Alumnus excels in science, aspires to be astronaut


Zach Pickerel’s senior photo

Emily Fox-Million, Social Media Manager, Editor

A shiny orange and white replica rocket, one reminiscent of the rocket used in the Hubble Space Telescope launch hangs adjacent to a standing American flag. Poised between the two sits a smiling Zach Pickerel, holding the telescope he uses to study the stars.

Pickerel is a 2020 graduate of FCHS who has held a passion for science ever since elementary school. In 2019, Pickerel was recognized as one of the top STEM minds in the nation and is making progress in fulfilling his dream of becoming an astronaut. 

“I like to use the term ‘will be an astronaut,’” Pickerel said. “I’m shooting for the stars.” 

Pickerel explained that he has an appreciation for many fields of science, but astronomy and planetary geology is what interests him the most.

“I particularly love the shape of the planets and the shape of the rocks flying around in space,” Pickerel said. 

As a senior, Pickerel was selected through an application process by the University of Sydney in Australia as an outstanding science student. He was one of five students representing the United States, and one of 130 students internationally. 

The University of Sydney originally contacted Outer Orbits, a nonprofit organization that Pickerel has worked with, in an attempt to reach STEM students. Outer Orbits runs a project called “Go For Launch!” which is a three-day excursion with the goal to get students involved in STEM using space.

“I had been involved in two Go For Launch! events before I applied with some moderate volunteering in-between,” Pickerel explained.

The University of Sydney determines and selects the students with five individual essays and four letters of recommendation. What followed was three months of waiting for a final decision from the judges.

 Excited, he said that he was on edge for the duration of the week the announcement was scheduled for. 

”I was nervous and clammy the entire time,” Pickerel said. “I was talking with literally anyone that would listen.”

The end of that week, on a Saturday, the names were finally released.

“They announced that I was the second name, and I didn’t hear a single name after that,” Pickerel said. “But my dad, my sisters, and I were jumping up and down.”

Pickerel gave credit to teachers who allowed him to strive for what he is passionate about, giving him the opportunity to grow comfortable with his love for science.

“It was crucial having had teachers that taught the subject in a way where I could understand and really enjoy it.” Pickerel said.

His science teacher, Enrique Blas, notes that Pickerel’s “depth of thinking and passion for science has really stood out” to him. 

He explained further that while Pickerel is clearly gifted in STEM, he has been “joy to have in class,” because of his humor and laughter. 

“It’s always been easy to engage with Zach,” Blas said. “He’s an amazing kid. Hilarious.”

When making the classroom exciting for himself, Pickerel noted that it was teachers who often gave him the opportunity to continue his passion “in more ways than one” like creative writing and speech that made class fun.

“I enjoyed learning about it,” Pickerel said. “I think it was just a matter of that I have understood it and have had a good time doing it.” 

Pickerel is happy to have the ability, as he moves on to a higher education, to centralize an idea and have a focus of study. 

“I am excited to see his passion continue to keep flourishing,” Blas said. 

As he begins his higher education, Pickerel speaks enthusiastically about having the ability in taking his final goal of becoming an astronaut and love for STEM that much further. 

What has drawn Pickerel to science originates in the concept that STEM opens opportunities that we would not know were there otherwise. 

Next year he will be studying geology at CSU.

“When I’m looking at science, I’m seeing different capabilities that we can have to further us as a species, as a planet, as a collective group,” Pickerel said. “We can further ourselves to make a more impactful future.”