Tough act to follow
MIT rejected him. CalTech rejected him. So did Duke and UCLA. But Berkeley saw potential in the teenager from a small Catholic high school in Modesto, and from the time he arrived on campus, Matthew Zahr didn’t disappoint.
The civil and environmental engineering student graduated this spring with a 3.988, earning his major’s top undergraduate award, the department citation, and was nominated, along with four others, for Berkeley’s highest undergraduate honor, the University Medal. (The 2011 University Medal was awarded to Aaron Benavidez, a rhetoric and sociology major.)
In the fall, Zahr will begin his Ph.D. studies in computational and mathematical engineering at Stanford, supported by a fully funded Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship. “When I started at Berkeley, I didn’t expect to be where I’m at now,” he says. “Every semester, I’d just work as hard as I could.”
Zahr was engineering-bound from an early age. He erected complex Lego models of ships, submarines and towers, and in high school, he excelled in math and science. It was also during high school that Zahr volunteered to take part in training exercises held by the Modesto SWAT team, to which his dad belonged. Zahr played the role of a dangerous suspect, and officers pummeled him with round after round of soap pellets blasted from their submachine guns. Zahr volunteered four times.
This inherent toughness became critical in tackling the engineering program at Berkeley. Coming to campus, Zahr was confident in his abilities, he says. He studied for his first college test, a Physics 7A exam, two nights before. When he took the test, “I got hit pretty hard,” he recalls. “[The test] took me down a couple notches.”
For his next physics exam, Zahr studied two weeks ahead of time, and thus began a pattern of non-stop effort in pursuit of academic excellence. His days often began at 7 a.m., he says, and ended after midnight. He completed his civil engineering requirements in three years, sometimes taking six courses a semester, and fulfilled a math minor his fourth year.
Still, during his freshman and sophomore years at Berkeley, Zahr managed to find time to compete with the Cal Boxing Club in the 175-pound weight class. He quit the club only after labs encroached on his gym time.
Zahr proved his mettle with the faculty as well. Professors describe him as dedicated, tenacious and unafraid. “Many students pick a major and want to stay safely within its confines,” says CEE professor Sanjay Govindjee, who had Zahr in three of his classes. “But Matt was willing and interested in branching out. He was not afraid of reaching out to the edges of interdisciplinary work.”
Originally attracted to structural engineering, Zahr took Govindjee’s CE 130N “Mechanics of Structures.” A new course, it covered elastic deformation analysis and stability analysis of structures but, more important, it introduced Zahr to modular computer programming methods and computer-aided mathematical techniques for solving engineering problems. The class sat at the intersection of engineering, applied mathematics and computer science. Zahr found it difficult. The labs, designed by a postdoctoral student, would take him three or more hours. Often, Zahr would run out of time and finish them at home. He loved it.
One day, he approached mechanical engineering professor Tarek Zohdi to learn more about his work in modeling and simulation. At first, Zohdi remembers, Zahr was quiet, but then he asked questions that were “of an advanced level unprecedented in my 10 years at UC Berkeley,” Zohdi notes. “I gave him some papers. A week later, he encoded problems that I would not expect graduate students to master in a year.”
“I think research in general is the most interesting side of engineering,” Zahr says. “You’re doing your own, original work. Instead of using someone else’s code to build a bridge, say, you’re the one writing the code.”
To that end, Zahr is currently working in the research group of Stanford professor Charbel Farhat (M.S.’84, M.S.’86, Ph.D.’87 CEE), studying reduced order model optimization and error bounds for nonlinear model order reduction techniques. So devoted to the lab is he that Zahr has yet to explore the Stanford campus beyond his engineering building.
Zahr hopes to become a professor one day and perhaps return to Berkeley. And if the Physics 7A exam and his undergraduate career prove anything, Zahr will power through challenges, relishing the task.