Getting Kicks in Academics

By Sam Heys

A n improbable turning point occurred in the life of Georgia Tech Regents' Professor Ben T. Zinn in 1957 while he waited aboard a ship docked in an Italian port.

At the time, Zinn was a 20-year-old member of the Israeli national champion soccer team, which had been touring Europe.

Zinn needed only to pass the entrance exam to enroll in Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology. But the ship going to Israel didn't leave on time. Instead, it waited at the dock for a late-arriving group of refugees from Poland.

The occasion was not without irony. Zinn's parents were Zionists who left Poland in 1936 for their ancient homeland. They were lucky. Their parents, his mother's eight siblings and four of his father's siblings all died in concentration camps.

Zinn was born in Tel Aviv in 1937.

"My parents were educated people, but it was hard living in Israel in those days. We didn't have very much," says Zinn. Food and hot water were in short supply. Zinn decided that success was critical to his survival. "I knew that if I did not succeed, nobody was going to give me anything."

An excellent athlete, Zinn excelled at soccer and saw the sport as an opportunity for success. "I was going to do it through soccer," he says.

When the ship returned to Israel, Zinn was told he would have to wait a year to take the entrance exam.

"If I hadn't missed that exam, I'd probably be a soccer coach in Israel. If those immigrants had been on time, I would not be here today," says Zinn. "You never know how your life will turn out."

Zinn was ready to start college, so his uncle, one of his father's three siblings to escape the Holocaust before the war, brought him to America. He entered New York University. "After the first month, I wanted to go back," he says. "In Israel I was a big celebrity. Nobody knew me in New York. It was cold, and I was sitting in class and didn't understand the English. It was awfully hard."

Why didn't he go back home?

"I guess it's part of my nature," he says. "I don't quit."

Zinn graduated No. 1 in his class and with an NYU soccer record that still stands more than three decades later--3.2 goals per game. Instead of Zinn's vehicle to success, soccer became his release from zealous academic pursuit--not only at NYU, but also, later, at Stanford and Princeton. He played both for the U.S. national team and semi-professionally.

Zinn could have played professionally after he arrived in Atlanta as a Georgia Tech assistant professor in 1965. He practiced regularly with the Atlanta Chiefs and was offered a contract. He was also offered--in an era when soccer-style kickers were invading the National Football League--an invitation to the Atlanta Falcons' training camp. By then, though, he was immersed in academia and had found a new outlet for his determination: research.

"Many times we get stuck," says Zinn the researcher. "I want to solve the problem, but the solution is not clear. It takes a lot of determination and trying to be creative. This is part of doing research that happens over and over again and, maybe in a way, is the challenge and the fun of it. If you don't get stuck, there won't be any research."

An international expert in combustion instability and pulse combustion, Zinn became a Regents' professor in 1973. He was appointed to the David S. Lewis Jr. chair of aerospace engineering in 1992.

To Zinn, who was awarded the Georgia Tech Faculty Sigma Xi Research Awards in 1969 and 1976, the fun is in the creativity. "Doing research is like being an artist. You have to be creative," he says. "Sometimes I feel like I'm in a daze, but I know there's a solution out there--I just don't have my finger on it yet. When you do get the solution, there's a tremendous feeling of satisfaction. It's something you cannot describe."

Zinn's dedication to his research and his students was recognized in 1990 with the Georgia Tech Distinguished Professor Award, which carried a $12,500 prize created through an endowment by the class of 1934. He was honored for his role in making the School of Aerospace Engineering a center of excellence in combustion and propulsion, for the development of modern labs and new courses, and for helping create a research program that attracts students and scientists from around the world.

It was a humbling honor, he says. "I take teaching seriously. It's important to me to be effective in the classroom."

The shining moments are when the students become the teachers.

"One of the best parts of my job is working with graduate students," he says. "You see them learning to do research and becoming creative. And when they're really good, they become better than you in that specific subject, and they begin to educate you. I think that's one of the biggest rewards of our job."

The Zinn File