Student Spotlight: Max Zielsdorf

uc davis materials science engineering undergraduate research spotlight

Max Zielsdorf is an undergraduate transfer student who works with nanoceramics in Professor Ricardo Castro’s lab. He is also an officer for the UC Davis chapter of MASC for the 2018-19 school year. The Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) sat down with him to chat about his life and undergraduate career at UC Davis.

MSE: What activities (clubs, jobs, research, internship, etc.) have you been involved in during your time here at UC Davis? 

Max Zielsdorf: I’ve joined two clubs, both of which I’ll be an officer for in the 2018-19 school year. One of the two clubs I’ve joined is the Materials Advantage Student Chapter, or MASC. The club is a central community of the materials science and engineering undergraduate major, where students can meet others going through the same experience and receive advice, support and friendship. The club also puts together the Materials Magic Show for Picnic Day, creating hands-on projects for the show, and providing tours to labs on and off campus. This coming year, I’ll be the finance manager for the magic show projects.

The second club I’m in is called DRAGON. DRAGON is a hub for people to gather and play board games and tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) such as Dungeons & Dragons. The games are a riot of fun, the club is over 20 years old and they needed people to continue the legacy, so I decided to become an officer to support one of my favorite pastimes.

MSE: Can you tell us about your research with Professor Castro’s group?

Max: My research project involves working with nanoceramics, which have nanosized grains. All crystalline materials, such as ceramics and metals, have grains, whether they are big enough to see with the naked-eye (macrosized), or only a few dozen atoms across (nanosized). Think of a bunch of nano-sized pieces of sand mushed together to form one large object and you’ll get the picture.

Nanosized grains have a number of benefits over larger-scale grains, including increased hardness and insulation. My specific project is working with the ceramic YPSZ, or Yttria Partially Stabilized Zirconia, which is used as an insulation coating in gas turbine engines to increase the efficiency of the engine. I’m doping the material with lanthanum to stabilize the nano-sized grains at high temperatures, which will hopefully create a stronger bond to the metallic surface it will rest on.

MSE: What has been one of the highlights of your time here at UC Davis? 

Max: The biggest highlight at UC Davis has probably been the community I found myself in. I was afraid when I transferred that I wouldn’t find as close-knit of a community as I had found at my previous college. I thankfully misplaced my fear. I learned in community college that I would wear down quickly without a supportive community, so I set out to join clubs as fast as I could here. MASC, and the fact that the materials science and engineering major is so small, made it relatively easy to get to know most everyone within my year and many of those in other years. Now that I’m doing research, I’ve also been able to get to know a good bit of the staff and graduate students. Also, the campus is beautiful with plenty of comfortable benches to sit on, which is optimal for relaxing and feeding squirrels.

MSE: What is your plan after graduation? 

Max: I hope to pursue a Ph.D. in Materials Science & Engineering and study the materials and processes involved in metal/ceramic 3D printing. That all depends if I can find funding for such research. If I can’t, I’ll look for an industry job focused on the same subject. The ultimate goal is to work with really cool machines that can melt powder metal and ceramic into a final solid object. The technology is mostly used for aerospace and medical purposes due to its extreme price right now, but hopefully I’ll be around long enough to get my hands on one of the machines for my own personal use.

MSE: What advice would you give to prospective engineering or prospective UC Davis students? 

Max: “Know thyself” and be best friends with change. If that is not possible, work to be at least a friendly acquaintance. Whether it be in the mental, spiritual or physical sense, knowing yourself and what makes you you is important for health and success. Ask yourself constantly why you perform the actions you do, and eventually you’ll come down to some of the fundamentals of what makes you grow. Distill those ideas and put yourself in situations that make you a generally happy person. Don’t forget about change, and to keep asking yourself those questions, because your answers will change over time. Also, ruts will come in your pursuit of growth, happiness, etc. Don’t let them get you down. They are often much-needed breaks disguised as a rut or failure.

MSE: What would people be surprised to know about you?

Max: I had no clue what an engineer did or what engineering was until my senior year of high school. At most, I thought they were the people who created things like catapults in the fantasy books I read. Up until the second semester of my senior year of high school, I was planning on pursuing an art degree. I was in machine and woodshop classes during that senior year as part of a two-year International Baccalaureate art program, looking to make art pieces. I had better success in woodshop, but in machine shop I discovered CAD programs. I thought it was cool making 3D objects on the computer, and the teacher recommended engineering to me. I went with it and after a few rough years of change, I’m at UC Davis studying materials science and engineering, hoping to eventually work with machines that can print those 3D objects I had so much fun creating in the first place.