Rebecca Lubot and Kim Case: R&D Council explains how it’s trying to stem the tide of STEM students’ outmigration

The Interview Issue 2019

By Tom Bergeron
New Jersey | Dec 27, 2019 at 12:15 pm
From our print edition

Brain drain. It’s the phrase for the best and brightest New Jersey high school students leaving the state. And it’s a frequent lament of business leaders, politicians, university officials, economists and — for those of us paying out-of-state tuition — parents.

The Research & Development Council of New Jersey is doing something about it. In fact, it has been for the past five years. The Governor’s STEM Scholars program identifies nearly 100 top scholars in the state — in high school through doctoral programs — and runs a yearlong research program that aims to show them all of the possibilities in STEM that exist in New Jersey if they stay home for school.

Top Science, technology, engineering and math companies — including Celgene, Public Service Enterprise Group and Merck — and some of the state’s top STEM universities, including Princeton, Rutgers, Rowan, New Jersey Institute of Technology and Kean, participate. Among other things, students participate in four symposiums — STEM in business, industry, government and academia.

Rebecca Lubot, the director of the program, said it’s a way to make connections.

“We identify the top talent in STEM here in New Jersey and introduce them to the best New Jersey STEM economy, with this goal of bolstering the education and career pipeline here in the state,” she said.

Kim Case, executive director of the Research & Development Council, said the program grew out of a desire by industry leaders to have more New Jersey students in the workforce pipeline.

“The board of directors at the council had deep concern about the talent pipeline in the state,” she said. “I think a lot of that stemmed from them just talking with their own children.

“These top companies have an opportunity to recruit globally — and they were doing pretty well filling their numbers. But, when they talked with people in New Jersey, they were not seeing the same excitement around STEM. They knew that needed to change.”

Case and Lubot talk with ROI-NJ about the program and its goals. The interview was edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Talk about how the ‘brain drain’ led to the creation of this program.

Kim Case: Brain drain was a common concern with the board of directors at the R&D Council. We were losing so many college students, so we thought about a program that could build upon leadership in STEM and content in STEM and introduce students in grades 10 through college to industry, academic and government opportunities here in New Jersey and in STEM.

My background is in teaching. So, we follow this basic concept: I do, we do, you do. I am going to model for you with good content. We are going to work on it together. And then you are going to go out and do it yourself. I think that’s really what the Governor’s STEM Scholars program is doing. You’ve got industry leaders and STEM professionals in the state doing the work. We’re doing it together through the Research & Development Council and now bringing students in and then hopefully sending them out in the workforce here in New Jersey.

ROI: That sounds like a great idea. But also one that requires funding. Where does that come from?

Rebecca Lubot: We’re a public-private partnership of the R&D Council, the Governor’s Office, the Department of Education, the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education and private businesses and industries. Right now, we’re solely funded by these private businesses and industries.

ROI: How difficult is it to get into?

RL: It’s rigorous. Applications go out in March in conjunction with STEM month. Students need a 3.5 GPA or above, and they have to write a few essays and get a recommendation from someone who’s familiar with their work in STEM. We’re proud to say that we have 22% program growth. We are at 95 scholars this academic year, split among undergraduate and graduate students.

KC: The scholars we have are incredible. It’s hard to turn kids away. We could really argue in support of about a hundred of them after the hundred we let in. Some of these kids have patents and they’re 15, 16 years old. Some have NSF grants.

ROI: Talk about the program.

RL: We break the kids into groups to do yearlong research projects. The great part about this is that the undergraduate and graduate students mentor the high school students on the research teams. At the end of the year — and our program runs with the academic year — we have a team of government industry and academic professionals who will judge their research projects, so we have a winning research project award. This year, the goal is to get some of the research papers published.

There’s also a lot of interaction with STEM leaders. Then there are the four symposiums (STEM in government, STEM in academia and STEM in business and industry). These symposiums are great. We have thought leaders in business and industry that we invite into speak and a lot of fun activities, like a speed networking session. It’s based on speed dating, and the research teams go around table to table and we have an industry thought leader there to speak with them about career development, how they choose that career, their path, etc. We’ve had people from Becton Dickinson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Celgene, (PSEG), Merck, IBM and ExxonMobil, among others.

And we’ll fill out the program with visits to some of our sponsors. We recently had a visit to Celgene; later this year, we’ll be going to Hackensack Meridian Health, where we’ll see their innovation center. We also do some ‘in conversation with’ programs, which are intimate fireside chat events. Last year, we had (PSEG CEO) Ralph Izzo.

We recruit about five new partners each year; we want to continue to build on that.

We identify the top talent in STEM here in New Jersey and introduce them to the best New Jersey STEM economy, with this goal of bolstering the education and career pipeline here in the state.”
Rebecca Lubot, director, Governor’s STEM Scholars program

ROI: Let’s break down the numbers, college-to-high school, boy-to-girl.

KC: It’s about 1-to-5, college to high school, which is perfect for when we set up teams. And we’re about 60% girls to boys. We have put a huge emphasis on getting more girls in STEM, so we’ve had a large number of female speakers. Dr. Tabbetha Dobbins, a provost at Rowan, spoke at our last symposium.

ROI: That raises the next question: How involved are the state’s universities?

RL: The program is a great opportunity for the universities to showcase what they have to offer in STEM. When we have our symposium at NJIT, they show off their maker space. When we go to Rowan, they do a session just for the parents to show them what they have to offer. It’s a great opportunity for these schools. And we do have more and more colleges and universities that are interested in participating as they hear about the program. 

KC: We set up the program so it would rotate between the universities. That was a good way to get large spaces on Saturdays, because companies are usually closed. Then, what organically happened and now Rebecca has formalized, is that some of the professors at these schools are stepping up to oversee this research. So, even though we may not be hosting an event at their institution, a professor is now allowing students to be in the lab space, giving feedback and support to the students through the research project.

ROI: Let’s talk about these research projects. Give us an example of what they can do?

RL: We have a graduate student, Emily Flores, who is working on a cybersecurity project around election security. She networked at one of our events and met with someone from the State Department here in New Jersey. On election day, she was able to take her team to Trenton to oversee the election process as it was happening. While they were there, the secretary of state (Tahesha Way) stopped in and spoke with them and they got to float some of their project ideas by her. That’s what this is all about.

ROI: If companies are reading this and want to get involved, what can they do?

KC: We’re always looking for people to volunteer. And it helps the companies. Most of them are here because there is a talent pipeline issue. It’s a workforce development issue. We can help. It can be more short term, because we do have college students, or long term. We’ll take anyone who wants to help. We have so many opportunities in terms of volunteers for STEM professionals to come in and talk to the students.

ROI: We’re guessing all these meetings led to internships?

KC: We want to expand that. We’re looking to build toward more of systematized relationships around internships. The program is really a good vetting process for employers to use. So, anybody who’s interested in investing in their STEM workforce, we’re open to talking to them. 

ROI: It sounds like the program has had a great first five years. Take me through the next five years. What is on your wish list?

RL: The top of our wish list is to build up the internship program. We need to focus on that. Innovation is one of the governor’s key policy areas. And he talks about the outmigration issue. This is one way to help with the policy issue. That’s at the top of our wish list, but we want to build up more programming, too. We want to offer more to the scholars, get to show them multiple visits that at sponsor locations and really immerse in what New Jersey has to offer.

KC: The idea behind this program was to create ambassadors through these students. So, we’re starting at the mentorship level for the college students to the high school students, but everyone knows we need to start younger. How we use our ambassadors to trickle down to middle school; they say we lose a lot of girls who are interested in STEM in middle school. We need to stop that. And that we need to think about going even younger. If you ask a lot of people, ‘Where do you start?’ They say, ‘kindergarten.’ How do we start engineering in kindergarten, an hour of coding in kindergarten? The sky is the limit.

ROI: You mentioned the Governor’s STEM Scholars program is just one thing the R&D Council does. Give us another example, as our final thought?

KC: The New Jersey STEM Pathways network is another initiative. It’s thinking about the bigger picture of not just the best and brightest in STEM, but an educated citizenry in STEM. One of the things that we have been discussing is how do we create a platform for employers to connect with students and schools. That’s something that is happening in other states. There are companies that have been interested in using that type of platform so that they can create an infrastructure for volunteer engagement and connect with schools and teachers and students more seamlessly. It’s not kind of these random acts of STEM, but a more systematized process. We’re probably going to try to use that as the avenue to reach a broader audience.

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