A 4.00 at Berkeley Engineering? Meet Reid Zimmerman

ACCOMPLISHED: Reid Zimmerman was one of four finalists for the University Medal, Berkeley’s top undergraduate honor. PEI-CHUNG TING PHOTOACCOMPLISHED: Reid Zimmerman was one of four finalists for the University Medal, Berkeley’s top undergraduate honor. (Photo by Pei-Chung Ting.)Of the 4,767 seniors who graduated this spring from UC Berkeley, 25 of them earned an A in every class, a perfect GPA. Reid Zimmerman is one of them.

That record, along with a portfolio of outstanding leadership, character and extracurricular involvement, helped catapult the civil and environmental engineering graduate into the final round of consideration for this year’s University Medal, UC Berkeley’s most distinguished honor given to a graduating senior. Zimmerman and three other finalists each received a certificate and $500. (Josh Biddle, integrative biology, took the top honor and a $2,500 cash prize.)  In addition, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering awarded Zimmerman its Citation Award, given to the top undergraduate in each engineering department.

For Zimmerman, who is returning this fall to begin graduate work in structural engineering, the drive to excel began over five years ago and two states north, on Marrowstone Island in Washington’s Puget Sound. His father is a state park ranger there, and the family lives nearby. “I would fall asleep listening to the waves lap along the shoreline,” Zimmerman recalls. “We were pretty removed from city life.”

As a high school student, Zimmerman convinced the engineering department of the nearby city of Port Townsend to hire him as an intern, where he developed an interest in structural and earthquake engineering. When it came time for college, he contemplated a sensible move to University of Washington but was drawn to Berkeley’s top-ranked civil and environmental engineering department.

“Since I was out of state, I had a tough decision to make,” he says. “I had to decide whether coming to Berkeley was worth the extra investment, since I’d be taking out fairly sizeable loans to fund my education.”

Zimmerman took the plunge, and once here, threw everything into the experience, approaching each class with singular determination. “I was focused on learning as much as I could, not necessarily on getting the best grades,” he explains. In his quest, though, top grades piled up, one after the other.

MAN OF STEEL: Zimmerman (left) and teammates prepare for the Steel Bridge Competition regionals. He spent all four years at Berkeley on the team, serving last year as a lead designer and helping the team place second nationally. BELINDA LI PHOTOMAN OF STEEL: Zimmerman (left) and teammates prepare for the Steel Bridge Competition regionals. He spent all four years at Berkeley on the team, serving last year as a lead designer and helping the team place second nationally. (Photo by Belinda Li.)To help pay his way, Zimmerman worked part time at Richmond Field Station as a lab assistant, preparing asphalt, concrete and soil samples for testing and analysis and conducting other research support.

In assistant professor Marios Panagiotou’s CE 120 Structural Engineering class, Zimmerman sharpened his passion for the field. “It was obvious to me that he was among the top two out of 56 students in the class,” Panagiotou recalls. “He distinguished himself not only by his stellar performance on tests and homework sets, but also by his questions and discussions of technical aspects extending far beyond the course content.”

“It was exciting,” Zimmerman says of the class. “Professor Panagiotou was instrumental in guiding me through the structural engineering process. He was always very willing to meet with me and really cares about teaching.”

When he wasn’t studying or working, Zimmerman logged hours on the Steel Bridge Competition Team, which competes every year to design and build the lightest, most efficient scale bridge in the fastest time possible. A member since he was a freshman, Zimmerman was one of the team’s lead designers this year, managing eight students over the course of the design process and helping the team capture first place regionally and second nationally.

“The competition is all about optimizing your design for certain criteria, where each criterion affects the others,” says the team’s manager, Andrew Wagner (B.S.’10 CEE). “It’s a very time-consuming process. Reid has a certain x-ray vision when it comes to problems like this. He can interpret the results of the analysis that lead to the most beneficial improvements. And he knows how to lead a group.”

At the moment, Zimmerman is applying his abilities at Rutherford & Chekene, a structural and geotechnical engineering firm in San Francisco, where he’s interning before he begins graduate school back in Davis Hall. “He’s an incredible quick study,” says Walterio Lopez (M.S.’93 CEE), associate principal at Rutherford & Chekene. “He really sets the bar high for people coming out of Berkeley.”