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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.

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.

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.

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.”

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