STEM Scholars: Pairing New Jersey’s Best and Brightest

By Anne Levin

Despite its diminutive size, New Jersey is home to the highest concentration of scientific professionals in the nation. Some even call the Garden State the “medicine chest of the world.” With 17 of the top 20 biopharmaceutical companies operating within its borders, little New Jersey is the epicenter of invention when it comes to science, technology, engineering and mathematics – the four words that form the popular acronym STEM.

But there’s a problem. When New Jersey kids graduate high school, they tend to leave instead of looking for more local centers of higher education, especially those that specialize in STEM. This means that the powerhouse companies can have a hard time finding the next generation of experts for research and development.

“New Jersey exports more college students than any other state in the country,” says David Hodges, who directs the Governor’s STEM Scholars Program, started last year. “And that’s not good. We need to create something like 269,999 jobs in STEM by 2018. The problem is compounded by the fact that we have a lot of baby boomers here on the verge of retirement. New Jersey is heavily STEM-dependent, so we’re going to take that loss a lot harder than other states.”

Galvanized by the dramatic statistics, The Research & Development Council of New Jersey announced the STEM Scholars Program in February 2013 in partnership with the Governor’s Office, New Jersey Department of Education, and Secretary of Higher Education. The idea is to bring together 50 STEM savvy high school and college students each year to tackle important research. Projects are designed by the college students and implemented by their younger colleagues. Efforts in this inaugural year range from building a mini-drone to doing an olfactory experiment to try and measure the sense of smell.

By the time the school year ends, these teams of youthful researchers will have attended four conferences together. At the final event, they will present the results of their projects.The group judged to have completed the most impressive research project will be invited to the 36th Annual Edison Patent Awards, which celebrate the year in innovation.

The first group of STEM Scholars was culled from a pool of some 225 applicants. Information was sent to every superintendent and county in the state. The Research & Development Council also contacted all of New Jersey’s universities. An advisory board of professionals in industry, academia, and government made the final selections.

“We were looking for students who showed not only an aptitude for STEM but also leadership in their communities,” says Hodges. That includes students like Iris Rukshin, a senior at High Technology High School in Lincroft. While working on math and computer science projects, she finds time to teach English and translate at a local day care center.

The 17-year-old has been entranced by math and science as long as she can remember. Her father is a cardiologist, and her mother is a former engineer who now works as a registered nurse. “The thing that got me hooked on research is that moment when you see something that finally makes sense – when you understand something,” Rukshin says. “It’s that ‘aha’ moment that is kind of the drug of research.”

Working with a team under the mentorship of College of New Jersey junior Susan Knox, who is an alumnus of Stuart Country Day School, Rukshin is, as she says, “identifying the lateralization threshold of the trigeminal nerve.” Asked to translate that into layman’s terms, she immediately makes the leap. “When you’re smelling,” she explains, “there are two types of olfactory senses. One is smelling, and the other is almost tactile. Like when you inhale mint, it feels cool, right?”

The team is trying to stimulate that tactile sense without activating the actual sense of smell. “Lateralization refers to which side it is coming from,” Rukshin continues. “If we know the threshold, we can identify how the nerve functions and contribute to our knowledge of anosmia, which is the term for not being able to smell. And this is important for people with anosmia, because they are actually prone to depression. There are so many things anosmics can’t do. They can’t tell when food is rotten so they often get sick more often. Most people can’t relate to that because we don’t often think of what it would be like to lose our sense of smell.”

Princeton University freshman Jeffrey Register is fascinated by chemical engineering, which is not surprising since his parents are both chemical engineers. While a student at West Windsor Plainsboro High School, he loved science and math.

“I never had a program quite like this one,” he says of the STEM Scholars. “I took all the science and math courses I could in high school. And I interned at a chemical engineering lab one summer. That was good, but nothing quite as organized or as broad as the STEM Scholars program.”

Register is mentoring five high school STEM scholars on a project to make wet chemistry solar cells. The team is testing the cells’ output voltage and current to determine which is best. “And then we’ll change a factor of the cell to see how that changes the output,” Register says.

Other college mentors in the program come from Rutgers University, Rowan University, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Stevens Institute of Technology. Their high school colleagues are from all over the state. A browse through the group’s biographies on the STEM Scholars website yields an eclectic list of topics of expertise — humanoid robotics, astronautical engineering, and biomedical engineering, to name just a few. Extra-curricular activities range from volunteering with a local first aid squad to playing clarinet in the New Jersey Senior Youth Orchestra.

Like Register, some of the students have already interned with local STEM companies. This gives them a head start on one of the aims of the program. “We want to connect all of the students to an employer or an internship,” says Hodges. “One of the institutions that has been very helpful is Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. They’re taking on four interns, two at the college level and two at the high school level. This is a very important part of the program.”

While some large companies such as Exxon, Chevron, and Lockheed Martin have their own STEM programs, others rely on state-run initiatives to develop talent. “STEM is a unique program that has been around for over half a century,” says Hodges. “But there wasn’t any kind of statewide program that really addressed the programs New Jersey has, as a STEM state. Now, that has changed. We’re pairing industry leaders with the best and brightest STEM scholars, and this means a lot for our future.”