When Jake Zappala ’12 started at Hamilton he figured he would become an engineer through the College’s cooperative program with Columbia University, and he was still thinking that way sophomore year when he fell in love with physics. Knowing of Zappala’s engineering bent, one of his physics professors, Gordon Jones, gave him an engineering project to work on. “And I hated it. Despised it, actually. He knew that was coming; I didn’t,” Zappala says about Jones. “So rather than say, ‘I told you so,’ he gave me more opportunities in physics.
Zappala went on to earn a doctorate in atomic physics at the University of Chicago and is now a postdoctoral appointee at Argonne National Lab in the TRACER Center. The center uses a technique called Atom Trap Trace Analysis to detect isotopes of krypton that can date groundwater and polar ice up to 1.5 million years old, he explains. These “ages” are then applied in a variety of fields including hydrology, water management, and climate studies.
Back when he was a high school student leaning toward engineering or maybe architecture, Zappala decided on Hamilton rather than an engineering or research institution because he loved to write, and Hamilton would allow him to do that no matter what else he studied. He doubled majored in physics and creative writing, a pursuit he still finds satisfying. He is usually at work on a novel in the urban fantasy genre, having completed several.
“I think the thing that I found most useful about Hamilton was the open curriculum, the fact that I could easily study physics, creative writing, and then take a bunch of other courses that were related to things that I wanted to do. That freedom was certainly something that attracted me, and certainly something that ended up paying off,” he says.