Alumni Spotlight: Zachary Sunberg
Longmont High School, Class of 2007
What about high school serves as best preparation for your evolving journey called life? As 2007 Longmont High School graduate Zachary Sunberg can attest: everything. The important thing to remember is, accept and embrace the lessons of each and every experience and opportunity. You may not know how they’ll ultimately serve you, but chances are they will come in handy, provided you let them.
Following graduation from LHS, Sunberg continued his studies at Texas A&M to study. Six years (and 39 Fightin’ Texas Aggie football games) later, he came out with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Aerospace Engineering. Sunberg impressed his mentors and colleagues with his aptitude for aerospace technology, focusing his master’s thesis on a control system for a helicopter in autorotation, an emergency maneuver a helicopter can perform to safely land in the event of losing power. ”I think I was taught many of the basics that I would need in my future courses very well at Longmont High,” Sunberg says. “In particular, my Calculus skills were very strong, and my understanding of physics and chemistry from the courses I took in high school helped me at the beginning of college.”
In an interim year between his senior year of college and first year of graduate school, one of Sunberg’s professors, Suman Chakravorty, invited Sunberg to accompany him in research on satellite tracking at the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL). Sunberg accepted the opportunity with relish. “The research that I did at the AFRL allowed me to get a Graduate Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation, a 3-year scholarship that can be used at any university,” Sunberg says. “This funding allowed me to come to Stanford, where I have done research in artificial intelligence for controlling unmanned aerial vehicles and self-driving cars.” Glimpses of Sunberg’s fascinating work can be viewed at his website, zachary.sunberg.net. Now that he has completed his Ph.D., he is moving on as a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, hoping long term to earn a professorship.
How did Sunberg’s high school preparation shape his path? In countless ways, thanks to a combination of fine mentors, supportive peers, and a positive, determined outlook. “My very first experience at LHS was band camp before freshman year,” Sunberg says. “I was really nervous because I went to a private school until 8th grade and didn’t know any of these kids, but they immediately welcomed me. I think our class at LHS was particularly good at that.”
As much as Sunberg found a welcome home among his classmates, he welcomed and made the most of the academic challenges he was presented with. “I remember the first real academic challenge for me was the ‘document-based questions’ that were part of the Advanced Placement U.S. History class,” he says. “At first I thought the challenge of writing a well-thought-out essay in the short time limit was impossible, but by the end of the year our teacher, Mr. Franz, had made us quite capable of it.”
Sunberg’s path to where he is today wasn’t exactly straight and narrow, and that’s a good thing. Looking back, he reflects on the gains made as part of the detours. “When I was in high school, one of my goals was to attend the Air Force Academy,” Sunberg says. In striving for that goal, he was rewarded with an appointment, but decided to become an engineer instead. Reflecting upon the former goal, Sunberg particularly appreciates certain byproducts of the pursuit. “One of the requirements was to pass a physical fitness test,” Sunberg says. “In my first attempt, I was well below the standards for the academy, but with the help of one of the coaches at Longmont High and some of my friends I was able to fix this. So, I think the ability to get up and keep trying even after failing the first time was a skill that I developed in Longmont.”
In making the most of his education, Sunberg learned to glean pieces of wisdom from every lesson and interaction, from the positive to the not-so-pleasant, and everything in between. Though more than a decade has passed since graduating high school, certain guiding moments continue to stand out. “My chemistry teacher, Dr. Martyr, talked about how it’s sometimes necessary to make decisions even without being absolutely sure you are making the right one, and it’s impractical to keep all options open forever,” Sunberg says. “An English teacher, Mr. Elms, stayed after school one day with me and talked through my decision about whether to go to the Air Force Academy. My calculus teacher, Mr. Zander once called me out for some inappropriate remarks I had made in frustration and didn’t write me a recommendation letter because of it; this made me think more carefully about what I said.”
What advice does Sunberg have for those shooting for making the most of their high school experience? “Don’t make your goal to do well on tests,” he says. “Make your goal to understand the material in the course. Instead of a way for you to prove your skills to others, tests are a tool for you to gauge whether you have mastered the material.”