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Video contest a life-changer for Alberta student

Teacher credited with helping cultivate student’s love of science

January 12, 2021 Cory Hare, ATA News Managing Editor
Fort McMurray student Maryam Tsegaye is Canada’s first ever recipient of the prestigious science video contest Breakthrough Junior Challenge.

It’s a cliché that you find in stories everywhere: a plucky young student enters a prestigious contest “just for fun” but surprises herself by defying the odds and winning the darn thing. A surge of accolades and affluence ensues and her life is forever changed.

Well, this time it’s not a fictional account starring Anne Hathaway or Hilary Duff, but rather the real life of Maryam Tsegaye, a Grade 12 student from Fort McMurray.

Last month Tsegaye learned that she’d won the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global contest that requires entrants to create a video explaining a science phenomenon of their choosing. The win comes with a $250,000 post-secondary scholarship, $100,000 for a science lab at Tsegaye’s school and $50,000 for her chosen teacher.

“It took me a while to absorb that it was happening to me,” Tsegaye said during an interview held several weeks after she learned of her win. “Now it’s sunk in a bit and I’m working on making use of the opportunity.”

With her winnings in her back pocket, Tsegaye is now researching and applying for post-secondary programs that were previously out of reach due to financial constraints.

“It definitely feels like a lot of doors have been opening up for me,” she said.

Positive role model

A student at École McTavish Public High School, Tsegaye created a three-minute video explaining quantum tunnelling.

An aspiring scientist, Tsegaye listed her science teacher Kathy Vladicka as a major influence. Prior to becoming a teacher, Vladicka was a biological researcher at the University of Alberta.

“I knew I liked science and I wanted to become a scientist of some sort and contribute to science in some way, but I’d never seen a scientist or even knew what it was like,” Tsegaye said.

Last year she connected with Vladicka and adopted her as a go-to person for science questions.

“She’s given me insight about post-secondary, research work. I’m very grateful to her,” Tsegaye said.

Vladicka said her involvement in Tsegaye’s video project was minimal. And during the past year she’s been challenged to keep up with Tsegaye’s endless supply of questions.

“Maryam is unique in how curious she is about the world and how much she explores on her own and how much she thinks and tries to form connections,” Vladicka said.

“It’s really cool to be part of somebody’s journey where their whole world just opens up and they have so much potential.”

Principal Scott Barr noted that the award will have a longstanding impact at McTavish.

“Her legacy here is going to live on. She’s going to forever change kids’ lives in this building,” he said.

Approachable approach

Tsegaye’s video is a casual three-minute explanation of quantum tunnelling, a phenomenon whereby matter can pass from one side of a barrier to another. It’s a phenomenon that only came to Tsegaye’s attention by happenstance while she was researching other ideas online.

“It’s not a rare thing that happens in the world. It happens all around us,” she said. “I was quite surprised that it’s that fundamental.”

Her approach to communicating the complex science was to avoid all use of math, jargon and formulas. Instead, she used dice and the concept of probability to convey the concept in lay terms. Her video includes simple graphics, offhand humour and unbridled enthusiasm that jumps off the screen.

“I wanted the whole video to come off as informal and very, very approachable,” she said.

While videos submitted for the contest often focus on high production values, Tsegaye concentrated on simple and effective communication.

“I made my video on a broken computer with my friend on his shattered iPad using Google slides, so it doesn’t take very fancy software or technology to get it done. You just need proper science and a good science explanation,” she said.

Tsegaye was born in Ontario after her parents emigrated from Ethiopia about 20 years ago. For the last 10 years the family has lived in Fort McMurray, where her father has supported the family by working as a civil engineer, first for Alberta Transportation and then for the city of Fort McMurray.

Tsegaye said it’s a relief to her family that financing her post-secondary education is no longer a concern. Vladicka said she finds it extra gratifying to see someone from a modest background achieve such great success.

“She didn’t come to this with all sorts of privilege,” Vladicka said. “This shows you what public education in Alberta can do.” ❚

Watch for yourself

Information about the award, including Maryam Tsegaye’s winning video, can be found at

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