Zander Mausolff, Bachelor's in Physics '15

Grit and Confidence

He gained the perseverance to tackle any topic he wanted

USF physics alum Zander Mausolff ’15 is determined to combat climate change. That’s why he’s pursuing a PhD in Nuclear Engineering at the University of Florida, researching more sustainable energy sources to replace fossil fuels. According to Zander, nuclear technology is our best option for producing energy without producing the carbon emissions that are driving climate change.

Will you talk more about your research at the University of Florida?

At a high level, the focus of my research has been on simulating how neutrons interact with matter in a nuclear reactor in off normal conditions. I’m interested in developing simulation tools to aid the creation of the next generation of nuclear reactors — specifically, molten salt reactors. Molten salt designs have the potential to be large industrial heat sources for the production of synthetic fuel, providing carbon free energy with enhanced safety. Interest in molten salt reactors has increased in recent years, as they are inherently safer by operating at atmospheric pressure, and will automatically shut down if power is lost.

Nuclear technology has been shown to drastically reduce a nation’s carbon footprint and will be an essential asset going forward for countries interested in mitigating climate change. With improved simulation capabilities, we hope these new reactors can be designed more efficiently and economically.

How did the physics major help prepare you for grad school?

Physics deals with such abstract and challenging topics, which makes you accustomed to being confused. Given that research at the graduate level is tremendously frustrating and confusing, majoring in physics gives you the ability to persevere even when you might feel like you do not know what is going on. It gives you the grit and confidence to learn any topic you’re interested in.

Majoring in physics also gives you a taste of so many topics in science and engineering that it makes mapping your skill set to different research areas easier. Regarding the program at USF specifically, the professors were willing to give so much time and support that it made the move to graduate school feasible.

Why did you want to major in physics?

I think physics was the only class in high school that really inspired me. I did not enter USF majoring in physics, because I wasn’t confident I could do it at the college level. A class on humans and environmental change changed my mind. I was particularly intrigued by discussions on climate change and the misinformation being propagated. Around 2003, a group of conservative congress members asked skeptic physicist Richard Muller to do a study on climate change in an effort to discredit recent publications. He showed some scientists were misrepresenting their findings, but also showed in an even more convincing manner that climate change was indeed linked to human production of carbon dioxide. After this I thought, “Well here is a person who can be trusted by politicians from both sides, has the ability to understand challenging problems, and a devotion to the scientific truth.” Seeing that a physicist could have such a broad and unique impact on the topic of climate change, I thought the physics major would allow me to work on important problems.

What are some of your best memories from the physics program?

I had so many great experiences chatting one-on-one with my professors about classes, research, and whatever else was on my mind. Some of my best memories were working on the optical table in Professor Thomas Böttger’s research lab. I have to give a special thanks to him for the tremendous amount of time he spent working with me. The late nights working with the other students on challenging electricity and magnetism homework or lab write ups were also some great times.

How are you continuing to carry on USF’s mission?

If climate change is to be addressed, a reduction in carbon emission is imperative. The only technology available to massively scale up base load power without producing carbon is nuclear. Given climate change is one of the most pressing issues, I think working to fight it is a clear example of USF’s mission to positively impact the world. An increase in low cost, carbon neutral technology will inevitably improve the lives of people around the world.