Student Stories: Robert Zill

Robert Zill

Major: Engineering 

Robert Zill has always been interested in the sciences. In fact, it was rare for him to earn other than top grades in science and math classes. 

His love of science was further developed and enriched at College of DuPage.

“I had some great teachers at COD who motivated me to be the best I can be,” he said. “They really helped me to develop as a person.”

In 2015, he spent his summer at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls working on IceCube, the Antarctic-based neutrino cosmology experiment. IceCube is a particle detector telescope located at the South Pole that records interactions of nearly massless subatomic particles called neutrinos. The telescope searches for dark matter that can reveal the physical processes associated with the origins of the highest energy particles.

Zill’s internship went so well that he was selected as a backup candidate to travel to the McMurdo Research Station in Antarctica and the South Pole during winter break. Having transferred to Northern Illinois University and just after completing his fall semester finals, Zill was notified that he would be one of two students traveling to Antarctica. He then had two weeks to prepare for the journey that included one week at the McMurdo Research Station on the coast of Antarctica, followed by one week at the South Pole and then a third week back at McMurdo.

“I was at work when I received an email marked ‘Urgent’ to call Dr. Jim Madsen at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls,” Zill said. “When he told me I was going, I was so excited. It didn’t seem real.”

In addition to the work, Zill – who had traveled outside the country only to Canada – enjoyed experiencing another part of the world.

“It was amazing, from the scenery to the 24-hour sunlight,” he said. “I took in the beauty and met the people who live there. I’ll never forget the experience.”

Zill then took the semester off from his studies before returning to NIU, where he received the Leadership Tuition Program Scholarship Award and was a student ambassador for the university and its College of Engineering and Engineering Technology. His senior design project team shared the annual Mechanical Engineering Department award for designing an automated irrigation system for the Communiversity Gardens on campus that grows food for the local food pantry.

Having graduated cum laude with his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering with an emphasis in Sustainable Energy, Zill is now a research operations engineering with the Dynamic Compression Sector (DCS) at the Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory. This follows years of work at DCS as a technical assistant, a position he secured while a student at COD upon the advice of Professor David Smith.

“This position is great because it provides the tools and opportunity to learn and utilize a broad range of experimental diagnostic techniques – and it’s never boring!” he said. “During operations, I get to connect with engineers and scientists from all over the world while I do my best to make their experiments as successful as possible. There are days that are physically tiring, mentally tiring or both, but I almost always leave the lab in high spirits. 

“I’ve learned a great deal about safety protocol at a federal facility. That is always our number one priority and concern. I’ve gained other credentials over the last couple of years, including Chemical Safety Coordinator and Hoisting and Rigging Safety Coordinator. One of the most challenging aspects of conducting new and exciting science is making sure that all aspects of each experiment do not put any humans or equipment at risk. We have a truly great team at the DCS that helps to make everything work safely and smoothly.” 

Zill is proud of his time at College of DuPage and is now trying to steer all of his nieces and nephews toward engineering.

“The great thing about COD is the many gems among the faculty, including Dr. Carter, Dr. Kates, Dr. Dave Smith, Jim Africh and Collin Jaeger, who make the experience what it is,” he said. “Dave is a very caring professor. I remember once at the end of the day I asked about a problem we did in class, and we ended up talking for over an hour about life. It made me feel a lot better about where I was with my life at that point. Tom Carter takes a full class period to tell students about internships, where to find them, the best ways to apply and their importance for engineering students. Had it not been for his passion toward his students, I never would have found the amazing research opportunity working on IceCube.

“They do this because they care. It’s not a part of the job description, it’s a part of who they are as people and it touches their students in ways they may not even be aware of. I wouldn’t be where I am today without having those people in my life and I could never thank them enough for everything they’ve done for me.”

Photo credit: Glenn Carpenter Photography

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