Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Fort McMurray high schooler Maryam Tsegaye on Dec 7, 2020 in her home.

Graham Whatmough/The Globe and Mail

Fort McMurray high schooler Maryam Tsegaye needs just under three minutes to explain the university-level physics concept of quantum tunnelling in a way that fellow teens can digest.

The 17-year-old references her younger brother’s favourite video game character walking through walls, the probabilities involved with a dice roll, cryptic text messages and the “serious commitment issues” between subatomic waves and particles to explain how infinitesimal parts of us and other objects can transfer to the other sides of barriers.

The Alberta teen impressed the judges of a prestigious international science competition enough to become the first Canadian to win the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, which includes a US$250,000 college scholarship, a US$50,000 prize for her science teacher and a new state-of-the-art lab for her school, valued at US$100,000. She beat out more than 5,600 other applicants from 123 other countries.

Story continues below advertisement

Ms. Tsegaye loves watching engaging experts such as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson explain scientific phenomena and, over the past five years, has viewed many a video-taped submission to the competition, but said she always felt too intimidated to enter herself. That changed with all the free time she was given during the pandemic, she said.

“This year it was quarantine and shut down, so I was just at home and I had more time, and school work was going slower than usual,” Ms. Tsegaye told The Globe and Mail Monday from her home.

Ms. Tsegaye said that before winning the prize she had planned to apply to universities in Ontario and Quebec to study physics and science communication. Now, with her opportunities seemingly as wide as the solar system, she plans on applying at many Ivy League universities.

The Grade 12 student, whose parents immigrated from Ethiopia, said she hopes her win inspires other young women of colour who, like her, have had to turn to Hollywood movies to find role models in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) – with even that being a recent development.

“It means a lot to be out here right now,” said Ms. Tsegaye, who also plays percussion in the school band. “I did not see a figure in science who looked like me or made me feel represented until I watched Hidden Figures in Grade 8 or Grade 9.

“Obviously it’s quite a disappointment that in the 21st century it’s taking that long,” she said, referring to Black girls seeing themselves in STEM leaders.

Her joy at winning was captured two weeks ago by a crew from the international competition, which was started by tech billionaires, including the co-founders of Facebook and Google, and is affiliated to the annual Breakthrough Prize that hands US$3-million to top scientists in a number of fields.

Story continues below advertisement

Fort McMurray high schooler Maryam Tsegaye, centre-left, with her mother Merhawit Berhe, left, father Moges Gebreleoul, centre-right, and brother Leoul Tsegaye, in their home in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Dec. 7, 2020.

Graham Whatmough/The Globe and Mail

Ms Tsegaye’s principal, Scott Barr, helped engineer the ruse needed to bring her and a small group of her friends back into École McTavish Public High School to film her reaction two weeks ago. Told they were there to film a school advertisement for younger grades, the group was then shown a video with former U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Sal Khan, founder of the science education non-profit Khan Academy.

In the clip released with the announcement of Ms. Tsegaye’s win, you see her eyes widen and her head shoot toward a friend in disbelief as prize judge Mr. Kelly exclaims his favourite submission was on quantum tunnelling. Tears immediately start to stream down Ms. Tsegaye’s face as Mr. Khan formally announces that she is the winner.


Mr. Barr said the accolades and acknowledgments are already streaming in for Ms. Tsegaye, with digital congratulations from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, as well as celebrities such as Ron Howard and Karlie Kloss. But, he says, she remains focused on the schoolwork she still has to finish as well as the mountain of university applications she has to send out in the coming weeks.

“Above all else she’s such a kind person, you just couldn’t find a better kid to have something like this happen to,” Mr. Barr asid.

In the final seconds of her winning video, Ms. Tsegaye explains how science holds major life lessons for us all.

Story continues below advertisement

The self-shot clip shifts to black-and-white as footage of her playing an original tune at the home piano is spliced onto a close-up of her wondering aloud: “Maybe the quantum world is telling us that, when faced with an obstacle, there’s a small chance we can defy expectations and breach barriers.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow the author of this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies