Staying true to science

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Triple major John Zanazzi receives awards for work in math and astronomy.

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.”