Staying true to science
Prestigious awards, prominent
scholarships, and national recognition – these are just a few of the accolades John
Zanazzi has received. However, like most worthwhile things, the road to these
achievements wasn’t an easy one. A senior triple major in physics, astronomy,
and math, Zanazzi takes approximately 18 credit hours per semester, a daunting
task alone before you consider his active involvement in both the Society for
Physics Students and the Astronomy Club.
His dedication and work ethic have paid
off – in the fall of 2012, Zanazzi was offered his most distinguished honor yet
– a scholarship from
the American Mathematical Society and an invitation to attend the prestigious
Math in Moscow program, which allows students to study at the Independent
University of Moscow, one of the leading mathematical centers in Russia.
Pursuing a broader understanding of science
Zanazzi explains there’s no
secret to his work ethic – he has simply developed a love for science and the
pursuit of knowledge, traits he forged early on while working on various
projects and experiments.
“In high school, I was doing things like
using a remote-controlled telescope to look for planets outside of our solar
system,” Zanazzi says. “Those experiences made me want to go into physics and
astronomy. I added math because I became more interested in theoretical work
and saw what theoretical physics was. That’s when I realized I needed it.”
Originally from Mesa, Arizona, Zanazzi
chose to attend Northern Arizona University because of the numerous research opportunities offered to undergraduates. For example, as a freshman,
Zanazzi worked with Ed Anderson, a Support
Systems Analyst and National Undergraduate Research Observatory (NURO) Staff
Astronomer, on a number of projects, including a NURO telescope.
“As soon as I got into Northern Arizona
University, I was able to start doing research,” Zanazzi says. “I knew I would
be able to do a lot of the work I’m interested in here, and that was really
important for me.”
Along with university research, Zanazzi
also took part in opportunities off campus through the National Science
Foundation (NSF), which helped pave the way for his work with Research Experiences for Undergraduates.
This program allows students to conduct research in their areas of interest at
several different institutions over the summer. During three separate trips,
Zanazzi studied experimental nuclear physics at Wayne State, mathematics at
Penn State, and theoretical cosmology at the University of California Davis.
“You work with a professor at whatever
institution you’re at and perform the research that you’d be doing in grad
school,” Zanazzi says. “This gives you a feel of what it’s like in that field.
It definitely taught me what doing research in various areas of science and
math was like.”
Being rewarded for a job well done
Drawing from his undergraduate research
experiences and time with the NSF, Zanazzi crafted a research paper titled
“Defining Cosmological Complexity,” which explores how the universe produced
life as we know it. For his unique insight into the complexities of the galaxy,
Zanazzi received an honorable mention from the University of Chicago’s John
Templeton Foundation in the New Cosmic Frontiers International Science
Essay Competition on the Nature of our Universe and its Habitats.
Never content to sit idle, Zanazzi
applied for the prestigious Math in Moscow program soon after, and was selected
to attend the 15-week seminar as one of a handful of students from North
America. Zanazzi’s trip to Moscow began earlier this spring and will enable him
to learn math from a different perspective.
“I think it’s going to be really
different,” Zanazzi says. “Russians do math differently than Americans because
they focus more on types of problem-solving, which will definitely improve my
own problem-solving abilities. I’m going to get to feel what it’s like to learn
in that type of environment, which is very exciting.”
After graduation, Zanazzi plans to
pursue a graduate degree in theoretical astrophysics and cosmology before
returning to academia as an instructor. Zanazzi credits his time at Northern
Arizona University for providing him the skills and support necessary to
accomplish his aspirations.
“I’ve worked hard, but I’m also very
lucky to be where I am,” Zanazzi says. “I feel like both the physics and math
departments have given me a good background in the academic material and have
allowed me to handle these experiences in Flagstaff and beyond. The university
has really prepared me for my goals.”