Congratulations pour in for Fort McMurray teen after she wins major international science contest

Maryam Tsegaye, a 17-year-old student at École McTavish Public High School, was named the winner of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation's sixth annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge. CREDIT: Twitter/Maryam Tsegaye

Days after capturing top prize in a major global science competition, prominent Canadians continue to send messages of congratulations to the teenager from Fort McMurray, Alta., who earned the accolade.

Maryam Tsegaye, a 17-year-old student at École McTavish Public High School, was named the winner of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation’s sixth annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge for her video explaining the concept of quantum tunnelling.

“Big congratulations to Fort McMurray’s Maryam Tsegaye on winning the US $500,000 Breakthrough Junior Challenge for her explainer video on quantum tunneling,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney tweeted on Sunday.

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“I don’t have the first clue what quantum tunnelling is but I’m glad Fort McMurray’s Maryam Tsegaye is on it!” Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley tweeted Monday.

“Maryam is the first Canadian to win the $500,000 international Breakthrough Junior Challenge. Congrats! #ableg #ymm”

READ MORE: Western Development Museum explores quantum science in new exhibit

On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted his congratulations.

“You’re making us all proud,” he tweeted. “I know you’ll continue to do great things in the years ahead, and I hope you know that we’ll all be rooting for you.”

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In the nearly three-minute video, Tsegaye explains the complex scientific phenomenon with humour and graphics, breaking into her discussion by talking about the use of video game cheat codes.

“So I was watching my brother play this video game and he used a cheat code that let his character do a walk-through-walls hack,” she says in the video. “He pushed himself against a barrier in the game, hit some buttons and boom, his character appeared on the other side.

“Imagine if you could walk through walls in real life — and it turns out you can, at a quantum level.”

READ MORE: How one teen’s science fair project sparked his drive for immunotherapy cancer research 

By winning the contest. Tsegaye will receive $400,000 in what the contest organizaers called “educational prizes” for herself, her teacher and her school. She also won a $250,000 college scholarship while the teacher who encouraged her to enter the contest, KatherineVladicka-Davies, will get a $50,000 prize. Her school will also be given a $100,000 “state-of-the-art science lab.”

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“There aren’t many moments in life that you can point to and say, ‘This is when it all changed;’ this is certainly one of them,” Tsegaye tweeted on Saturday. “Still lots to absorb and see!”

Tsegaye learned she had won the contest while sitting in class. Her win was announced via video by retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who helped judge the submissions, and Sal Khan, a founder of the Khan Academy which is a partner of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge.

Tsegaye’s contest entry beat out over 5,600 other applicants from 124 countries.

In a news release, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge describes itself as a “global initiative to develop and demonstrate young people’s knowledge of science and scientific principles; generate excitement in these fields; support STEM career choices and engage the imagination and interest of the public at large in key concepts of fundamental science.”


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