PhD Candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy
Zachary Hafen is a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Through his research, he explores virtual galaxies and their surroundings, and he uses these explorations to give insight into how these massive structures form. In collaboration with the Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools and Reach for the Stars, Zachary developed “Vault,” a program where he supports student-led data expeditions to bring research experiences to high school students. In addition, two of his images were finalists in Helix Magazine’s Scientific Image Contest.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
In my research I create and explore virtual galaxies–supercomputer-simulated galaxies designed to look and act like real galaxies. The goal is to traverse and manipulate entire galaxies in ways that would be impossible with real galaxies and to learn how we can improve our simulated galaxies to make them more realistic.
What have been some of the most memorable twists and turns of your career?
- When I took a non-intro physics class and discovered how much I enjoyed physics. At the time I was a philosophy major who had conceded to add a physics major to help pay the bills after graduation. I took my first upper-level physics class and became enamored with the work and the carefulness and creativity it required. I dropped my philosophy major at the end of the semester.
- When I was accepted to a National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program on gravitational wave astrophysics. REU's are government-funded opportunities for students to do research at a university other than their own. For students from teaching colleges (like myself), they are often one of the only ways to get involved in world-class research. By participating in this program, I had the opportunity to study gravitational waves (ripples in the very fabric of space and time), and it's no coincidence that I'm at Northwestern, a leader in gravitational wave astrophysics.
- When my current adviser offered me the opportunity to work on a project with him the summer prior to beginning graduate school. At the time I was planning on studying gravitational waves, however that short project on galaxy formation turned into five years of study in a field that I find utterly fascinating and beautiful.
What is a mistake you have learned from in your career?
Make sure to say "no" when asked for something you don't have time for.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
Our galaxy consists of about 200 billion stars, and it holds a comparable mass of gas. However, we don’t really understand the journey that these stars and gas clouds took to arrive in our galaxy, including the journey for the gas that makes up our sun. My research could change that, allowing us to truly write up a history of earth, prior even to its formation.
When I visited Northwestern I really enjoyed the culture. The graduate students in my potential department were friendly but quick-witted. It seemed like the type of place where I could learn a lot, and be comfortable doing so.
How do you unwind after a long day?
Some linear combination of reading, video gaming, internet-browsing, cat-adoring, and plastic-robot-building. Too many hobbies, relative to the amount of free time I have.
What did you originally want to be when you grew up?
A magician that rides dragons.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
Be willing to give a chance to stuff that seems boring at first. The depth may astound you once you get through the beginning.
Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I’m currently working with the Northwestern Academy for Chicago Public Schools and the Northwestern-sponsored Reach for the Stars program to create “Vault,” an online and in-person community of high school students and mentors. It’s challenging to fit this into the busy lives of high school students, but if we’re successful we can give high school students a taste of what real research is like. I’m also excited about the progress made by our Physics and Astronomy Graduate Student Council. We accomplished a variety of things, from setting up a mentoring program to revamping our visiting student weekend to the many events organized by our Equity and Inclusion committee. I just stepped down after two years as council president, and I’m delighted to see so many of our incoming students getting involved and taking the place of students who are graduating.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
The little victories are what I’m most proud of so far, and their culmination and transformation into a PhD degree will be what I’m most proud of when that happens. In the meanwhile, two little victories I’d like to highlight are the two Scientific Image Contest submissions I submitted in 2016 and 2018, both of which were finalists.
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