October 19, 2023
In any profession, the path to success is often found through sound collaboration among peers, colleagues and mentors. In the world of science and for Arizona State University alumnus Zach Torrano, that notion rings true and is what he credits as the key to his achievements postgraduation.
During his time at ASU, Torrano had the opportunity to work on the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Hayabusa2 mission along with colleagues at the Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory to conduct isotopic measurements of small samples of the Ryugu asteroid to study its spatial origins and surface history. That work led to the writing of a paper that is now under review for publication and includes an international team of scientists as co-authors.
School of Earth and Space Exploration alumnus Zach Torrano. Courtesy photo
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"(That) was an incredible experience, and I was very fortunate to be part of a team working on such unique samples," said Torrano, who graduated in 2020 with a PhD in geological sciences from ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration and now works as a postdoctoral research associate at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
As a student, Torrano worked closely with his PhD advisor, Meenakshi Wadhwa, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and other faculty and staff members in the school and the Buseck Center for Meteorite Studies. Leveraging their guidance and support, Torrano improved his laboratory skills, refined his writing capabilities and obtained invaluable career advice.
“I am fortunate to have had many mentors who have influenced my professional path during my time at ASU and beyond,” he said.
Following graduation from ASU, Torrano completed a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory, and continues to work closely with ASU graduates at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Here, he shares about his experience as a student at ASU and how fostering relationships throughout his educational journey helped get him to where he is now.
Question: What inspired you to choose your current career path after graduating from ASU?
Answer: After receiving my PhD from ASU in 2020, I completed a Carnegie Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory in Washington, D.C., and in 2022, I started my current position as a postdoctoral research associate at Los Alamos National Laboratory. I chose this career path because it enabled me to broaden my expertise, learn from well-respected scientists and work on a range of scientific inquiries related to meteorites, asteroid sample return missions and nuclear forensics.
Q: Can you share some of your most memorable experiences or favorite moments from your time as a student here?
A: My favorite experiences as a graduate student at ASU were the times spent socializing with my fellow graduate students and postdocs in my research group, including hikes, dinners, trips and simply talking in the office during long days of work.
Q: What advice would you give to current students who are interested in pursuing a similar career path?
A: I would advise current students interested in pursuing a career in science, either in academia or at the national laboratories, to take advantage of any research opportunities available to them at ASU. Many research labs include undergraduate students, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, in addition to lab managers and faculty members. So there are opportunities to gain experience in a research lab and talk to lab members at various career stages about available career paths in that scientific discipline. It is also important to make connections with professors because they will likely have contacts throughout the scientific community and may be able to provide career advice and facilitate connections that could lead to future job opportunities.
Q: Are there any specific skills or knowledge gained during your time at ASU that have been particularly valuable in your career?
A: The laboratory skills I gained at ASU have formed the foundation of my subsequent career. Aside from these, the most valuable skill I gained at ASU was the ability to write research proposals and identify and explain the “Why?” question of my research. This skill has proven to be extremely valuable in my career in the context of research proposals, job interviews and public presentations. Being able to articulate the answer to this question can also provide additional clarity and motivation from a personal perspective.
Q: Can you tell us about a project or accomplishment you are particularly proud of since graduating from ASU?
A: I am particularly proud of my work studying samples of the Ryugu asteroid that were returned by the JAXA Hayabusa2 mission. I worked with my colleagues at the Carnegie Earth and Planets Laboratory to conduct isotopic measurements of small samples of Ryugu to study the asteroid’s spatial origins and surface history. I then led the writing of a paper that is currently under review for publication and includes an international team of scientists as co-authors. This was an incredible experience, and I was very fortunate to be part of a team working on such unique samples.
Q: How do you stay connected with ASU as an alumnus, and do you have any involvement in mentoring or supporting current students?
A: I still work closely with many fellow ASU graduates, including at Los Alamos National Laboratory and through collaborations on research projects with colleagues at other institutions. I also occasionally communicate with current ASU graduate students to answer questions ranging from specific laboratory techniques to career advice.
Q: What are your future goals or aspirations, and how do you plan to continue growing professionally in your field?
A: As I progress in my career, I hope to continue to gain new skills and apply my expertise to a broader range of nuclear forensics and national security projects while also continuing to work on planetary science research. I aim to continue my professional growth through continued learning and taking on more responsibilities in my current position, attending conferences to learn about ongoing advancements in my fields of interest, and maintaining scientific collaborations with colleagues at the forefront of current nuclear forensics and planetary science research.
Q: Are there any lessons or life experiences you gained during your time at ASU that have had a significant impact on your personal growth?
A: The most significant lessons I learned during my time at ASU were the importance of patience, perspective, friendships and professional relationships. In laboratory research, progress is not usually linear, and patience is necessary to persevere through the times when progress is not being made to get to the point of new breakthroughs, and perspective is required to avoid becoming discouraged by lack of progress. The friends I made during graduate school at ASU provided support through challenging times and made enjoying the good times even better. The many professional relationships I built while at ASU enabled me to initiate research collaborations to approach ideas from new perspectives and build a professional network for future job opportunities and research collaborations. Without the support of the friends and colleagues I met during my time at ASU, I would not be where I am today.
Q: How do you see the industry evolving in the next few years, and what opportunities do you believe it will present for aspiring professionals?
A: The national laboratories continue to hire an increasing number of scientists, and with the expanding workload and uncertainty of international relations, I anticipate that there will be a continued need for scientists with an interest in working on national security projects. We are also at an amazing time in the field of space exploration with the upcoming return of astronauts to the moon with the Artemis program, the Mars Sample Return program and many other exciting missions and research projects being conducted that will require continued involvement of early-career scientists.