Two East students spend summer 2022 at the Governor’s School of New Jersey


Courtesy of Zhang ('23)

Zhang, Shin and their Olfactory team diluting solutions for their project during an in person week at Governor’s School

Talking to Alena Zhang (’23) and Chris Shin (’23) on a Friday night at my desk on Google Meet was compelling. Both are motivated youth who spread the joy of learning and the wondrous magic of education. Listening to them speak about an experience that heavily influenced both of them, with such passion and zeal oozing from my bright computer screen, was driving, to say the least. 

Zhang and Shin spent a portion of their summers at the Governor’s School in the Sciences at Drew University studying and learning a plethora of coursework, including Modern Physics, Molecular Biology of Cancer, Data Analytics, and Neurobiology. 

“These were high-level classes… but it was an enlightening experience, to say the least,” said Shin. 

The Governor’s School of New Jersey was established in 1983. It is a tuition-free summer residential program for high-achieving high school rising seniors interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects. Currently, there are two programs: the Governor’s School in the Sciences at Drew University and the Governor’s School of Engineering and Technology at Rutgers University. 

This is a highly competitive program: East’s two scholars were accepted to the Sciences program with just 60 other STEM-driven scholars from 2,000 applicants statewide. The application process includes a resume, essay, and finally, a nomination by East’s guidance department.

Zhang and Shin believe doubling up on sciences—taking both Chemistry 1H and AP Physics 1 their sophomore year—set them apart from other applicants by giving them as much science exposure as possible. 

Shin’s high school career has been centered around STEM, with his involvement in Science Olympiad, Biology Club, and his leadership positions at East. He had also taken a neuroscience course at Drexel University the summer before his junior year, where he learned about neuroscience and was invited to a Drexel lab to participate in spinal cord research. 

“I think having that extra experience plus research plus learning and academic rigor really helped my application stand out,” said Shin.

Meanwhile, Zhang has always been more liberal arts-based. But, when she took AP Psychology in her junior year, it opened up a new door: Zhang discovered a passion for learning about human behavior and emotions. At Governor’s School, she chose topics like olfaction (one’s sense of smell) and human behavior while also focusing on the social sciences. 

“[I] [think] my writing background gave my application a bit of an edge; they are [not only] looking for 60 hardcore core scientists, [but also] they are looking for a diverse group of students… my liberal arts side helped me stand out from a pool of strictly science-oriented students,” said Zhang.

Both agree that having skills in other areas while being successful in science and building yourself up is what the school looks for. 

Shin learned about Governor’s school from an upperclassmen friend who attended when he was a freshman. 

“Governor’s School was always on my mind, and as I got into STEM more and more, I set it as a goal to reach towards and build my STEM career and my STEM aspiration towards, and that is what motivated me. I have learned much more STEM and done much better academically with that motivation,” said Shin.

Zhang first heard about Governor’s School from her mother’s colleague whose daughter had attended and came back with a great experience. Later, Zhang’s older sister had also attended, imparting that she had a great time and learned a lot. For most of her high school career, Zhang had been very liberal arts-centered and didn’t really see herself applying in her freshman year. But, as she learned more about the social aspects and human behavior correlation, the program interested her. 

“I decided to take a leap of faith and apply, and I am really glad I did,” said Zhang.

The first two weeks of Governor’s School were virtual while the last week was in person. In the morning, students would have breakfast and head off to their first of three blocks of classes, where professors from different universities and high schools would lecture the students and engage in discussions. After, students would have two to three hours with their team projects. Zhang and Shin were on the same team project and researched “Retronasal Olfactory Habituation.” They tested olfaction and explored how one gets habituated to certain smells and odorants over time. Every day Zhang, Shin, and their team would spend hours at the lab at Drew University working on their research paper. 

“We designed an experiment, we diluted different solutions… and over the next few days, we tested human subjects. I think what was most challenging was working with real human subjects. I had never worked with real human participants… a lot of the data was very raw, and there were a lot of mistakes along the way. It was really interesting to work with real data instead of perfectly manicured data like in previous classes,” said Zhang. 

Using real human subjects, hypothesizing, going through the scientific process, and ultimately writing the 20-page paper was a different experience than anything they were accustomed to. 

Over the next few days, they scrambled to get their research paper done, reflecting that it was highly impactful to be surrounded by other motivated STEM scholars from throughout the state. It was a whole different experience from being at East and placed them in a very challenging but also very motivating environment. 

“The bonds that we developed with other [peers] were [prevalent]; I am still in contact with many of them,” said Shin.

In addition to coursework and research, the school brought guest speakers on current topics. Speakers spoke on the mRNA science behind the COVID-19 vaccine, discoveries in telescopes that led to the discovery of new galaxies and mentorship. 

“[I would] describe it as a typical camp experience in terms of the close bonds you make… you forget that you are in such an [academically rigorous] environment and just enjoy it,” said Zhang. 

Both Zhang and Shin say that the effect of Governor’s School can be felt in their lives right now, in terms of class pace and motivation to go further. It sets them up for success in terms of their futures. 

“[Governor’s] [School] was such a motivating and challenging experience. I can feel the impact as we speak,” said Shin.