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Burlingame teen winner of a $400,000 international science video competition

If, perhaps, you don't quite understand neutrino astronomy, 17-year-old Jeffery Chen can tell you all about it.

The senior at Burlingame High School is the winner of this year's Breakthrough Junior Challenge, an international competition that challenges youth between ages 13 and 18 to explain a complex topic from the world of physics, math or the life sciences in an original and engaging 3-minute video.

Chen's winning submission explains how astronomers are using the neutrino particle, an almost massless, subatomic particle that travels through space almost at the speed of light. The so-called "ghost particles" can pass through planets, stars, and interstellar dust, allowing scientists to observe their travel and offering a window into cosmic events outside the solar system and across the universe.

Chen became fascinated with astronomy after visiting a planetarium in elementary school.

"As a kid, I was always fascinated by the question of what's out there. When I chose to make this video, I wanted to capture the feeling of wonder and awe about how vast the universe is," Chen said.

Beating out thousands of other submissions, Chen will receive a $250,000 college scholarship, while his teacher, Heather Johnson, will get $50,000, and his high school will receive $100,000 for a new science lab.

Johnson, who teaches biology and environmental science, advises the environmental science club that Chen founded. In addition to regular beach clean-ups, the environmental club is researching a proposal for the school district to replace its power with renewable energy and strategies to reduce waste.

The club also launched an annual science film festival in Burlingame, which is going into its third year. Chen got into filmmaking in the seventh grade and has since anchored a "Today in Science" segment for his school's television station and won the local Clear the Air film festival in 2017 for a video about the controversy over plastic water bottles.

"He does have this innate ability to take something that is extremely complex and make it so that all can walk away with an understanding, and further their curiosity," Johnson said. "He can see and communicate science."

The club recently opened up the film festival to elementary and middle school-aged students, Chen said.

"We initially didn't know if elementary or middle school kids would care about the environment, but we had 20 to 30 submissions, and we were so impressed at how smart these kids are," he said. "They made really well done, emotional videos that made some members of our club cry a bit."

Chen hopes the $100,000 new science lab for Burlingame High School will create opportunities for the campus to expand its curriculum and become a magnet for students interested in science.

"I'd like to see more specialized classes – other schools in our district have anatomy and biotech, and if we could add that to the curriculum, we could attract a lot more science-minded kids to go to our school," Chen said.

Prior to the awards ceremony Sun., November 3, Chen submitted his first college application Saturday night. With college on the horizon next year, Chen said he's often torn about what to study.

"There's always been a conflict for me between, do I want to focus on astrophysics and astronomy and these things I've been fascinated with, or do I want to focus on what's here, and what we have right now," Chen said. "For now, I'm mostly focused on environmental science. If we can't protect what we have here, it won't matter."

The Breakthrough Prize is awarded by a foundation with sponsors that include Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. The prize, dubbed the "Oscars of Science," is entering its eighth year of honoring achievements in science.

The video contest has also opened other doors for Chen. On Saturday, he met a personal hero, Sheperd Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope team that earlier this year captured the first image of a black hole. The team won the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

Another childhood hero, retired American astronaut Scott Kelly, is on the judging panel for the video competition.

"I'm overwhelmed with everything that's happening and all these amazing opportunities ... to speak to people I really never thought I'd speak to before," Chen said. "I'm a little bit at a loss – I want to use this opportunity to become a better person."

Johnson, Chen's teacher, said more scientists and educators need to create space for youth like Chen to excel.

"I would encourage all educators and scientists to ... look at our youth and see them as an inspiration, and allow for spaces within the adult world for youth to take hold of the direction we push science," Johnson said.

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