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Physics alum makes life-changing community connections

During Loyola University Maryland’s 2020 Commencement, the Natural and Applied Sciences academic division awarded for the first time the Choudhury Sarkar-Dey medal to an outstanding graduating senior who has shown remarkable commitment to diversity and community service during their time at Loyola.  We are proud to share with you the reflections submitted by the finalists, nominated by their faculty and departments, in this series of posts.

A reflection by Loyola Physics alum Zac Metzler, '20

Zac Metzler, '20Loyola, while being an academic institution, is about more than just grades and classes. However, coursework is a good starting point when I begin to reflect on my time on the Evergreen Campus. From the time I set foot in Discrete Methods with Dr. Knapp (my first STEM course at Loyola) to submitting my last final to Dr. Oberbroeckling last Wednesday, I have been blessed with immeasurable support and mentorship from the faculty, staff, and students in my departments and the honors program. My experiences have ranged from independent research in the Hauber program with Dr. Erdas, trying out unsuccessful attempts to prove an unproven concept in number theory with Dr. Knapp, and being put in touch with the Institute for Computational Medicine by Dr. Lowe. Each of these moments have laid the groundwork for my next steps, which have already included working as a member of the globe-spanning LIGO Scientific Collaboration (over 1200 physicists!) in Birmingham, England, publishing my first peer-reviewed paper in the International Journal for Modern Physics, and enrolling in the PhD Physics program at the University of Maryland with the goal of one day earning a professorship. 

Yet, only including the academic support neglects the holistic nature of my Loyola education. The ability to apply my knowledge to problems in our community is just as important as any classroom or lab. Throughout my time at Loyola, for example, I befriended many para-athletes (and Paralympians), who invited me to help organize and run an annual swim meet for para-swimmers in the region. The ages ranged from five to fifteen, and their disabilities ranged from deafness to cerebral palsy. My time working at these meets was truly inspirational and forced me to confront the privilege that I have of being fully able-bodied, opening my mind to the challenges others face on a daily basis, as well as to how I can use my privilege and education to support others as they overcome their hardships.

The connections I have made with the para-community have been key to my Loyola education and has set me well on the path to using my knowledge to be a resource and catalyst for change. I realized this opportunity during Dr. Roughani’s technological entrepreneurship course, during which I designed mock business around a device to help the blind and those with dementia safely navigate urban landscapes. If it were not for the current pandemic, my team and I would have prototyped our solution in conjunction with the blind community on campus.

Outside of the para-community, I was introduced to a group called Adelante Latina!, which provides tutoring and college-prep services to Hispanic female students at public high schools in Baltimore City. Throughout the year, I have connected with five phenomenal young women on a weekly basis as we help each other through their math and physics schoolwork. And while they benefit from the extra time learning the subject, I have also gotten a lot out of my time with them. Firstly, this experience has helped cement my decision to pursue academia; I really enjoy connecting with my students and helping them learn and understand the world, and I take pride in applying everyday examples to their material. For example, Katie had to design an energy efficient home and had to explain the physical principles behind her design. Through our conversation, she learned how convection and radiation make it difficult to insulate a home at a comfortable level, while I learned the joy of communicating what I know with my students and taking part in their ‘Aha!’ moments. Secondly, my experience with Adelante Latina! has brought a global issue to my doorstep. No longer can I see immigration and border security from a purely philosophical standpoint; now I unconsciously consider my students and how their lives are affected by the policies proposed in congress. I think this is the key piece to my (and most of my classmates’) Loyola experience; I have been transformed from simply a high school student to a physics educator, ready to tackle the great issues of our world.