In science fiction, futuristic technology is often depicted as a medley of shiny metals and bright lasers — rarely does it ever involve flat honeycomb-shaped pieces of plastic.

But a VAHS graduate might change that.

William Zunker told the Press he works with these plastics — known as lattice metamaterials — in pursuing his civil engineering major at the University of Minnesota. For his research studying these synthetic materials, he has just been selected by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation as one of two UM students to become a 2020 Astronaut Scholar. He will receive a $15,000 scholarship in addition to receiving mentorship by members of the Astronaut Foundation, including retired and active astronauts from NASA.

“The prestigious, competitive scholarship, initiated by the Mercury-7 astronauts, is awarded annually to outstanding sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research-oriented careers in mathematics, engineering, and the natural and applied sciences,” a May 22 news release stated

He described the lattice materials as being “sort of like origami,” as they can change geometry or shape by sending a vibration through it, like sound waves transmitted through a speaker, which he said gives these structures their “really cool properties.” This process is called ‘wave guiding.’

Zunker started getting involved in the study of metamaterials as a college sophomore after he reached out to an associate professor in the college of science and engineering, Stefano Gonella, to find a research project he could work on.

“What I specifically worked on was building a lattice meta material. It starts flat, but when bent, it ripples, and those ripples create peaks and valleys induced by the bending, that was my first experience with meta materials. These are plastic materials that have interesting properties engineered into them,” Zunker said.

Last summer, Zunker traveled to Massachusetts to work with a research program at Harvard University in the school of engineering and applied sciences.

He said his experiences at Harvard and UM laid the foundation for him to have the credentials to apply for the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation award.

“Obviously working in a lab at Harvard was very inspiring, and my home university’s lab is renowned in metamaterials, these two experiences gave me a good foundation to be qualified to apply for the scholarship and receive it,” Zunker said.

Applying the research

Part of his research involved something he called ‘band gaps,’ which are certain frequencies of waves that don’t actually pass through these materials.

He said that when the material is initially flat, it will allow certain waves to pass through it, but once bent – forming the ripple pattern – it allows for different frequencies. His research included how to filter out for the different effects of different frequencies.

One commercial area these metamaterials could be applied is in aerospace technology, Zunker said.

“As an airplane takes off, and throughout the flight, pretty high pressures on the wings force them to bend. We are thinking if we could embed this material into the wing, as the wing would bend, it would activate the material and cause ripples, keeping turbulence low,” he said.

Zunker pointed out that in a conventional material like steel or wood, you wouldn’t see these flexible properties.

At Harvard, Zunker worked with professor Katia Bertoldi and two postdoctoral researchers. He spent the entire summer building an aquatic robot. He said the metamaterials provided a novel way to propel the robot, creating aquatic locomotion.

They accomplished this by designing a metamaterial that would flip back and forth between two stable states, bowing in one direction, and then flipping to bow in the mirrored position.

“Imagine putting a credit card between your fingers, it bows out if compressed, forming a U-shape,” Zunker said.

The back and forth bending of the material between mirrored bowed states propelled the aquatic robot through water, and mimicked the locomotive tailfin action of a fish.

His current research project is designing lattice metamaterials with asymmetric properties.

“It’s very interesting. Imagine a flat lattice. Push on one side, it feels stiff and it doesn’t deform – push on other side, it’s malleable and deforms easily. One side ends up seven times softer than the other. We’re looking for applications for that,” he said.

Looking to the future

Originally Zunker was to attend an all-expenses-paid awards gala in Washington D.C. in August with the other student recipients from around the country to receive his Neil Armstrong Award of excellence, but said he has had no word yet if it’s being moved back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gala or not, Zunker is proud of his achievement and looks back fondly on his time at VAHS.

“High school had a big impact on my interest in going into science and engineering,” he said. “I had a great experience in upper level science and math classes at Verona high school. I really enjoyed my AP physics classes and got a really great foundation and insight into what engineering might look like.

Zunker said his eventual goal is to someday become a professor.

“I would be really excited to teach. I think it would be rewarding to teach an engineering class,” he said.

He’s considering pursuing a PhD from either the California or Georgia institutes of technology. The former he said is famous in the area of metamaterials, the latter he said works with robotics similar to his Harvard summer research experience – taking inspiration from organisms and using biomimicry to imitate the functions of animals in robotics.

He is grateful to those who supported him growing up.

“I would like to thank my friends and family, especially my parents, for their continued support and love. I would also like to thank the various members of the Verona community who coached, mentored, and taught me over the years for the countless contributions they made to my development,” he said.

Neal Patten, Community Reporter, can be contacted at