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M-A student's video is semifinalist in Breakthrough contest

Maya Khodabakchian's video explains brain neuroplasticity in less than three minutes

A video by Menlo-Atherton High School student Maya Khodabakchian explaining how neuroplasticity allows the brain to change as new skills are learned is one of 29 semifinalists in the annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge for student videos that explain difficult scientific concepts.

The contest, founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, challenges students ages 13 to 18 to make videos of three minutes or less explaining an important scientific theory, concept or principle in physics, mathematics or life sciences. Khodabakchian's video was one of 12,000 international entries.

Until Sept. 20, the 15-year-old Atherton resident's video about neuroplasticity is posted on Facebook along with the other semifinalists' entries, vying to become the "People's Choice" contest winner.

Votes are cast by liking, sharing or commenting on the video.

Khodabakchian, a sophomore, says she was inspired to make her video by the recent interest in and discussions about mental health in youth. She explains that she is the type of person who wants to look at the science behind a subject, and her research led her to the concept of neuroplasticity, the idea that brain pathways can be rewired with repeated actions.

Khodabakchian says neuroplasticity is also behind the idea of "growth mindset," a concept developed by Carol Dweck in her book, "Mindset: The New Psychology of Success," which says that instead of being born with innate basic qualities, people can change their characteristics through their own efforts.

Although Khodabakchian is still years away from making a choice about college, she says she is attracted to bioengineering as the "crossroads of biology and technology."

"I strongly believe the next step for medicine is technology," Khodabakchian says.

She was also a leader on her school robotics team and an active participant in debate.

A year-long broadcasting class in Hillview Middle School's broadcast lab that taught her "the skill of being able to tell stories via video" got Khodabakchian interested in making and editing videos. She says she's made several short documentaries about people who are talented in art or technology, and about a local coffee shop.

"It's really great to be able to tell stories and teach through videos," Khodabakchian says.

The grand prize winner in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, chosen by a panel of distinguished scientists, will receive a $250,000 college scholarship, $50,000 for his or her teacher, and a $100,000 science lab for his or her school.

The winner and a parent or guardian will also have travel expenses covered to attend the Nov. 4 Breakthrough Awards ceremony in Palo Alto.

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