NCSSM-Durham has always felt like a “second home” to George Cheng ’24. (photo provided by George Cheng)


NCSSM-Durham senior makes most of opportunities

At 17, George Cheng ’24 has a resume that belies his age. In just a few years – since the pandemic, really – the NCSSM Residential senior from Cary has collected a string of accolades built around his achievements in the classroom and in academic competitions. In between assignments and research, he’s also founded or co-founded two non-profits (STEMable and Altra), run cross country and track, and played on NCSSM-Durham’s basketball team.

It’s not a bad start – and it clearly is just a start – for someone who, as a “chubby little kid,” spent most of his time playing video games.

George’s path to NCSSM is familiar to many of the school’s students; by early high school, he had nearly exhausted the course catalog at Green Level High School. Dual-enrollment classes through Wake Technical Community College provided a temporary solution, but George raced through their course catalog fast enough to earn an associate’s degree in science as a 10th-grader. He and his parents considered a virtual school and its broader curriculum to keep his course load full, as well as just graduating high school early. To George, though, neither option felt like the absolute right choice.

A close family friend whose daughter had attended NCSSM had another idea; perhaps he should consider applying?

The suggestion, George says, was like discovering “a goldmine.”

From his tour of the school to his very first days on campus, George knew that NCSSM-Durham was where he belonged.

“Everyone here is so supportive,” George says. “All the [student] ambassadors welcomed me here as I was coming in. Even the chancellor, Dr. [Todd] Roberts, was welcoming. He’s always there, it seems, at every event, greeting students. He actually led the tour I went on when I was applying, and he told me he was actually born here at the school when it was still Watts Hospital. That kind of interpersonal connection that this school’s staff has with its students made it feel like I wasn’t moving away from home. NCSSM has felt like a second home for me.”

Unis Up! George shares his NCSSM-Durham Unicorn pride as he accepts the 2023 Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair first place award in Biomedical and Health Sciences from Karen Slavin of the European Commission. (photo provided by George Cheng)

George landed on the Durham campus with a singular focus on biology and a plan to become a surgeon, but once he dipped into the extensive curriculum, his academic focus grew to include computer science. His most recent research projects have leaned toward environmental engineering. 

“I kind of made my dorm a lab,” George says, “and I’ve got so many soil samples around my room from all these different projects that I’ve been a part of at NCSSM.”

It hasn’t been all science all of the time. The humanities courses George has taken have broadened his understanding of the world around him, providing a nuance that wasn’t always readily available elsewhere.

“I think the Humanities department here is extremely great,” George says.

“You know, while the school might say North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, it really could be North Carolina School of Science, Mathematics and Humanities.”

George has also made time for athletics. “I’ve tried to stay very fit, you know, playing a lot of sports, going to the gym a lot,” he says. “I think one of the key lessons that my dad instilled into me is that sports are just as important as academics and having a healthy body really leads to having a healthy mind.”

Now George has been recognized by the Heisman Trophy Trust as a Heisman High School Scholarship National Winner, one of only two scholar-athletes honored each year. 

It’s George’s research on Type 2 diabetes research, however – research that began before NCSSM but has, George says, been “catapulted to great lengths” thanks to the opportunities the school has presented him – that has by far been the most meaningful experience to him, and for very personal reasons. While pregnant with him, George’s mother developed gestational diabetes, which morphed into Type 2 diabetes. 

The pain in his mother’s face as she administered her insulin shots is one of George’s most vivid childhood memories. So, too, is the memory of the guilt he felt. “Because she developed diabetes while pregnant with me, I felt like I was the root cause of it all,” he says. “I felt obligated to solve this problem.”

For five years now, George has been deeply immersed in Type 2 diabetes research. Early on he created an oral-fluid glucose-monitoring watch, then later an insulin-delivering patch called DiaMiR that is worn on the skin and delivers product through a carpet of painless microneedles. Much of the work he has done while at NCSSM has been completed as independent research, often traveling by bus to UNC-Chapel Hill after classes to continue his investigations. The research has carried George to research fairs and academic competitions around the United States such as the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair, and even to Belgium where he participated in the European Union Contest for Young Scientists.

At the European Union Contest for Young Scientists in Brussels, Belgium, George got to share his research with jury member scientists from throughout Europe like Professor Milan Macek Jr. MD, DSc, the chairman of the largest academic medical/molecular genetics institution in the Czech Republic and, among other titles, the Vice President of the European Society of Human Genetics. (photo provided by George Cheng)

As extensive as his awards are, George places little value in the accolades he’s garnered. Most cherished, he says, are the opportunities that each competition has provided him to move his research forward.

“At the competitions and science fairs, people say, ‘Maybe you should try this,’ or ‘Maybe you should test that.’ And every single time I return home, I take out my notebook and I write down all their comments and I use them to try to improve my project,” George says. “Over time, this has allowed my project to evolve from something that was very simple to something that might actually one day be used by millions of people around the world.”

George hopes to deliver that relief himself as a biotech entrepreneur; already he has filed a provisional patent on DiaMiR, the anti-diabetes patch. The prototype glucose-monitoring watch he created remains part of his future plans as well. For his mother, they’re reminders of a son’s love.

“When I first explained all the scientific stuff to my mom about the watch and the research I’ve done, she didn’t really understand, but she was still moved to tears,” George says. “She probably never expected a son who played a lot of video games all day to one day flip a switch and tackle this problem. I think she was really proud.”

George feels an equivalent sense of gratitude for what NCSSM-Durham has allowed him. “I always tell my parents that everyone here is incredible,” he says. “No matter what I’ve been interested in, I’ve always had a very strong support system of staff and students there to back me up, and to help me through my different classes. NCSSM has provided me with so many different opportunities, and I’m very appreciative of the staff environment, and the creative freedom that I’ve had here.”