Where is the Breakthrough Junior Challenge winner now? | Interview with Maryam Tsegaye

We met with Stanford student Maryam Tsegaye to discuss her passion for science communication, her win of the Khan Academy Breakthrough Junior Challenge, and more. Enjoy!

Where is the Breakthrough Junior Challenge winner now? | Interview with Maryam Tsegaye

Maryam Tsegaye is a student at Stanford University and the 2020 winner of the Khan Academy Breakthrough Junior Challenge. She is passionate about science communication and strives to make science accessible and inviting to any audience. She loves watching other science YouTube channels and wants to pass on the same love she has for science to others. Her video for the breakthrough challenge breaks down the complex topic of quantum physics to a level that the general audience can understand. Follow along as Maryam Tsegaye talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

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It takes, I guess, quite a bit of self-motivation and the pandemic, I guess, helped me with that.” – Maryam Tsegaye

Interview with Maryam Tsegaye

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:07.8Science Communication influences

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence. And today we have Maryam.

And Maryam, can you say your last name for people in the audience to hear it from somebody who knows how to say it?

Maryam Tsegaye: Yes. Tsegaye.

Jed: Tsegaye. Okay, so we have Maryam Tsegaye, who did a Khan Academy contest and won it, which is really cool, and is now a first year student at Stanford University. So we’re so glad to have you here.

And what I wanted to hear a little bit about is about your heroes, if you have any, in science communication, and how you decided that science communication is a future for you, and you’ve already been very successful. So tell us a little bit about that.

Maryam: Yeah, so I think for science communication, I’ve had very different exposures to it in some ways. In junior high, I think my biggest influence would be a lot of YouTube channels out there. There’s so much educational content and so many YouTube channels that have very niche topics about so many things. I love how they try to be accessible and to have this content out there for anyone. So I think those are a very good example of trying to make science accessible to everyone. Of course, there are the big figures in science communication like Carl Sagan or Feynman or Neil deGrasse Tyson , and I’ve definitely read their books and watched their interviews and I think they’re also amazing.

So yeah, they’re very, very kind, kind... You think they’re very different, I guess. But I think the priority is just trying to bring science to everyone and not have anyone feel left out or behind because they don’t know something that... You don’t wanna make them feel left out and feel like they were already supposed to know something from before, ’cause that’s very discouraging. So just anyone who makes science very accessible to people.

Jed: Yeah, so it sounds like you really benefited from people on YouTube who made science education videos and who didn’t assume you should have already known this stuff, they were very accessible to you, and you wanna do the same for other people. Is that what you’re thinking?

Maryam: Yeah, I think so. I don’t know what that would look like for me yet, but I think my first goal would be, yeah, to make it very accessible to anyone, not just people who are interested in science, but people who might not be and get them interested in science, ’cause sometimes the science communication that you do see is already... Yes, they don’t want to make you feel left out, but they’re kind of already geared towards people who are interested in science in some way sometimes. I feel like they might have that aim. So really just to make it like anyone.

Jed: Yeah, I think that’s really great. We’ve interviewed a few people on this show that specialized in science education, but most of them did not start off their career at a young age like you, thinking that that’s what they would go into. They sort of worked their way into that role. It would be interesting if you’re able to sort of hold the course and continue, always wanting to be a science educator and popularizer, and then you get to do that. That would be amazing.

Do you think that a good setting for that would be as a professor of a university?

Maryam: I have no idea yet. [chuckle] I think if it would be science popularizing, I don’t know. I’m not exactly sure what that looks like, what the landscape of that is, at the level of university professor or on the Internet. Like, I’m not sure, I don’t know. [chuckle]

0:04:39.2Khan Academy

Jed: Yeah, well, it’ll be interesting to see.

What are some of your favorite YouTube channels?

Maryam: I think a lot of YouTube channels by PBS Digital studios, like Sci Show, Crash Course. Crash Course is more for helping you study for school, but Sci Show, there’s ASAP science, Veritasium, Physics Girl. There’s so many out there, yeah.

Jed: Well, I’m glad that you found them and found them so helpful. And you must have been using Khan Academy at least sometimes, because you knew about the contest for many years before you actually entered it and won.

So how are you using Khan Academy? Was it something that your teachers in Canada signed or was it something you found yourself?

Maryam: No, actually, I started using Khan Academy since I was in grade two. So when they were really early in 2011, my dad found it, ’cause he was... My parents were very adamant on reinforcing academics outside of school, so they wanted us to practice more math or science or whatever, reading. And so my dad was scouring the Internet to find anything that could help us practice more, and he came across Khan Academy, and since then we’ve been using it. And sometimes it would be to help us with school work, and sometimes it would just be to explore other things. And they announced they were partners with the Breakthrough Junior Challenge since the prize launched. So I did hear about it from the very start. And ever since then, I just never did it. [chuckle] So yeah, I think the first year, I was a year too young to join or to participate, but after that, it was always in the back of my mind, I was like, "I know I wanna do this one day", but...

Jed: So did it help that there was a global pandemic that kind of made it so you had more time? Or was it just like, "Okay, this is my last year to try." Or how did you feel about it?

Maryam: Sort of. The pandemic definitely, in some way, it definitely helped because I was... Everyone was on pause. And I thought, "Okay. I have always been debating about doing this competition or not, and now I can spend as much time as I’d like on it." Yeah, I think there was... Even before the pandemic, I was thinking, "Okay, this... I won’t get many chances from here on. So I might as well do it." And then when the pandemic happened, I was already using a lot of my time just reading about anything. It could be history, or science, or whatever. And I was kind of already reading some things about quantum physics, and some things about physics in general. And when the competition came around... Yeah, it just kind of came along, and it was kind of... I treated it more like a personal project that was, I guess, a submission for the competition, as well. So yeah. It takes, I guess, quite a bit of self-motivation. And the pandemic, I guess, helped me with that.

Jed: Awesome. Well, it sounds like your dad’s plan to have you and your family learn things outside of class, really paid off.

Are you the oldest of the siblings? Or are you in the middle?

Maryam: I’m the oldest. I have two younger siblings. Yeah.

Jed: And so they’re gonna have to follow in big footsteps. [chuckle]

So do you think that you would prefer to go back to Canada after you finish whatever it is you’re doing at Stanford, the degree that you end up getting? And then maybe do science popularization from Canada, or you don’t really care?

Maryam: I don’t know yet. Yeah, I feel like that’s a little distant in my... I mean, it’s not that far away, it’s only four years. But I’m not entirely sure yet. I think it is likely that I pursue graduate studies. So if I do, I don’t even know if I would do it here or there. And I guess it would be from then on. Wherever I do graduate studies, that would probably be where I would start, I guess, basing myself in my career. I’m not sure yet. But one or the other is highly likely.

Jed: And of course, it’s not just Canada and the United States, there’s a whole big, wide world out there.

Are there parts of the world that you’ve already visited and wanna go back to? Or...

Maryam: I’ve lived in Ethiopia, here and there, throughout my childhood. I haven’t thought about that as much. I haven’t seen many countries other than Ethiopia, the US, and Canada. So it’d be fun to explore.

0:10:13.2Sign off

Jed: That’s great. Well, I’m sure the world will be your oyster as you complete your degree at Stanford, and as you pursue whatever it is you want to pursue. And it’s just a pleasure to have you on our program today, Maryam. And we wish you all the best in your future.

Maryam: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.