Carnegie Mellon University
May 03, 2017

Senior Dedicated to Giving Back Receives Carnegie Mellon Alumni Association’s Student Service Award 

By Emily Payne

Senior Dedicated to Giving Back Receives Carnegie Mellon Alumni Association’s Student Service Award 

Josh Zak has figured out one of life's greatest secrets. Giving to others is easy, if you love what you do.

A chemistry major and Japanese minor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Science and Humanities Scholars (SHS) program, Zak is a familiar face on campus through his involvement in a number of student service organizations. He is an active member of Fringe, an independent social and service organization, and Carnegie Mellon’s UNICEF and Mortar Board chapters. Zak also served as head orientation counselor during First-Year Orientation and led Spring Carnival’s booth committee. His dedication and commitment to the campus community have earned him the Carnegie Mellon Alumni Association's 2017 Student Service Award to be presented May 19 at the 67th annual Alumni Awards.

Loving what you do is what first led Zak to Carnegie Mellon. When he was accepted to the university, Zak was offered the opportunity to take advantage of a broader scientific- and humanities-based education through the SHS program. The program appealed to Zak because of his interests in science and language.

When Zak mentions he studies both chemistry and Japanese, he gets a few eyebrow raises at first. The connection between the two may not be readily apparent, but for Zak the two go hand in hand. Or rather brain in brain.

“If I have a day with a lot of science and engineering courses in a row, I get stuck in this logical left brain mindset. The humanities’ courses I’ve taken, especially for my minor, take me out of that mind space and let me be creative and do more reasoning style, right-brain thinking, which has helped me balance myself academically,” said Zak.

His Japanese courses help him learn to adopt a more global perspective while his science courses allow him to apply the fundamentals of chemistry and engineering to his interest in renewable energy research.

Working as an undergraduate researcher in Professor of Chemistry Stefan Bernhard’s lab, Zak’s research focuses on various projects related to synthesizing molecules and characterizing their photophysics for use in various photoredox catalysis processes. The goal is to shine visible light on the synthesized molecules to facilitate chemical reactions that can be of use in other applications like splitting water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter of which can be used as a clean fuel source, for example.

Having a work-life balance outside of academics is equally important to Zak, and his influence and presence on campus is far reaching. Though he admits it can be overwhelming at times, his belief in the organizations and the impact they have on campus is what motivates him.

“For me, it’s never a chore. I joined these organizations because I believed in them and what they do for the community,” said Zak.

Zak has served as social chair and booth chair of Fringe, education committee chair and president of UNICEF, head of booth for Spring Carnival and head counselor for First-Year Orientation. He is also the president of Mortar Board, an Andrew Carnegie Society Scholar and a member of Phi Kappa Phi. In 2016, he traveled to CMU’s Qatar campus with the IMPAQT program as part of a student team selected to help bridge the Pittsburgh and Doha campuses.

As Zak talks about his activities, it’s clear it’s not about listing off everything he’s involved in. He explains what each organization offers to the campus and why it’s important for him to be a part of it. He says it’s all about paying it forward.  

“All of the service I do is to honor the services that have already been rendered onto me,” said Zak. “I think it’s important to acknowledge what your community has done for you and at least give that much back to it, and that’s what I try to do every day.”

In wrapping up his undergraduate career, Zak, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in inorganic materials chemistry, is honored to receive the Student Service Award.

“It’s great when people recognize the work that you’re putting in, and it’s nice to know that what I’m doing is being felt across the community because that’s always been the goal,” said Zak.