know and things that we don’t know. Why wouldn’t you love science?”
She’s currently applying to different universities, trying to figure out where she wants to go to pursue her dreams — but this prize has undoubtedly opened up new paths for not only her, but the future students at her high school who will be able to take advantage of the new science lab.
Ecole McTavish Public High School has only around 900 students, according to its website, and spans Grade 7-12.
Scott Barr, the principal, said in a video on Breakthrough’s website that Tsegaye’s legacy at the school “is going to live on.”
“She’s going to forever change kids’ lives in this building,” he said.