Alumni Spotlight: Zack Smith (’03)
Zack Smith (‘03) has always loved math, so it will be no surprise to any of his former PMFS teachers or classmates that he recently received his PhD in Operations Research, a type of applied mathematics, from the University of Texas. “I have to give Plymouth a ton of credit,” he said, “for building my love of learning and pushing me ahead of my grade level in math and every other subject.”
Zack has already found plenty of applications for his expertise. While earning his PhD, he worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, of Manhattan Project fame. The facility is so secure that Zack’s office was an underground vault. “Every time I wanted to go to the bathroom, there was a five-step security sequence to lock [the vault] and then [on my way back] I had to go through it again,” he laughed. “It was like going through airport security every day.” Zack was in charge of planning and acquiring inventory for the lab’s manufacturing, and the National Laboratory funded his degree. “It was definitely an interesting experience, but I’m not really supposed to talk about it,” he said with raised eyebrows.
Now Zack is living in Santa Fe doing a postdoc, and his first project would have definitely impressed his Sixth Grade self. Zack developed a model to help Austin, Texas’s new Major League Soccer team, Austin FC, decide which players to acquire and how to manage their salary cap. The team is now in their first season.
Zack’s postdoc continues through the summer at a different national lab, where he is immersed in a project on machine learning and decision making models. Somehow he still finds time to practice electric guitar two hours a day, a passion of his since his Plymouth days when he took acoustic lessons with Bill Alberts. When his postdoc is over, he and his fiancee Caitlyn hope to move back to the East Coast to be closer to both of their families. They are planning an October 2021 wedding, which will look a bit like a PMFS reunion. “Four of my groomsmen are from my PMFS graduating class,” Zack said. “I talk to those guys every day, basically.”
Along with fostering the close-knit environment that helped him make his best friends for life, Zack said PMFS “is the best educational institution [he’s] attended.” He even credited Plymouth with the lifelong love of learning that led him to get his PhD. Zack explained that PMFS’s culture of creativity, curiosity, and student-led learning made him want to push himself academically. “I was so devoted to learning in those early years,” he remembered. “It felt important to me. I wanted to do my best.”
Zack’s favorite PMFS memories are of class projects and the freedom he got to take things in the direction of his interests, like when he made “a whole papier-mâché model of the Aztec capital city, which is still hanging on my bedroom wall.” “When you do projects like that,” he said, “you never forget the lessons you learn.”