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Former COD Student Working in Antarctica on IceCube Neutrino Project
by Staff Writers
Glen Ellyn IL (SPX) Jan 08, 2016

File image: IceCube, the neutrino cosmology experiment.

Former College of DuPage student Robert Zill is spending his winter break at the bottom of the world. The Burr Ridge resident is currently in Antarctica as part of IceCube, the neutrino cosmology experiment. Last summer, Zill completed an internship at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls working on IceCube and was selected as a backup candidate for the winter break trip.

Just after completing his fall semester finals at Northern Illinois University, where he is a mechanical engineering major, 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 will include 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."

IceCube, a particle detector telescope located at the South Pole, 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. College of DuPage Physics Professor Tom Carter encouraged Zill to apply for last summer's internship, during which he worked in the lab on the actual sensors, called digital optical modules or DOMs, that go down into the ice at the South Pole.

In addition to the work, Zill - who has traveled outside the country only to Canada - is looking forward to seeing another part of the world.

"I want to experience everything from the scenery to the 24-hour sunlight," he said. "I want to take in the beauty and meet the people who live there. I hope the experience of being dropped somewhere new and remote will help give me the confidence and experience I will need when I'm ready to start my career."

Zill has always been interested in the sciences. In fact, it's rare for him to earn other than top grades in science or math classes. Still, it took him several terms at College of DuPage before he determined what path to take.

"There was a semester I was taking night classes, and I had Intro to Psychology with Donald Kates," he said. "He's an awesome guy, and he had so many stories to share about working in the field.

"That was a defining semester for me - I got straight A's and after that I was ready to just go for it. There was also something about night classes. The type of students and the atmosphere made something click in me."

After earning his bachelor's, Zill would like to work in the sustainable energy field and then pursue a master's degree. He's thankful that College of DuPage gave him the time to find his passion and helped him develop it.

"I'm really proud to be selected for this trip, and I'm proud of my time at COD," he said.

"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. Dave is a very caring professor and helped me get my current job at Argonne.

"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.

"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."

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