From among 400 applicants, only 72 were chosen, including two students at NJIT. Nandini Isaac, a junior and biochemistry major in the Albert Dorman Honors College, and Kevin Blackwell, a freshman studying biology, biophysics and mathematics, were named 2017 Governor’s STEM Scholars. As members of the newest class of the statewide program, Isaac and Blackwell will have the opportunity to network with and learn from New Jersey STEM professionals as well as research organizations, academic institutions and state policymakers. They also will benefit from mentoring, field trips, a team-based research project and four conferences focusing on STEM leadership and government, STEM academia, STEM industry and the STEM economy. Isaac and Blackwell follow in the footsteps of Stefani Kocevska, a 2016 Governor’s STEM Scholar pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering with a minor in chemistry and also an Honors College student.

The Governor’s STEM Scholars program, established in 2013, is a public-private partnership between the Research & Development Council of New Jersey, Governor’s Office, New Jersey Department of Education and Secretary of Higher Education. Participating students range from grade 10 to the Ph.D. level and are selected based on their demonstrated interest in STEM and proven leadership qualities. Ultimately, the program’s goal is to further develop New Jersey’s pipeline of STEM talent and promote the state’s economic development.

Driven to Learning and Research

Governor's STEM Scholar Nandini Isaac

Isaac had learned of the program from Kocevska, who encouraged her to apply and whom she called right after her mother upon receiving word of her acceptance. Shortly thereafter she met her fellow scholars at the first of the four conferences. “Everyone is so motivated and so driven to learning more about all the fields of STEM,” remarked Isaac, who plans to pursue an M.D.-Ph.D.

Since coming to NJIT from Toronto, Canada — her family recently made the move to Long Island, N.Y. — Isaac has been busy. She is the president of the NJIT chapter of the American Chemical Society, serves as an RA at Cypress Hall, and presents student leadership development workshops as a leadership trainer at the Lisa A. Pierce Center for Leadership. She also has been involved in research as an undergrad. As a freshman and sophomore, she worked with James Haorah, associate professor of biomedical engineering, to examine the effects of methamphetamine on the blood-brain barrier, and helped present a poster on their findings at both an NJIT symposium and a Department of Defense symposium at NJIT about traumatic brain injury. Additionally, this past summer she interned at RWJBarnabas Health to study the impact colostrum (early breast milk) has on the development of premature infants.

Now, as a Governor’s STEM Scholar, she is studying the basal ganglia, the part of the brain responsible for motor activity, to learn more about the mechanisms of Parkinson’s disease. The project is based at Rutgers University-Newark, where she will mentor a group of New Jersey high school students who also are Governor’s STEM Scholars and will shadow her there.

Isaac’s interest in STEM and medicine can be traced to her parents and upbringing. “My family’s really big on mathematics and chemistry,” said Isaac, whose father is an IT professional and mother a homeopathic practitioner. “Those subjects were something that was always emphasized at home.” 

Personal Experience Leads to Career Choice

Governor's STEM Scholar Kevin Blackwell

Blackwell, too, is drawn to a career in medicine. He attributes this choice to spending a lot of time at his doctor’s office as a child seeking treatment for colds and the flu. “In my family, we get sick really easily,” said Blackwell, who grew up in Watchung and is the youngest of five siblings. “So me being exposed to all the doctors and seeing how they’re helping people, I was like I have to do that.”

He was 10 years old when he had this epiphany. At 13, he further observed physicians in action after his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. After she lost her battle with the disease, he decided to become an oncologist.

A student in NJIT’s Educational Opportunity Program, Blackwell also plays oboe for the university’s wind ensemble and jazz band. Next semester, he plans to join the NJIT chapters of the National Society of Black Engineers and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

He began participating in research initiatives in high school, examining how spiders search for food sources and how effective platinum-based chemotherapy is in treating breast cancer. As a Governor’s STEM Scholar, he is going in yet another direction research-wise: water desalination. More specifically, he is exploring the use of “natural resources in order to purify the water as well as desalinate it,” he explained. “I want to be as diverse as possible,” he added about his decision to engage in an environmental investigation.

A Valuable Program

Blackwell was “ecstatic” upon finding out he had been named a Governor’s STEM Scholar, and rightly so considering he was told that very few freshmen are admitted into the highly selective program. “Making new connections, networking, that’s like the biggest part of it all,” he said. “I’m a bio-geared person, but for me to be able to get experience with mathematics, engineering, technology, I think that’ll probably help me become a better thinker.”

Isaac agrees that the program will be beneficial. “I think it’s going to open so many doors, because I get to learn about people actually in these industries and in these fields talking about…how STEM helped them. It’s so cool to see a huge range of things that you can do!”

This February, Isaac, Blackwell and all the 2017 Governor’s STEM Scholars will be feted at a conference hosted by NJIT in the university’s Architecture Gallery. The event will feature remarks by David Hodges, director of Governor’s STEM Scholars, along with networking and tours of NJIT’s innovation labs.