Zachary Katz '23: Using physics to describe earth processes

Zachary Katz helps to update the seismology display in Snee Hall.
  • Hometown: Westport, CT
  • Applied and Engineering Physics

Zachary Katz, AEP senior 2023
Zachary Katz, AEP senior, 2023

Why Cornell, and why AEP in particular?

My interest in physics was sparked by my high school physics teacher and the exciting demonstrations in physics class. I chose Cornell—and AEP in particular—because of the wide range of elective class options available and because of AEP’s focus on applied physics.

What were some notable accomplishments during your time at AEP?

I enjoyed learning about the engineering significance of physical principles and how to account for real-life complications. Being in AEP allowed me to take elective courses in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences to complement my research interests while still gaining a solid physics background. I am passionate about using physics to describe earth processes, and my honors thesis dealt with this subject. As part of Cornell University’s Earth Source Heat project, Cornell intends to use a deep geothermal well to heat the Ithaca campus without the use of fossil fuels to meet its carbon net neutrality goals. I characterized the background microseismicity of Ithaca, a key component in implementing this new geothermal system. Using data from Cornell’s seismic network, I characterized signals ranging from construction to rockfalls. This analysis will be essential during geothermal operations, ensuring the geothermal well is run safely. I was also selected as one of the 2021 Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholars and received a stipend to help fund this research.

At AEP I learned how important it is to understand the technology you are using to make measurements, because this can lead to new insights. For example, in Advanced Lab, I helped design a replacement measurement system for the photoelectric effect experiment. With a thorough understanding of the measurement circuitry, I increased the accuracy and speed of data collection.

When you reflect on your time in AEP and at Cornell, what stands out?

Being part of AEP emphasized the broad applicability of a physics background as well as the importance of connections among colleagues and different fields of study. For example, I apply much of the knowledge I learned about waves in AEP classes to seismic waves in my research. Also, although classes at Cornell and in AEP were difficult, working through problem sets and studying for exams with friends made the experience enjoyable. Reflecting back, the friends I made were an important part of my experience. I’m also grateful to Geoff Abers, my wonderful research advisor, and the grad students in his lab who took time to make sure I was included and supported.

What advice do you have for students considering research in Applied Physics?

If you become interested in a professor’s research—either from hearing them talk about it during class or office hours, or from browsing their website—you should definitely reach out to ask if there is a way for you to become involved. Most professors understand that you may have limited experience, and they will help you succeed if you put in the effort.

What’s next?

I will be starting graduate school next fall at Colorado School of Mines.

Final thoughts?

As a member of Cornell’s Science Olympiad club, I write and proctor fun tests that quiz high school and middle school competitors on a range of science topics, such as interpreting wave phenomena or analyzing geologic maps. I always enjoy watching the friendly competition among students and I am excited to help inspire the next generation’s love of science. I also enjoy hiking and gardening.

At the 2023 graduation, Zach was awarded The Dorothy and Fred Chau Award for Excellence in Research.

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