Loyola University Chicago

Department of Physics


Get to know a physics major

Get to know a physics major

Zalia Cook ('21) is a senior in the Theoretical Physics/Applied Mathematics (TPAM) program. She is from Seattle, Washington and started at Loyola in the Fall of 2017. Zalia was one of three recipients of the 2020 Fr. Gerst Award that is awarded by the Physics Department to outstanding juniors. She also received a Mulcahy Fellowship to support her research on invasive aquatic species in Lake Michigan. Zalia is planning for a career as an actuary after graduating in the Spring.

What degrees are your working toward?  My major is Theoretical Physics and Applied Mathematics and my minors are Actuarial Science and Spanish Language.

How did you get started in research and could you describe your project?  I did freshman projects with Dr. Polak and have been doing research with him ever since. The semester after freshman projects he sent an email to all the students he had done research with or knew were looking for something with a list of potential projects he was starting and I chose the one I am still working on now because it sounded the most interesting to me. Our project is an interdisciplinary project in partnership with the environmental science department. There is an electric barrier in place to stop invasive species from crossing over between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes Basin. We created a lab-scale model of this electric barrier and used it to test the effects on invertebrate invasive species to the region that it had not been tested for. Our partners in the environmental science department are in charge of the behavioral analysis, but we found a way to analyze their reaction and orientation quantitatively by using a physics concept called order parameter.

Many students are interested in study abroad programs as you’ve done. What advice would you give to physics students to participate in these programs?  I studied abroad during Spring 2020 at SLU Madrid. In order to study abroad as a physics major you have to take a semester off of the major because there are not options for programs that offer upper level physics classes. My advice is to plan ahead as early as possible and know which classes you need to take which semester in order to have a free semester to study abroad. I had to take a pretty heavy course load my freshman and sophomore years and made sure to save core classes to take abroad.

What do enjoy outside of class?  When I am home in Seattle I enjoy being outdoors. I like to hike and kayak.

What are your post-Loyola plans?  When I graduate from Loyola I am planning on pursuing a career as an actuary and moving home to Seattle. I had an internship this Summer at Milliman, which is an actuarial consulting firm in Seattle and I really enjoyed it, so I am hoping to continue on that path.

Do you have any advice for incoming physics students?  My advice for incoming physics students is to embrace the community we have in the Physics Department. Since the Department is small and undergrad only, we are a pretty tight-knit group. Study in the majors study room and meet the upper-classmen. Everyone in the Department, other students and professors, know each other and care about each other, so don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice.