Commencement 2015: Degrees in engineering, Chinese, math provide many options for URI senior

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KINGSTON, R.I. – April 21, 2015 – Alyssa Zisk took just five semesters to complete a bachelor’s degree in mathematics at the University of Rhode Island. But after graduation she stayed on campus for a couple more years to complete degrees in mechanical engineering and Chinese and to study and work in China for a year.

As the Sharon, Mass., resident prepares for her second URI commencement ceremony on May 17, Zisk is looking back proudly on a college career filled with accomplishments.

“I’ve always liked science and math, and when I started to learn Chinese in middle school, I wanted to reach a point where I could do my math and science and engineering in Chinese,” she said. “I wanted to achieve a professional fluency.”

Zisk said that she started taking Chinese language classes as a way of getting out of taking another English class in sixth grade, but once she started it, she found that she really enjoyed the language. “My dislike for English class had nothing to do with a dislike for languages,” she said. Working through URI’s Chinese Language Flagship Program, she achieved the “advanced high” level of proficiency in speaking Mandarin Chinese and reads at the superior level.

Enrolled in URI’s International Engineering Program, Zisk spent a year abroad in China at Tianjin Normal University, taking Chinese language classes, living with Chinese roommates, and studying engineering in Chinese. It was her fourth trip to China, so she felt comfortable speaking the language. She even spent a semester as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate physics class at Tianjin’s College of Physics and Information Technology.

That experience served her well when she returned from China and began teaching a pre-calculus course to undergraduates at URI. “I’ve liked math forever,” Zisk said. “It lines up well with the way I think. Math is a study of patterns, and I think in patterns.”

When she completed her math degree in the middle of her junior year, thanks in part to several advanced placement math classes she took in high school, she immediately enrolled in a graduate degree program in math. “I didn’t want to be done taking math, so I kept taking classes and it’s adding up to a master’s degree,” she said. “As far as math is concerned, I’m a grad student, even though I’m still an undergrad in everything else.”

Zisk’s math proficiency came in handy during a nanotechnology research project she conducted with mechanical engineering and chemical engineering professors. Their aim was to build a liposome – a tiny bubble made from the same material as a cell membrane – covered in a thin gold layer that can be useful in delivering drugs to targeted areas in the body. “I was the one who did the research to see how to do it, and then I ran the protocol in the lab to see if it would work,” she said. “Then I handed the project off to another student to do the next steps.”

Although her busy schedule of classes, research and teaching might lead you to believe she had no time for anything else, Zisk made sure that her college career was not all work and no play. She played on the women’s ultimate Frisbee team – including a spring break tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C. in March – competed on the club fencing team, served as secretary of the Society for Women Engineers as a freshman, and this year joined Rhody Hacks, the computer science club.

As she looks toward her future, she has several decisions to make. After completing her master’s degree in math next year, Zisk plans to earn a doctorate in “something science or technology-ish, or maybe applied math.”

And then what?

“There’s a few different paths I could see myself going down,” she said. “I could see myself teaching at some level or doing research in technology. I could also see myself doing research in pure math, or even work in industry somewhere. Who knows?”

Photo by Nora Lewis