Side Quests with Jessica Shang

by Linda Huang for Silver Quest

Walking into the building, Jessica Shang '04 was hit with déjà vu at the sight of her old high school. From Blair student to unconventional Princeton Ph.D., Shang, now an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Rochester and a scientist in the Laboratory for Laser Energetics (LLE), presented as the Distinguished Magnet Alumna for the 32nd annual Magnet Research Convention on January 18, 2024. While at Blair, she enjoyed AP chemistry and freshman physics. She has fond memories of putting together an epic musical numbers match for the annual STEM Arts Night and performing a parody of “Gettin' Jiggy Wit It”. 

Jessica Shang

Shang began by emphasizing the privilege of having an opportunity to conduct research as a high school student. She explained that “even though there aren’t many of you in the larger scheme of things, your impact will be felt.” She found that Magnet alumni have popped up in unexpected places, from California to England. Although small, the Blair Magnet is a diverse microcosm that does not exist anywhere else, where students build long-lasting bonds with each other through their passion for STEM. 

Shang did her SRP in geochemistry at the Carnegie Institute of Science in Washington, D.C. As one of her first exposures to research, she learned from her mentor and her own work that “failure is very common”. She valued this research experience immensely because her first notion of going to graduate school for a higher degree emerged from it – “you know what’s going to happen [at graduate school] and that’s an option”.

Shang described the initial plan beyond high school as a video game protagonist’s “main quest” – a preordained trajectory that the hero follows that culminates in saving the world. The path of a magnet student may seem linear at first, starting from the magnet acceptance to a college acceptance. Shang was no different, believing that she would graduate from high school, earn a Bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. in Chemistry, become a “moderately famous” chemist, and “save the world somehow”. Like a video game hero’s mindset, she expected her life to follow this linear trajectory. However, she found herself immediately derailing from this path when she entered college. Her struggle in a high-level chemistry course and an unexpected enjoyment of “a literature course on women writers in Imperial Times” pushed her to think beyond the perimeter she drew for herself. 

“Don’t dwell on your main quest,” Shang highlighted as a main takeaway, suggesting that the side quests may seem like “distractions”, but they are in fact opportunities and “ways to unlock new abilities”. She described going after side quests as they surface as leaving one’s own interchange. “Because who you are now, even though I think a lot of you may be sure of yourself is not who you’re actually going to be. You’ll inevitably find a new equilibrium. And so it’s only natural that what you think is your main quest is going to shift as well,” Shang reflected to the magnet class of 2024. 

Shang started her own research group at the University of Rochester for a widely applicable field – fluid mechanics, the study of the movement of fluids, such as gases and liquids. Swirls of cream in the coffee, interactions of animals, plants, and machines with their environments, and articulations of air in vocal cords are all examples of movements studied with fluid mechanics. Shang recounted that she “fell in love with this very visual way of interpreting the world”, motivating her to begin her journey at Rochester. However, this journey, as part of her main quest, took another turn. 

Seeking additional funding for her research, she redirected her focus for the next few years to a side quest – experimenting at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics at Rochester, the second-biggest laser facility in the United States. Squeezing materials at extremely high pressures in mere nanoseconds using numerous lasers, the chemistry of these materials would be fundamentally changed. Insulators to conductors and opacity to transparency are examples of high energy density physics, closely related to fluid mechanics in unforeseen ways. Now, the focus is on determining the viscosity of fluids at the nano level. Shang enjoys every small progress made in her lab, “We have high hopes and dreams. It’s great.” 

Over the years, Shang has continuously picked up side quests that complement her original main quest but is “not even sure [she has] a main quest anymore.” From these side quests, she learned many skills and knowledge, and more importantly, she learned more about herself. Shang ended her speech with a future insight for magnet students, “Even though I think my brain is full, and my plate is full, I’m still actually capable of more than I thought, and the same will happen for you. You know inherently how to push past [your] limit. Unlike a video game, your journey is not that of a solitary. You have your family, your friends, [and] you’ll make new friends down the line. And you’ll find mentors that will help guide you on your way.”