Breakthrough Prize Foundation Announces Student Winner Of Sixth Annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge

Maryam Tsegaye, 17, (Fort McMurray, Canada), Receives Top Honors and $400,000 in Education Prizes for Original Video Bringing Quantum Tunneling to Life.

December 3, 2020 – (San Francisco) – The Breakthrough Prize Foundation today announced Maryam Tsegaye, 17, of Fort McMurray, Canada, as the winner of the sixth annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global science video competition designed to inspire creative thinking about fundamental concepts in the life sciences, physics, and mathematics. For the first time this year, there was also a new category on the science of pandemics.

As the Breakthrough Junior Challenge winner, Maryam will receive a total of $400,000 in educational prizes for herself, her teacher and her school. Currently a student at École McTavish Public High School, Maryam will receive a $250,000 college scholarship. Her science teacher, Katherine Vladicka-Davies, who encouraged Maryam’s interest in science and participation in the Challenge, will win a $50,000 prize. And, her high school, École McTavish Public High School, will receive a state-of-the-art science lab valued at $100,000, designed by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Passionate about the capacity of science to unlock the mysteries of the Universe, Maryam used her submission to the Breakthrough Junior Challenge to explain the concept of quantum tunneling and how this lesser-known, fundamental phenomenon makes many aspects of our world possible. Maryam’s video can be viewed here.

“Winning the Breakthrough Junior Challenge is a life-changing moment for me, and presents so many new opportunities that nothing will be the same from now on,” Maryam said. “I am so humbled to be a part of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge community, and to win this for my school, my teachers, my family, the city, and the country.”

To surprise Maryam with the big news, Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, a partner of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, joined astronaut and fellow Challenge judge Scott Kelly to record a special video message. Sitting in class at school, thinking she was watching an ordinary interview between the two, Maryam was amazed to be addressed directly and told she had won the Challenge.

Since its launch in 2015, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge has reached 202 countries. The year’s installment attracted more than 5,600 applicants from 124 countries.

“Congratulations to Maryam, who truly shines as an exemplary science communicator,” said Julia Milner, co-founder of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. “Maryam created a unique, one-of-a-kind video that explained a complicated scientific theory using relatable terms and humor – an impressive feat.”

“Science was at the forefront this year, and it’s important that the next generation of students understands its impact and significance in our world,” said Sal Khan. “Maryam and all of the impressive finalists demonstrated a keen appreciation for science. Khan Academy is proud to partner with the Challenge to expand minds all over the world with deep ideas in science and math.”

“Through the years, I’ve been inspired by the high quality of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge videos, and this year was no exception,” said Scott Kelly, retired NASA Astronaut and Breakthrough Junior Challenge judge. “Maryam’s video is a prime example of how to cleverly simplify a complex idea, and she provided a remarkable explanation of quantum tunneling. Congratulations to Maryam, her teacher, her school, and all the students who will benefit from the new lab.”

For the sixth year, students ages 13-18 were invited to create original videos (up to three minutes in length) that illustrated a concept or theory in the life sciences, physics or mathematics. For this year’s challenge, participants had the option of entering a special submission section focused on the science of pandemics. By establishing this new category, contest organizers gave students the option of exploring a number of the themes that ring especially relevant today, including epidemiology, virology, modeling a disease outbreak, the mathematics of exponential growth, immunology, biostatistics, and pandemics such as COVID-19. All videos were evaluated based on the students’ ability to communicate complex scientific ideas in the most engaging, illuminating, and imaginative ways.

Students from around the globe submitted their videos by June 25, 2020. After two rounds of judging – first, a mandatory peer review, followed by an evaluation panel of judges – the field was narrowed in September to 30 semifinalists. These 30 competed in a Popular Vote on the Breakthrough Prize Facebook page, where the public was invited to vote for their favorite semifinalist submission by “liking,” “sharing,” or posting a positive reaction. Collectively, during the 15-day contest, the 30 videos reached more than 2 million people on the Breakthrough Prize Facebook page, helping to teach and inspire minds across the globe.

The 2020 finalist videos were reviewed by the Selection Committee, comprising: Ian Agol, University of California, Berkeley, and Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics laureate; Rachel Crane, CNN Space and Science Correspondent; author and educator Lucy Hawking; Mae Jemison, science literacy expert, former astronaut, and principal, 100 Year Starship; retired NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly; Sal Khan, founder and CEO, Khan Academy; Ijad Madisch, CEO of ResearchGate; Terence Tao, UCLA, and Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics laureate; Esther Wojcicki, founder, Palo Alto High Media Arts Center; Pete Worden, chairman, Breakthrough Prize Foundation and executive director, Breakthrough Initiatives; and Huda Zoghbi, professor of pediatrics and professor of neuroscience and molecular and human genetics, and Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences laureate.

Breakthrough Junior Challenge is 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.


The Breakthrough Junior Challenge

The Breakthrough Junior Challenge, founded by Yuri and Julia Milner, is a global science video competition, aiming 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.

The Breakthrough Prize

For the ninth year the Breakthrough Prize, renowned as the “Oscars of Science,” will recognize the world’s top scientists. Each prize is $3 million and presented in the fields of Life Sciences (up to four per year), Fundamental Physics (one per year) and Mathematics (one per year). In addition, up to three New Horizons in Physics, up to three New Horizons in Mathematics Prizes and three Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prizes are given out to early-career researchers each year. Laureates attend a live televised award ceremony designed to celebrate their achievements and inspire the next generation of scientists. As part of the ceremony schedule, they also engage in a program of lectures and discussions.

The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki. The Prizes have been sponsored by the personal foundations established by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Jack Ma, Yuri and Julia Milner and Anne Wojcicki. Selection Committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates in each field choose the winners. Information on the Breakthrough Prize is available at

About Khan Academy

Khan Academy is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with the mission of providing a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. Our platform includes more than 70,000 practice problems as well as videos and articles that cover a range of K–12 subjects. Khan Academy allows students to learn key concepts at a pace that’s right for them before moving on to more challenging content. We partner with school districts across the country and around the world that serve students who are historically under-resourced. In the United States, school districts use Khan Academy Districts and MAP Accelerator to help teachers differentiate instruction. Khan Academy Kids is an award-winning free app for children ages two to seven. Nearly 20 million learners use Khan Academy every month in 190 countries and 46 languages. As a nonprofit, Khan Academy relies on donations from foundations, corporations and individuals around the world, as well as earned revenue. For more information, please see research findings about Khan Academy and our press page.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

The Breakthrough Prize Lab for the winning student’s school is designed by and in partnership with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL). Established in 1890, CSHL has shaped contemporary biomedical research and education. Its New York campus boasts 1100 faculty, students and employees and hosts over 12,000 visiting scientists each year for world-renowned conferences and courses. CSHL’s DNA Learning Center is the world’s largest provider of student lab instruction in molecular genetics and teacher training. Materials and methods developed by the DNA Learning Center are accessible for free through more than 20 award-winning educational websites. The Laboratory’s education arm also includes an academic publishing house, a science policy think tank and a graduate program in biological sciences. Visit

National Geographic Partners LLC

National Geographic Partners LLC (NGP), a joint venture between The Walt Disney Company and the National Geographic Society, is committed to bringing the world premium science, adventure and exploration content across an unrivaled portfolio of media assets. NGP combines the global National Geographic television channels (National Geographic Channel, Nat Geo WILD, Nat Geo MUNDO, Nat Geo PEOPLE) with National Geographic’s media and consumer-oriented assets, including National Geographic magazines; National Geographic studios; related digital and social media platforms; books; maps; children’s media; and ancillary activities that include travel, global experiences and events, archival sales, licensing and e-commerce businesses. Furthering knowledge and understanding of our world has been the core purpose of National Geographic for 131 years, and now we are committed to going deeper, pushing boundaries, going further for our consumers and reaching millions of people around the world in 172 countries and 43 languages every month as we do it. NGP returns 27 percent of our proceeds to the nonprofit National Geographic Society to fund work in the areas of science, exploration, conservation and education. For more information, visit or, or find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, LinkedIn and Pinterest.


For more information, including competition rules, video submission guidelines and queries, go to:

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