Jessica Shang: Fluidly Focused

by Jessica Ye for Silver Quest

“It’s very challenging and stimulating, but at the same time, is beautifully simple in its construction. There’s just a handful of equations that form the foundation, and from that foundation, many fascinating and complex phenomena can emerge.”

Jessica Shang
What field does this quote describe? If by some miracle you guessed Fluid Dynamics, you have the same opinion as the Class of 2004 Magnet graduate Jessica Shang. As an assistant professor of Fluid Dynamics at the University of Rochester, Shang is currently working on three major projects. These projects are diverse, shedding light on topics ranging from amphibious locomotion to Alzheimer's to astrophysics. According to Shang, they are each built around a “fundamental question” of Fluid Dynamics which she enjoys trying to answer.

After graduating from the Magnet, Shang attended Harvard for her undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering. In 2008, she received a Gates Cambridge scholarship and studied abroad at Cambridge University before returning to the US to attain her PhD at Princeton. Her decision to return to the US was deliberate: “I did consider staying [at Cambridge] for my PhD, but opted not to. At the moment, the US is the most fertile environment for the research that I want to do, so I never thought seriously about being abroad long-term.” However, she adds, “Maybe I will do a sabbatical abroad.”

In her experience, the graduate system in the UK is different than it is here. Shang recalls less structure in her courses and needing more initiative to stay on top of her classwork due to fewer assignments and more weight given to a final exam or final project. However, she recommends studying internationally because “it exposes you to different cultures, [...] sensitizes you to issues going on outside the US, and how these countries interact on a global scale.” She recalls “wonderful experiences” in Singapore, Taiwan, and Israel in addition to those that she had in the UK. At the same time, Shang believes international experience “allows you to scrutinize the US more deeply when you see other systems at work. The US has its virtues, but also many flaws.”

On a related note, she stresses the importance of science literacy and advocacy, citing them as some of the greatest challenges faced by STEM fields today. “In recent years, it seems that the work being done by STEM is either taken for granted or outright rejected when it’s inconvenient for public policy. Increasingly, STEM seems to be pushed to the fringes and isolated in favor of anecdotal evidence,” she laments. 

To current STEM students, Shang warns, “while it is easy to keep your head down and be a great scientist [...] without getting involved, [...] before you know it, the institutions that have supported STEM will have decayed and crumbled.”

Shang reminds Magnet students to be careful of burning out, adding that “like so many other things, you have to work at [your interests] to become good at [them]. Babies are born little scientists and engineers, always probing and experimenting with mechanics—studying just gives that innate curiosity a more formalized structure.” But above all else, she recommends open mindedness and forming friendships with interesting people. “High school and college are the peak times to meet and befriend people who don’t do what you do.”