Small Materials, BIG Results

The little things mean a lot in the world of Mike Zach ’97

There’s a line in the perennial holiday movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Jimmy Stewart’s character, George Bailey, declares his intention to go off and see the world, exploring the four corners and seeing all that there is to see. “Then I’m coming back here to go to college,” he says, “and see what they know.”

One doesn’t have to try too hard to draw certain parallels between George Bailey and Dr. Mike Zach. In his twenties, Zach traveled to Italy to learn jewelry making as an apprentice to a Christian Brothers monk, then returned home to Monroe, Wisconsin to (eventually) earn a degree at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. Yet unlike George, who also proclaimed that he wanted to devote his life to building big things—magnificent skyscrapers, miles-long bridges—Zach wound up working small-scale, from the tiny jewels in fine jewelry to infinitesimal nanowires and isotopes.

Upon returning to Wisconsin from Italy in the mid-1980s, Zach took up residence in his parents’ basement and proceeded to create and sell award-winning jewelry. Things went well enough that he was able to open a retail jewelry store in Monroe, which he ran for six years. After closing the store in 1994, he enrolled at the UWSP, not so much to “see what they know” as to see what other avenues of interest might be open to him with a degree in chemistry.

Technically, Zach re-enrolled at UWSP in 1994, as he had attended the university for one year after graduating from Monroe Senior High School. He also had given Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, a semester-long chance before deciding that a four-year degree might not be his preferred end game just yet.

“I really had no idea what I wanted to do,” he says. “I didn’t want a degree bad enough to stick with the program, even though I did well at both schools.”

But earn degrees he did: a UWSP bachelor’s in chemistry and polymer science, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees in chemistry from the University of California, Irvine. Although he had closed up shop on his retail venture, Zach had continued to craft and sell fine jewelry while studying at UWSP. He was able to merge artisanship with science once he was in graduate school and beyond.

After completing postdoctoral fellowships at UC Berkeley and Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, he joined the faculty at UWSP as an assistant chemistry professor while simultaneously maintaining a guest faculty researcher position at Argonne. The latter job didn’t pay anything, but it afforded him the opportunity to “access resources and collaborate with some of the top scientists in nanotechnology,” he says. “I would frequently take groups of students to Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials to conduct experiments and make electrodes for the electroplate and lift lithography technology that I developed while at UWSP.”

The technology he references was applied to develop NanoFab Lab in a Box, a kit Zach devised that allows schoolchildren to make patterned nanowires, which are the types of electronic connections found in everything from computers and smartphones to high-tech lasers and sensors. NanoFab Lab received an R&D 100 Award from Research and Development Magazine.

You see, despite his scientific focus, Zach in no way, shape or form had abandoned his desire to create. Instead of exquisite
gold-and-gemstone bracelets and necklaces, however, he began mastering the art of scientific instrument creation and  experimentation design. He holds several patents, alone and jointly, for items such as hydrogen sensors, an electron microscope grid and the aforementioned nanowire fabrication.

“A big part of my success as a student, postdoc and professor has been the ability to dream of an experiment and the skill to build the parts, rather than waiting to get a grant or trying to find a commercial vendor that may or may not exist,” he says.

In 2015, Zach left UWSP and his appointment at Argonne to work for Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee as a materials processing researcher. He is part of a group that provides stable isotopes, typically in the form of oxides or metals, for research, medical and other purposes.

Like nanowires, stable isotopes are small but mighty. Zach says he might create a metal foil that is anywhere from 1/5th to 1/100th of the diameter of a human hair. These may be used to understand really complex systems such as the human body or plasma reactions inside of a nuclear fusion reactor. These foils could be transformed into medical isotopes that are used to diagnose or treat cancer and rare diseases.

In the 1940s, Oak Ridge was the headquarters for the Manhattan Project, tasked with producing fissionable materials. A large portion of the isotopes Zach and others work with today can be traced to repurposed calutron instruments, which originally were used to electromagnetically separate uranium isotopes used in the original atomic bomb. Zach says he almost didn’t apply for his current job at Oak Ridge, which he discovered on LinkedIn listed as a nuclear processing researcher. But then he realized how closely his skill set matched the actual job description.

“The mix desired was a combination of a research scientist and a jeweler,” he says. “They needed an elemental chemist that could transform most any material from inventory into whatever form a researcher needed to make their project successful.”

Zach says he was readily comfortable with the processes and instrumentation used on the isotopes. “Some of these physical transformations use tools that are similar to tools developed for the jewelry,” he says. “In fact, the basic concept of the rolling mill has not changed a lot since the first one was sketched by Leonardo DaVinci in 1485.”

Zach clearly loves the work he is doing now, but one gets the sense that he misses teaching and being able to bring students into the lab to experience cutting-edge science and meet scientists, as he did at Argonne.

“I involved over 70 students in research and two postdocs to advance projects involving nanotechnology,” he notes proudly. “I loved working with students and helping to mentor students with research projects. There are a number of students that I still keep in touch with, and even a few that I would like to hire now.

“The work ethic of Central Wisconsin students who are willing to learn a bit of complexity science in addition to technical mechanical skills is a potent combination for UWSP science majors.”