Jeffery Chen is just ready for things to go back to the way they were.
The Burlingame High School senior won first place in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, receiving a $250,000 college scholarship, $50,000 for his science teacher and $100,000 science lab for his school.
“It feels really amazing, but it is nice to be back to school and have life be mostly normal,” he said.
Chen, 17, won the international competition Sunday, Nov. 3, with a three-minute educational video he created about neutrino astronomy, which tracks cosmic events through the capture of galactic particles.
Ultimately, he was selected ahead over 14 other finalists from the United States, Canada and India by a panel of judges including Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy; author Lucy Hawking; former astronaut Scott Kelly and other celebrity intellectuals.
The project, which he completed over the course of roughly two weeks prior to entering the competition earlier this summer, combined Chen’s two passions — astronomy and filmmaking.
While growing up in Illinois, Chen said he developed an interest in the study of the stars and planets following a Cub Scouts trip to a planetarium.
“I’ve always been interested in astronomy and what we can discover beyond our home,” said Chen, who moved to Burlingame while in middle school.
Consequently, around the same time he started making movies — an art form he quickly grew enamored with as an effective medium for telling stories in a compelling fashion.
“It is just, in my opinion, one of the most interesting ways to give an idea to an audience,” said Chen.
Melding those two interests, Chen entered the Breakthrough Junior Challenge for the first time last year. And while he did not advance as far, Chen said the lessons he learned proved invaluable the second time around.
“What I tried to do this year was to see the competition more as a learning experience than a competition itself,” he said. “And I think that really helped.”
In that pursuit, Chen said he took time to watch many of the videos that advanced with his submission through the challenge, expanding his intellectual interests and keeping notes on effective filmmaking techniques.
But such an effort only went so far to help calm the nerves that built over the long waits between judging rounds, so Chen decided to take on a new interest.
“I tried out for the school musical,” he said, adding he ultimately landed a key role as Sky in the school’s production of “Mamma Mia!” Through the process, he said he developed another interest — singing, which he adds to his growing list of pastimes, also including standup comedy.
Looking ahead, Chen said he hopes to continue combining his hobbies and intellectual interests as he pursues an environmental technology degree which he hopes to use to tackle climate change.
Though he is still undecided about where he will attend college next year, Chen said he recently applied to Stanford University. He admitted his recent win opened doors which previously may have been closed.
“There are already so many opportunities that I could explore because I won this competition,” he said.
And with the new science learning space to be built at his school, Chen said he is hopeful to inspire other Burlingame High School students to push the boundaries of their imaginations too.
“I just hope I can continue to support my school in the future,” said Chen, who took special care to express his appreciation to the school community which he said nurtured his vision and helped make his victory possible.
More broadly though, Chen said he appreciates the recognition and opportunity he received through sharing two of his primary passions.
“I’m definitely, really honored,” he said.
Go to youtube.com/watch?v=2oizXmvv8iQ&feature=youtu.be to watch Chen’s video.
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