17-Year-Old Wins $400k For Explaining Quantum Tunneling In Breakthrough Science Challenge


December 19, 2020

Move on over, Bill Nye!

A 17-year-old just won $400,000 for explaining quantum tunneling in the annual Breakthrough Junior Science Challenge, AJ+ reports.

Maryam Tsegaye might be this generation’s next science wiz! The teen took home the grand prize in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, an annual competition for students aged 13-18, allowing them to share innovative videos about complex science or math principles to win prize money for themselves and their school. 


“This is an absolutely life-changing moment.” Watch this teen find out she won a $400K prize for breaking down quantum tunneling through video games and rolling the dice.

Posted by AJ+ on Tuesday, December 8, 2020


This year, students had the opportunity to create a short video explaining a big idea in one of four fields: physics, mathematics, life sciences, or COVID-19. Films had to be 3 minutes or less and were judged in 4 categories, engagement, illumination, creativity and difficulty. Maryam chose quantum tunneling as her topic, “a complex principle [that explains] when a particle can go through a potential energy barrier.” 

While watching her brother play video games where he walked through walls, Tsegaye realized that was the way she was going to explain the concept in the simplest way possible. 


“Imagine if you could walk through walls in real life. And it turns out you can – at a quantum level. We’re talking on the scale of the stuff that make up atoms. Ok, so little elementary particles can ‘walk through walls.’ But I can’t because my body is made up of more than a quadrillion of these quantum objects. And the odds of all of them tunneling through the wall is practically impossible,” she explained in her video.

She explained that it is quantum tunneling that allows for nuclear fusion, which is how the sun can release so much energy, thus powering life on earth. Quantum tunneling is also the way the body’s DNA mutates, which means…” Quantum tunneling is the reason we’re alive,” Maryam said.

Her hilarious and incredibly simplistic video of such a complex subject garnered her the grand prize, making her the Breakthrough Junior Challenge winner. The teen was surprised at school via Zoom by the founder of Khan Academy Sal Khan and astronaut Scott Kelly. They announced Maryam as the winner and ran down a list of prizes, including a $250,000 scholarship, $100,000 for her school’s science lab and $50,000 for her teacher.


As she sat stunned, crying, supported by her classmates and teacher, Maryam rushed down the hall to break the news to her father. The two immediately embraced and took in the moment together. 

“A very happy moment for me. I would say, the door is wide open now. I mean, she can go anywhere,” her father says in the video. 


The teen competed against 5,600 students worldwide to win the Breakthrough Junior Challenge and hopes that her victory will inspire other Black girls to get interested in STEM and take on leadership roles. 

“This is an absolutely life-changing moment. It’s not just me winning right now. It’s my school; it’s my teachers, my family. The city and even the country,” said Maryam.

Congratulations! You are indeed a genius, Maryam!


Photo Courtesy of @AsapSCIENCE/Twitter

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