Find Your Passion: Fueled by a Love of Learning

Zach CoppensCoppens, left, and Baker, a professor in mechanical engineering, set up an experiment to measure solid rocket motor thrust data. (Samantha Hernandez)

By Katie Breaseale

Zack Coppens, a May 2011 graduate from Madison, has been an engineer in one way or another since elementary school. He's come a long way from making door holders out of paper clips, however. Coppens now prefers exploring the world of rockets and energy research.

Since the time Coppens discovered problems, he has looked for ways to solve them. A passion for problem-solving and helping others drives his interests in both a mechanical engineering research career as well as his extracurricular activities at The University of Alabama.

"As a child, I always wanted to find out how things worked," Coppens says. "This curiosity is one reason I chose mechanical engineering. I felt that a degree in mechanical engineering would allow me to explore more areas of engineering and leave my options open after graduation."

Summer internships with NASA and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, as well as a 4.1 GPA, have helped Coppens keep his options open. He was chosen for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported disciplines. Fewer than 17 percent of applicants receive the honor.

Amanda Hanninen, a first-year UA master's student from Tuscaloosa studying biological sciences in UA's College of Arts and Sciences; and Rachel McCarty, a graduate student from Bessemer pursuing a doctorate within UA's College of Engineering, were also selected.

Zach CoppensZack Coppens (Samantha Hernandez)

"The two subjects that have captured my interest since childhood are space exploration and energy," Coppens says. "In order to explore each area and determine where I could make the most difference, I strategically planned my undergraduate career to include a variety of internships and research projects within each field."

In the summer of 2010, Coppens worked as an intern at Oak Ridge National Laboratory's National Transportation Research Center where he worked with engineers to convert waste heat in vehicle exhaust to electricity using something called an organic Rankine cycle or ORC. An ORC is a system that uses a fluid, which, in this case, is vaporized by the exhaust heat, to generate electricity via a turbine.

Specifically, Coppens analyzed the effects of efficiency improvement in the various cycle components. The analysis drove further improvements to the waste heat recovery system.

"Working with Oak Ridge helped solidify my passion for research," Coppens says.

Outside the realm of engineering, Coppens, in 2008, created the Ideas to Action program through the Student Government Association. The goal of Ideas to Action is to empower students to share their ideas for campus events or reforms. Once an idea is selected, the student becomes a part of the SGA and works to turn their idea into a reality.

As the director of Ideas to Action, Coppens oversaw five projects. The University of Alabama Scholarship Date Auction has been the most impactful thus far, he says.

"Through the Date Auction, we managed to raise more than $13,000 in scholarships for students," Coppens says. "Since Ideas to Action's creation, several universities have contacted me to help them implement the program at their institution."

During his four years at UA, he has also been involved with Alpha Tau Omega Fraternity, Mortar Board, ODK and Blue Key, as well as Tau Beta Pi and Pi Tau Sigma Engineering Honor Societies. Coppens has also served as the director of administration for the SGA Executive Council and was named the top mechanical engineering student his sophomore and senior years, as well as the top overall engineer at UA his senior year.

Coppens attributes a large amount of his success over the past four years to his UA mentors.

Zach CoppensCoppens with a research mentor, Baker. The engineering professor calls his student’s enthusiasm “contagious.” (Samantha Hernandez)

"I am following my dreams, and I truly believe none of it would be possible without the people in UA's ME department," Coppens says. "I have a tremendous relationship with the faculty, and they have been nothing but helpful throughout my four years at UA. Professors have answered questions in academics, but they have also helped me with internships, job opportunities and life decisions. I consider some of the faculty to be my mentors and friends."

One such friend and mentor is Dr. John Baker, professor of mechanical engineering. Coppens performed undergraduate research for Baker to measure solid rocket motor thrust data.

"It has been a real pleasure knowing Zack; his enthusiasm is contagious, and he is interested in just about everything," Baker says. "Zack's project looked at the thrust characteristics of commercially available small-scale solid rocket motors. Zack immediately began working on a fully instrumented rocket motor test stand and, in a short time, had it up and running. Because of the promising results, I am planning a graduate level project to continue the work."

"On a personal note, I am going to miss Zack when he graduates," Baker said prior to the semester's close. "I have really enjoyed having him come to my office to discuss one topic or another. When he leaves my office after our talks, I almost always find myself looking up additional information on the topic – his enthusiasm was contagious."

After graduating in May, Coppens will work as a systems engineer for Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, N.M., where they will pay for his graduate school education. He will attend Vanderbilt University.

"The past four years of my life have been an incredible journey," Coppens says. "I feel blessed to have had such a wide variety of opportunities and experiences, and I know, without a doubt, that I would not be where I am today without the guidance of my professors and the tools available at The University of Alabama."

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Katie Breaseale is a May 2011 graduate from Oneonta. She majored in public relations and minored in political science and served as an intern in the UA Office of Media Relations during the spring 2011 semester.

This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.