We met with Stanford University student Maryam Tsegaye to discuss her win of the Khan Academy Breakthrough Junior Challenge. Enjoy!
Maryam Tsegaye was the 2020 winner of the Khan Academy Breakthrough Junior Challenge. Her video explains quantum tunneling in a fun and engaging way on a level that the average student can understand. Originally interested in entropy she became interested in quantum tunneling and wanted others to be able to understand this complex yet interesting topic. As a freshman at Stanford University, Tsegaye is interested in Physics and Science Communications. Maryam gives advice to future students entering the Khan Academy Breakthrough Challenge. She tells students that it is more important to find a topic they are passionate about than one they think will win. She encourages students to go for it! After making her video with minimal previous video experience or expertise she thinks any student interested in the competition should give it a shot.
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A lot of the courses that I'm taking are not traditional, like put this in a box of a certain subject that you would in high school.” – Maryam Tsegaye
(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence and I’m here with Maryam, who is the International Breakthrough Challenge winner and you did your video about quantum tunnels.
So first we just wanna hear how did you get interested in this topic and why did you choose to do your video about this?
Maryam Tsegaye: Hi. Yeah. So I started off researching about entropy for my video. I knew that I wanted to stick with a more physics-related topic, but as I was watching something about entropy, it very briefly mentioned quantum tunnelling, like, very, very briefly and I was like, "Oh, I’ve never heard about this." You hear about other quantum phenomena, but I’ve never heard about tunnelling specifically and I searched it up and immediately went down this rabbit hole of articles and whatnot and thought, "Okay, I think I prefer quantum tunnelling as a topic and to make a video out of it since I... " It caught my attention and it was very intriguing so I thought I could share that with others.
Karina: Wow. So you just found it really interesting and you wanted other people to be able to learn about it too?
Maryam: Yes. Yeah.
Karina: That is awesome. And so you said that you knew you wanted to do something in physics, so now as... You’re a freshman in college, right?
Karina: So now do you think you’re gonna major in something in physics?
Maryam: That’s my plan right now. I’m undeclared, but I’m taking that track for now and we’ll see where that takes me. I’m not totally committed to anything, but that’s the plan for now.
Karina: Wow, that’s awesome. Well, after this you’ll be interviewed by a physics professor, so that’ll be interesting. And how did you get into physics? Why is that what you’re thinking of doing?
Maryam: I knew for a very long time since I was really young that I wanted to do something in science. I wasn’t entirely sure what. And in high school when we started taking physics, I realized that a lot of the questions that I asked in general about science tend to boil down to physics in some way, so it just seemed like the right path to try out.
Karina: Wow, that’s awesome. And so looking forward, what do you think is kind of...
What do you think your plans are going forward?
Maryam: For now I’m gonna try out, see what physics research is like as an undergrad and see how that goes. And I’m really opened to trying things and I’m not entirely sure. If I do go into the sciences then... Or if I stick with that, which is very likely, I’m also thinking about science communication and how to integrate that into whatever I do. So yeah, something like that.
Karina: Wow, that’s amazing.
And so as a freshman in college, what do you think has been the biggest transition for you or maybe the best thing transitioning or the hardest thing?
Maryam: I think one of the best things... Probably the amount of options you have as to what to explore ’cause it’s really not like high school and I find that really interesting. A lot of the courses that I’m taking are not traditional, like put this in a box of a certain subject that you would in high school and I get really interdisciplinary, which I enjoy.
Karina: Wow, that’s awesome. So just being able to choose classes that aren’t your standard like Math or Science or English?
Karina: Yeah. And we’ve heard that from a lot of professors is like, high school you kinda have to do the basics, get your good foundations, but then when you get to college you can get into the really interesting things that you actually enjoy and are actually passionate about.
So, that is really good to hear. And a lot of the people who watch this are young people like you or like me, [chuckle] so what advice would you have for them as somebody who won this big competition and just as a student who’s gone through almost a semester now of your first year of college?
…try to focus on really what captivates you, what really makes you want to research the topic that you're interested in or whatever you plan on making your video on and to really not be afraid to experiment or to even participate in the competition…” – Maryam Tsegaye
Maryam: If I were to give advice about the competition specifically, I would say, "Don’t try to make something that you think will win ’cause... "Will win." That wasn’t my goal when I was doing this, but obviously it turned out something pretty crazy. I would say try to focus on really what captivates you, what really makes you want to research the topic that you’re interested in or whatever you plan on making your video on and to really not be afraid to experiment or to even participate in the competition because when I... I knew about the Breakthrough Junior Challenge for more than five years when I participated, but I never did it until last year. So that was my first time doing it and it was because I felt intimidated by other videos.
So if you’re on the fence about the competition, just do it. You have no idea. And regardless of where your video ends up, it is something... It’s an experience you won’t forget. You learn so much about boiling down a difficult science topic into something that anyone can understand or you just learn about the content itself and you find it really interesting or you learn things about communication and video editing. There’s just so much you can gain from that experience. And as a university student, I feel like... It’s still the beginning and I can’t say too much, so I’m not totally sure, but to be aware of, I guess, time. [chuckle] It’s very different from high school.
Karina: Yeah. So time management I’m sure is completely different.
Karina: Yeah. That’s awesome. And in terms of the actual video, just going for it, not being afraid to submit it, that is awesome.
Did you have video editing experience before you did this?
Maryam: I had very self-taught experience just from making videos at home or just fun personal videos or school projects, although the school projects weren’t focused on video editing, it was just a project about something else and then you might make a video about it. So in that sense, yes, but actually one of the things that made me intimidated about the competition was how advanced everyone else’s video editing was and then I knew that I had very basic software and even at some point not the right devices. It was really kind of not ideal. My computer was very broken when I was trying to edit on that and I had my friend help me on his iPad since he had a certain app he could help me edit with and his iPad was all cracked and broken and the screen was like... It was really, really difficult, but you can really make it work. And the competition is not about video editing, it’s about science communication. So if you focus on that and you are very focused on really the communication and deliverance, then I think that’s the priority.
Karina: Wow. And I think that is a great place to leave off. So basically for this competition, don’t worry about winning, focus on something you’re passionate about and you definitely do not have to be a pro at video editing, clearly, to win. So yeah, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. It was really interesting hearing about this and just talking with you, so thank you so much.
Maryam: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
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