Freshman becomes Junior Breakthrough Finalist

Faith Nguyen, a freshman specializing in film arts, film and television production, became a finalist in the annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge for her in-house video explaining string theory. (Photo courtesy of Faith Nguyen)

After removing her four wisdom teeth, Faith Nguyen went down to her basement and spent the next three days filming a video explaining string theory. Although she feels “miserable” because of “every negative side effect” of the medication she received after the operation, Nguyen overcame the pain and completed her project in time to submit it to the Breakthrough Junior Challenge 2021. .

At the time, Nguyen was a high school student living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Now a freshman at USC majoring in film arts, film and television production, Nguyen became one of the remaining 16 finalists for Breakthrough Junior in November.

The Breakthrough Junior Challenge is an annual global competition in which students aged 13-18 submit a three-minute video on a concept or theory in life sciences, physics or mathematics. The winner receives a scholarship of $ 250,000 for the college and a prize of $ 50,000 for the teacher who inspired them. The winner’s high school is also eligible to receive a revolutionary $ 100,000 science lab designed by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

This year, the challenge attracted more than 3,400 applicants. Each submission underwent a mandatory peer review and evaluation by a panel of judges, which reduced the number of applicants to 30 semi-finalists.

Nguyen researched, wrote, filmed, edited and animated the entire video on her own during her quarantine. Nguyen chose to cover string theory because she found the topic interesting and wanted to make the topic more accessible to a younger audience.

“What I thought was: string theory is something I’ve heard of before, but I feel like it’s a scientific topic that everyone is very vaguely familiar with but can’t explain. what it is. I thought it would be interesting to learn something alongside the audience, ”Nguyen said. “Quantum physics, in particular, is a very interesting subject. I’m not a scientist by any means, but I think it’s very interesting how there is this whole other world that is super microscopic and small.

After Khan Academy and the Breakthrough Prize organization named Nguyen as one of the semi-finalists, one of its high school teachers, David Morris, made arrangements to promote his video in the school newspaper. . Morris encouraged community members to vote for his submission on the Breakthrough Facebook page to increase Nguyen’s chances of advancing to the next round as a finalist.

Morris has been Nguyen’s mentor for two and a half years. The two met when Nguyen enrolled as a student in Morris’s film production course where Morris said he could tell Nguyen had a gift “right away”.

“There was just a sparkle in his eye,” Morris said. “She’s already arrived in our high school TV studio [a] Fully formed [filmmaker] with videos she had already made and visions for the videos she wanted to make.

The more he got to know Nguyen, the more Morris respected her as an artist. Although he said he wouldn’t normally let students lend his equipment, he started letting Nguyen borrow lights, gimbals, tripods, and microphones until she graduated.

“She’s just motivated to push her skills. It’s such a rare thing, and I don’t know how teachable it is, ”Morris said. “She knew she was good and she knew she was smart, but she wanted to be better and she wanted to be smarter. At a time, [she’s a] very, very humble child. I mean, she would be the first to criticize her own work.

Nguyen said her mother Grace Nah was another great source of support and inspiration. Although Nah said she initially had reservations about Nguyen’s pursuit of a film career, by the time her daughter was about to graduate from high school, she “knew that was where was her passion “and wanted her to” get started “.

“I would say, [Faith] has always been a storyteller, ”said Nah. “She was the one around, putting on little games with her dolls and things like that, so we always knew she had that really, really creative side to her.”

Nah initially told Nguyen about the competition. When Nah found out her daughter was a finalist, she said it was deeply “rewarding”.

“She’s very determined when she wants to do something, and she’s succeeded,” Nah said. “We were extremely proud. ”

The 16 finalist videos are currently being submitted for review by the 13-member challenge selection committee, which consists of such figures as Khan Academy founder and CEO Sal Khan, former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Terence. Tao, professor at UCLA and Breakthrough Prize. Laureate in Mathematics. The Breakthrough Prize will announce the winner of the challenge by the end of November.

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