Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Junior Challenge has now announced its eighth winner. The science philanthropist launched the global contest in 2015 as part of his Giving Pledge commitment to support scientific brilliance. The competition is just one of the initiatives that Yuri Milner has launched since signing the Giving Pledge in 2012.
Every year, young people aged 13-18 produce informative videos of up to 90 seconds on a scientific topic that interests them. A four-stage judging process then whittles the entries down to 15 finalists and the ultimate winner. This time, the winner of the Giving Pledge signatory’s contest is Noor Haideri.
16-year-old Haideri has won the 2022 Breakthrough Junior Challenge with her video on the roles that melanopsin and intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) play in the sleep-wake cycle.
In her video, Haideri explains why exposure to light can make it difficult to sleep: When light enters the eye, our rod and cone cells in the retina transform what we see into electrical signals. ipRGCs and the optic nerve carry these signals to the brain. 1% of ipRGCs contain a protein called melanopsin, which helps the brain release a hormone, melatonin, that helps us sleep.
Light with a wavelength of approximately 480 nanometres affects melanopsin, which tells the brain to reduce the release of melatonin. 450-495 nanometres is the wavelength of blue light, which electronic devices emit. That’s why looking at screens like computers and smartphones before going to bed can make it harder to sleep.
Haideri goes on to explain that light reaches the retina even in individuals who have vision impairments where their rod and cone cells don’t function. But these individuals’ ipRGCs still register light. As a result, the ipRGCs still control the release of melatonin, keeping the individual’s sleep-wake cycle on track.
Haideri has won three prizes for her efforts, each funded by Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Prize Foundation as per his Giving Pledge commitment. These prizes include a $250,000 post-secondary scholarship, $50,000 for Dianne Dunn (the teacher who inspired her), and a $100,000 Breakthrough science lab for her school.
Haideri’s dream is to cure cancer, and she has been nominated at school as the person who is most likely to cure disease. She hopes that winning the Breakthrough Junior Challenge will help her pursue her goals.
Every year, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge collects fantastic entries from teenagers all over the world. 2022 was no different, with finalists including:
- Sahand Adibnia, age 18, from the U.S., who created a video about Gabriel’s Horn. In his video, he explains that Gabriel’s Horn is an infinitely long shape and calculates the volume of the shape using an infinite number of 2D cross sections. Through his calculations, Adibnia concludes that pi is the volume of Gabriel’s Horn.
- Vasanth Narayanan, age 18, also from the U.S., who created a video on quantum entanglement. In his video, he uses a card analogy and a coin analogy to show how two items can become entangled. When items are in superposition, such as when cards or coins are flipping, they’re in all possible states at the same time, such as red or blue, or heads or tails.
- Jaz Villanueva, age 18, from the Philippines, who created a video about the limitations of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In her video, she explains that the theory doesn’t align with quantum mechanics, can’t explain cosmology without also telling us that 95% of the Universe is made up of dark matter, and predicts the existence of singularities, which exist in black holes.